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Measuring Community Health

In 1992 one hundred citizens - ranging from a corporate executive to an activist, from a priest to a teacher - formed the Sustainable Seattle Civic Panel. They wanted to build their city's "long-term cultural, economic and environmental health and vitality, with emphasis on long-term." But how?
They wondered: How does anyone know whether a community is getting more or less sustainable? How do you measure sustainable progress?

They broke up into 10 topic groups - economy, education, health, environment and so on. Each group brainstormed a long, lively list of possible measurements. However, then they had trouble winnowing down their burgeoning lists! After investing over 2500 volunteer hours in the project, they finally settled on 99 indicators of Seattle's sustainability. Their list included:

Volunteers presented their list of 99 sustainability indicators to the public in a dramatic reading interspersed with stories, quotes and poems.
Sustainable Seattle is unearthing and publicizing actual numbers for as many of these indicators as possible - and getting city institutions to measure and report them on a regular basis. They're initiating programs to get those indicators moving in positive directions. With sustainability consultants, awards, checklists and publicity, their efforts will start to make a real difference in the quality of life in their city.

This powerful program, run on a shoestring, could be done by any community.

Donella H. Meadows - Dartmouth College professor, systems analyst, and co-author of The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits to Growth - comments: "The indicators a society chooses to report to itself about itself.... reflect collective values and inform collective decisions. A nation that keeps a watchful eye on its salmon runs or the safety of its streets makes different choices than does a nation that is only paying attention to its GNP [Gross National Product - the sum of its economic transactions]. The idea of citizens choosing their own indicators is something new under the sun - something intensely democratic."

Based on "Using Salmon Runs and Gardens to Measure Our Well-Being," a syndicated column by Donella H. Meadows, seen in Timeline, Sept./Oct. 1993

COMMENTARY: "Growth" has been a buzzword in our society. More is better. But are more people, more highways, more factories, more consumption intrinsically better? Cancer, too, is growth - growth out of step with the body, the larger system it depends on. A co-intelligent community, conscious of its internal and external interconnectedness, would not seek endless growth of its material "standard of living." Rather, it would seek sustainable development of its "quality of life," as manifested in the welfare of its members, the vitality of its culture and the health of the natural environment in which it was embedded.

So let us suppose a community wants to promote its quality of life and not just "growth." How can it think, feel and respond as a coherent, conscious entity? This is a question of societal intelligence -- society-wide collective intelligence. Societal intelligence depends (among other things) on feedback. Our individual senses bring us feedback - a grade on an exam, the pain of a stubbed toe -- to tell us how we're doing as individuals. In the same way, a community or society needs feedback to guide its efforts to succeed. The indicators it uses has a tremendous impact on how intelligent it can be.

What makes Sustainable Seattle's story even more co-intelligent is the fact that their indicators wove together diverse perspectives: many people's views, human and ecological needs, long-term and short-term perspective, and so on. An important part of co-intelligence is the wisdom to expand our perspective to embrace a wider view.

So this story shows us co-intelligent (wise) indicators created by a co-intelligent (diverse and collaborative) group and presented to the public in a co-intelligent way (using diverse teaching media - stories, poems, etc.).

(For a national example, see The Underdeveloped Happiness Kingdom.)