Europe if… 

a quality of life index replaced GDP

What would Europe look like if GDP were replaced by a quality of life index? Different facets of possible answers were explored by 24 people from various corners of Europe in an interactive role-play workshop on 6 May 2022. The workshop was organised to celebrate the Europe Day of 9 May.

Imagine yourself in 2030. Together with an international and multidisciplinary team, the new President of the European Union has asked you for plausible scenarios on how the replacement of GDP with a quality of life index is expected to evolve until 2050, and what the territorial implications will be.

By changing perspective from one´s professional role to an assigned fictional role with different world views allowed for ‘out of the box’ discussions on possible scenarios, exploring what is quality of life, how could that be translated into policies and what would Europe look like if these policies were implemented. In 3 hours on a Friday morning, these questions were approached in an open-minded and explorative manner, not aiming at delivering ultimate answers.

What do we actually mean by quality of life?

Quality of life can be understood in many different ways. In the discussions – and based on the roles assigned to the participants – there was a strong focus on the environmental dimension, health, digital connective, and on not leaving anybody or any place behind.

The understanding of quality of life concerned both the thematic focus of it as well as the appropriate geographical level of the definition.

Quality of life – matter of geographical scale. There were considerable debates on whether to aim for the same quality of life for all of Europe, or rather focus on the regional level, as the understanding of quality of life is varies between regions. Some also argued that quality of life differs between persons and thus can only be defined at a personal level. During the workshop, the territorial diversity of quality of life prevailed. Quality of life means different things in the south and in the north of Europe or in small places and metropolitan areas. In conclusion, there was a strong advocacy for a place-based approach to understanding quality of life and designing appropriate policies for it.

Green – connected – wealthy. The discussions on the content of quality of life had a strong focus on the environment. The environmental dimension of quality of life ranged from environmental quality and the handling of climate change to people’s access to green areas. These discussions often evolved into debates about health as an important dimension of quality of life. Also life expectancy was discussed as an important component. Another strong dimension in the discussion was digitalisation and digital connectivity as means to strengthen the inclusion of small or more peripheral places. In many cases these discussions were also related to issues of wealth and job creation.

Happy. More people-centered approaches to quality of life posed a sort of contra point to the above discussions. Here happiness, self-esteem and also culture were highlighted. This included discussions about personal happiness and confidence, hours of sleep, spirituality, mental health, but also personal responsibility for the environment. These discussions also addressed the change of personal priorities over time and the need to offer quality of life for all age groups. The cultural dimension and diversity of quality of life was also discussed.

The discussion showed that more debate is needed about what we mean by quality of life, and at what geographical level quality of life can be used purposefully as guide to policy making.

How would we replace GDP?

Despite the open definition questions, there was a strong agreement that quality of life offers a good potential for a new narrative or even the North Star of decision making in Europe. Some of the ideas discussed on how to make that move are:

  • Monitoring. building on existing quality of life research, a monitoring system of quality of life at regional level was proposed taking into account differences in understanding of quality of life as well as changes over time. Most likely such a monitoring system would focus on a quality of life index with different sub-indices.
  • Cohesion Policy. To ensure that policy making improves quality of life, it was proposed to use a regional quality of life index to guide EU Cohesion Policy. This concerns both the distribution of EU funding and the evaluation criteria for measuring the success and impact. Most of the funds could e.g. be targeted to regions with a quality if life index below 75% of the EU average. Once applied for Cohesion Policy, it certainly could be picked up by other EU, national and regional policies as well.
  • Health care system. To strengthen people´s health as an important dimension of quality of life and reduce disparities within Europe, a EU-wide health care system has been proposed.
  • Diversity & migration. As different regions will emphasize different aspects of quality of life, there will be a huge diversity of high quality of life places – each setting its own priorities. This may lead to migration movements, as people move to the place which has the quality of life closest to their personal priorities.
  • Resilience. Focusing on quality of life would also involve becoming more resilient and prepared for disruptions of various kind.
  • Place-based & flexible. Acknowledging the regional diversity of definitions of quality of life, there will be no ‘one size fits all’ policy on how to improve quality of life. Shifting the focus to quality of life, will require considerable flexibility in policy making and regional autonomy to develop truly place-based solutions.
  • Larger than EU. Europe is not an island. Quality of life does not only concern people in Europe but is important to people all over the planet. Therefore, it is suggested that the EU adopts the Earth Charter
What would Europe look like?

Certainly the above ideas require further discussion, nuancing and checking for consistency. However, try to imagine for a moment what Europe would look like, if quality of life would be the new narrative or even the North Star of decision making in Europe.

The role-play discussions pointed out that todays territorial diversity will inform and reflect on how quality of life is understood in different places, and what policy interventions are needed where. This will lead to new forms of territorial diversities at all geographical levels – from the local to the European.

Some examples of the discussions are:

  • Urban design. Cities will push the concept of the ‘15 minutes city’ with good access to high quality green spaces and services of general interest, incl. health care, education, culture etc. Overall, focusing on quality of life will support the evolution of healthier urban areas.
  • Small places. The focus on quality of life, is also expected to improve urban-rural interconnectedness, and the accessibility to services of general interest in small places. The digitalisation dimension of quality of life plays an important role here.
  • Empowered communities. Acknowledging territorially diverse understanding of quality of life, is expected to lead to stronger and empowered local communities and engagement in decision making. They define what is important for local communities in terms of quality of life, how to improve, maintain and adapt it. There will also be a need to balance between sense of community and individualism.
  • Direct democracy. It is also expected, that a stronger focus on quality of life will lead to more direct democracy both at local/regional level and at European level. This will enable all EU citizens to participate in the discussions and implementation of quality of life by providing them with the same preconditions. It will also help to discuss quality of life elements against the background of demographic growth, migration, and different territorial development perspectives.
  • Territorial patterns. Overall it is expected that a shift to quality of life will change our current patterns of territorial competitiveness and attractiveness of regions. In the best of all cases, this will imply an increased attention to environmental issues, linking environment and nature to wellbeing.
  • Diversity & uniformity. At a personal level it is expected that a stronger focus on quality of life will lead to improved confidence, trust in government, EU citizenship. At the same time there is also a risk for tensions between the diversity of understanding of quality of life and the need for a some unform governance framework in the EU.

The role-play on the question what Europe would look like if GDP were to be replaced by quality of life, showed some potential of this to develop a new narrative for Europe, which is closer to the citizens and might help make Europe more resilient and better prepared for the future. At the same time it also showed that there is a need for many more discussions on how we understand quality of life, and how to translate it into concrete policy, catering for the Europe’s diversity. The diversity of people and places needs to be translated into a diversity of understandings of and approaches to quality of life as guiding principle, which still come together in an overarching European framework.

A debate to be continued.

by Kai Böhme, Maria Toptsidou, Marcela Mäder Furtado

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