07 April 2017

New ERC grant to explore human wellbeing as criterion for sustainable development 

IIASA World Population Program Director Wolfgang Lutz has received a new grant from the European Research Council. Lutz is scientific director of the Vienna Institute of Demography (VID) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW), and professor of applied statistics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU). These institutions are part of the Wittgenstein Center, which Lutz leads.

A girl smiles through a school window in Nagarkot, Nepal. © Kertu | Shutterstock

A girl smiles through a school window in Nagarkot, Nepal. © Kertu | Shutterstock

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded Wolfgang Lutz a 2017 Advanced Grant. The project aims to develop new indicators for long-term human wellbeing that include feedbacks from environmental and other changes.

Much research in sustainable development still relies on GDP per person—a simple index of market activities—to show progress in development. But GDP leaves out many aspects of sustainable development, in particular human wellbeing and effects on the environment. In contrast, the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include 17 goals, 169 targets, and 230 indicators, addressing many different aspects of human wellbeing. Yet with this large number of partly interdependent targets and indicators it could prove difficult to assess genuine progress.

The new research project will detail a new holistic indicator, labelled Empowered Life Years (ELY) – and explore its viability and acceptability as an ultimate end measure for sustainable development. The ELY indicator is based on the often forgotten fact that being alive is a fundamental prerequisite for enjoying any quality of life. But since mere survival does not say much about quality of life, this project proposes to combine life expectancy with empowerment indicators such as health, literacy, freedom from poverty, and happiness. As a criterion for sustainable development, the new indicator should not decline over time even if feedbacks from socioeconomic and environmental changes, including climate change, are factored into the model.

“There has been much discussion recently about complementing the still widely used GDP per person with other indicators of quality of life that consider more than just the economic dimension. The tendency has been to go for large sets of indicators. But there is the danger that one does not see the forest for the trees,” says Lutz. “This project tries to go in the other direction. Look for one comprehensive indicator that reflects many of these dimensions and has a direct substantive meaning: the number of years a person is being alive and empowered to enjoy life.”

Such a comprehensive indicator could also be used for forecasting future trends.

In order to more realistically address complex socioeconomic and environmental feedbacks, the study includes forward-looking case studies on Nepal, Namibia, South Africa, and Costa Rica, and a historical study on Finland to better understand the interactions under differing conditions.

The new study will also be relevant for the work of Wolfgang Lutz in his function as a member of the independent group of scientists that have been charged by the United Nations Secretary General to draft the Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 which will be presented to the heads of state and government at the 2019 General Assembly. There are very high expectations for this new report and it is important that it is based on the best available science and explicitly addresses the synergies among the different Sustainable Development Goals.

The new grant is the 9th ERC grant awarded to IIASA researchers and the 8th ERC grant awarded to the Wittgenstein Centre, giving the Wittgenstein Centre the highest number of ERC grants per scientist for any research center in Austria. It is the third ERC grant awarded to Wolfgang Lutz.

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Last edited: 07 April 2017


Wolfgang Lutz

Interim Deputy Director General for Science Directorate - DDG for Science Department

Senior Program Advisor Population and Just Societies Program

Senior Program Advisor Social Cohesion, Health, and Wellbeing Research Group - Population and Just Societies Program

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313