‘Beyond GDP’: how universities can help society drive sustainable prosperity

11 Apr 2024 | News | Update from Erasmus University Rotterdam
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With sustainability ranking high on the European agenda, universities can help develop better ways of measuring productivity, an Erasmus University Rotterdam conference hears

Europe needs a better way to measure its prosperity and societal wellbeing– and universities have a key role to play in developing and promoting the new, sustainability-conscious metrics that are needed.

That was the view of speakers at an Erasmus University Rotterdam conference on 21 March. The problem, they said, is that conventional prosperity measures focus on gross domestic product, and don’t factor in environmental costs, inclusiveness or social well-being.

"Our bookkeeping is flawed if we do not take these kinds of costs into account," said Stientje van Veldhoven, global vice president and regional director for Europe at the Washington-based World Resources Institute. A GDP-based approach fails to indicate where wealth is distributed. In addition, it ignores the burdens future generations may bear.

Veldhoven pointed out the importance of estimating side effects. For example, stimulating renewable energy through expansion of bioenergy worsens the problem of land shortage. “This is our final planet. Still, many of our policies act as if it’s not,” she said.

European research commissioner Iliana Ivanova underscored the role of universities in navigating large-scale transformations, such as adapting to climate change or embracing the digital transition. “Universities like yours play a fundamental role in promoting inclusive and sustainable prosperity. You equip students with the tools, knowledge, and skills necessary to create solutions, to generate wealth, and effectively share that wealth with their communities through companies and job creation,” she said, adding that the European higher education community is uniquely positioned to address the challenge of enhancing universities’ contribution to inclusive and sustainable prosperity.

Martin de Jong, academic lead of the Erasmus Institute for Inclusive Prosperity, said there have been numerous efforts to incorporate indicators beyond GDP, such as the Human Development Index, a composite measure of life expectancy, education, per capita income and other factors, used by the United Nations’ Development Programme. What’s needed is a broader approach, involving government, educational institutions and businesses – bringing together social and political sciences, legal studies, technological understanding and other factors.

De Jong pointed out that issues around sustainability do not stem from a lack of resources or financing, but rather from how those resources are distributed.  “Our bookkeeping is in order, but society’s housekeeping is not,” he said.

Mikel Landabaso Alvarez, director of fair and sustainable economy at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, highlighted a Commission-led attempt to categorise criteria that go beyond GDP. The Resilience Dashboards, launched in 2021, provide statistical data on various dimensions - social and economic, green, digital, and geopolitical - to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of EU member states in their resilience to climate, health and other factors.

Michaela Karamperi, new economy coordinator for Generation Climate Europe, a network of climate-action youth organisations, questioned whether there is enough political will for integrating the new criteria. She said that communities and the public may struggle to understand what “beyond GDP” means, because they focus on more immediate problems, such as housing or agriculture.

Therefore, the role of universities is to engage with communities and to foster discussions to understand the public’s needs and to communicate the value of sustainable growth. Ed Brinksma, president of the university’s Executive Board, said this year marks a transition between strategic periods for Erasmus University Rotterdam – but the university’s commitment to sustainable prosperity remains. “We want to maintain the vision, which is behind the current strategic period, which is to foster positive societal impact,” he said.

Brinksma added that Brussels is at pivotal point as well. In this regard, Gosse Simon Vuijk, assistant to Christian Ehler, a German member of the European Parliament, stressed the role of universities in engaging with EU policy makers and inspiring debates by sharing experience and expertise.

Veldhoven said policymakers should better articulate the benefits of the new approach by explaining its impact on peoples’ health and overall quality of life. Moreover, universities should provide policymakers with facts, building the foundation for evidence-informed policies. “The science is absolutely essential, and we should try and get these science-policy interfaces working even better” she said.

Moreover, according to de Jong, the successful transitions, whether green or digital, require co-creation, where scientists work together with industry and government to decide which areas to focus on.

In these co-creation processes, providing opportunities for youth is essential. Karamperi pointed out that opportunities for young researchers vary significantly across the member states, and universities should be empowered to provide these opportunities. “We need to create talents, not only attract the best of the best from other countries,” she said. Similarly, Alvarez said universities should be rooted locally to promote innovation that can compete at a global level.  

Participants also discussed changes required in the research system. Eveline Crone, a professor in developmental neuroscience in society at the Society Youth Neuroscience Connected (SYNC) lab at Erasmus University, said that to transform the research system, universities need voices of “the scientists of the future”. Vuijk called for more base funding for universities.

Finally, Ivanova said the Commission’s objective is to ensure “inclusive excellence”, enabling every individual to contribute to the well-being of society, regardless of their background, gender and economic situation. She added that long-term investments in research and innovation are essential for fostering prosperity.

The conference, titled “Inclusive and Sustainable Prosperity: Re-thinking the role of universities,” included Science|Business as media partner.


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