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“Stretching his hand up to reach the stars, too often man forgets the flowers at his feet”

Saffron Woodcraft, Associate at UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity who leads research on new models of prosperity.


Illustration Hanna Melin

What makes for a good life? The chances are that somewhere in everyone’s list is the word “prosperity”. After all, which community does not want to be prosperous? But the definition of prosperity has become skewed. As Bentham suggests, we can be so blinded by the bright lights of economic growth as a solution to all our problems that we fail to see those miraculous little shoots that more truly define our experience.

Over the past century, we have increasingly defined our position and aspiration by material indicators of success, notably by such measures as GDP. GDP has become interchangeable with progress more generally, but how connected is it to social progress more broadly?

Research by the Social Progress Imperative shows that GDP and social progress stops correlating once the basic material elements of prosperity are covered. After that, social progress depends on a range of other things. Currently, our focus on material indicators means we are reaching for those stars, while ignoring the other ‘good life’ indicators that are all around us.

There is a growing scepticism about whether economic growth has become an end rather than a means – and an increasing movement to design metrics that reflect a lived experience, defining that ‘good life’ through things such as sustainability, community and family. Like the flowers at Bentham’s feet, this sense of wellbeing grows among us from the ground up, rather than being a lofty ideal imposed on us from above.

When the Olympic Park was built in east London, much was made of the legacy the 2012 Games would leave to the boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney, three of the most economically deprived areas in the country. Since the Olympics, vast sums of money has poured into east London as much of the area has been regenerated, but this have not created prosperity for the communities that live there.

My current research examines this development, in particular how the future economic growth, housing needs and sustainable development of the three boroughs are interpreted by the planners, architects, developers, public agencies and communities to create new visions of urban social life. Planned communities can be a great success; others fail to deliver that sustainability and sense of citizenship. Why is this? And what could we do differently?

The key would appear to be creating a prosperity as defined and measured by the people who live there. Eschewing a top-down approach and instead using local researchers, citizen scientists and people embedded within the very heart of the community gives us genuine, socially motivated indices. It gives a real sense of belonging, to shift beliefs and create new forms of knowledge. That way we bring back to these people the control that has been surrendered to the GDP, to produce more specific, tailored responses that prompt a different role of government, industry and community to build better lives for people.

We can and should still reach for those stars, but we need to find new definitions of a good life and new, sustainable, community-led ways to achieve it. Only by doing this, can those flowers at our feet truly come into full bloom.

Saffron Woodcraft coordinates IGP’s London Prosperity Board and is the co-founder of the social enterprise, Social Life.

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  • Free RadicalFree Radical
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  • Jeremy Bentham SpeaksJeremy Bentham Speaks
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  • Experts And FactsExperts And Facts
  • For Facts’ SakeFor Facts’ Sake
  • A Different Type of Capitalist MarketA Different Type of Capitalist Market
  • The Big CThe Big C
  • Trump In The Age Of Captain AmericaTrump In The Age Of Captain America
  • The Front Line Of JusticeThe Front Line Of Justice
  • Calling All UCL GraduatesCalling All UCL Graduates
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  • The Strong RoomThe Strong Room
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  • London  vs  WorldLondon vs World
Portico Issue 4. 2017/18