Stay in the loop! Subscribe to our mailing list

The Social Progress Index: All that GDP cannot measure

Norway, Sweden and Switzerland lead the world in terms of social development, according to the second version of the Social Progress Index (SPI) released this month. Designed by Harvard professor Michael Porter, the SPI aims to provide a holistic picture of nations’ social development, which often does not correlate with measures of economic development. As a practical tool, the SPI is meant to help policymakers across the globe implement “policies and programs that will drive faster social progress.” As a complement to GDP, the Social Progress Index measures “a comprehensive array of components of social and environmental performance,” with a focus on measurable output.

The SPI is made up of 12 components (shown above,) each measured by 3-5 indicators (not shown). The overall Social Progress Index score is a simple average of all 12 components, which are organised under three main dimensions:

  • Basic Human Needs assesses how well a country provides for its people’s essential needs, such as nutrition and basic medical care
  • Foundations of Wellbeing considers whether citizens have access to basic education and information, and, more generally, to what extent the conditions are present for citizens to live healthy lives.
  • Opportunity measures to what extent individuals have the opportunities to reach their full potential, a factor often overlooked when measuring social development. 
Notably, the third dimension –Opportunity– includes the indicator Access to Advanced Education: "the degree to which advanced forms of education are accessible to those in a country who wish to further their knowledge and skills."

The SPI’s simple yet efficient framework allows for much more than an overall ranking of the world’s nations. Users can zero-in on a particular country, and, more interestingly, they can see how nations score for any given component. So for instance, in Access to Advanced Education, the world’s top three are the United States, Russia and Canada, in that order.  Access to Advanced Education considers years of tertiary schooling; women’s average years in school; inequality in attainment of education; and number of globally ranked universities.

It is yet to be seen whether the SPI will “catch on” and become, as its creator Michael Porter hopes, as prominent as the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness report in driving best practice.