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A new way to measure progress on sustainability

Social Progress Imperative (SPI) and its Social Progress Index are promoting the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and providing an important yardstick for measuring progress.

With a global team of researchers, the Index goes beyond a country’s GDP and measures progress on 51 individual indicators across three broad dimensions: basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing, opportunity.

“We define social progress as the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential,” SPI Global Research Director Tamar Epner said.


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The SPI was initially established by Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter and MIT’s Scott Stern, who led the scientific team that developed the Index.

It draws on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the work of economists, development thinkers and Nobel Prize winners Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, and French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi.

Data is sourced from multilateral organisations like the World Bank and the UN, as well as think tanks and global surveys.

Beyond fostering awareness of the SDGs and how countries are performing, the Index is also driving on-the-ground change.

“The Social Progress Index captures outcomes related to all 17 SDGs, making it an invaluable proxy measure of SDG performance, particularly for areas where official indicators do not yet exist,” Epner said.

The Index is able to incorporate locally-relevant data, making it scalable to cities and even small communities.

“This means the Index can help localise implementation of the SDGs at a more granular level, where change can happen quickest but formal SDG indicators are often unavailable or unreliable."

When it comes to Australia’s progress, SPI is working with the Centre for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales to develop a granular, state-level Social Progress Index tailored to Australia’s context.

“This will help Australia’s policy and decision-makers define investment and policy priorities to ensure everyone in Australia has access to clean water, irrespective of whether they live in the centre of a city or in a remote area,” SPI Partner Research Director Petra Krylova said.

First published as ‘Social Imperative Progress’ in Current magazine April 2019.