• 03.31.14

How A Well-Being Index For Cities Is Taking Shape In California

Santa Monica is already a pretty pleasant place to live, but now it’s working to become the first city in the U.S. to create a local well-being index to help the government gauge and respond to citizen happiness.

How A Well-Being Index For Cities Is Taking Shape In California
[Painting by Paul Corio]

The nation of Bhutan has gotten lots of attention for being the first to measure its “Gross National Happiness.” Then there’s the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and the U.K.’s similar efforts. With the “Social Progress Index” debuted last year, the Skoll Foundation and its partners are attempting to replace the 80-year-old metric of GDP as the main measure of nations.


If measuring something is the first step to improving it, the surge of attention to alternate indicators of “wealth” is a promising development for people who don’t sit at the top of the economic ladder. Most of this attention, at least from governments, has been paid at the national level. Cities, on the other hand, are where most of the action is. This is what makes Santa Monica, California’s efforts to develop the first-ever “local well-being index” for a U.S. city so interesting.

City officials in the affluent and relatively progressive beachfront city near Los Angeles first became interested in measuring well-being when residents were shocked by two tragedies: a public gang shooting of a local resident and a public suicide of a 9th-grader from Santa Monica High School. “Grappling with these kinds of issues sort of brought people together to look at new ways of doing things,” says Julie Rusk, a city employee who is leading The Wellbeing Project.

The city, population 90,000, created its first “Youth Wellbeing Report Card” released in late 2012, and from there thought about expanding the idea of well-being to the whole city. In March 2013, they were one of five cities to win funding in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge for an expanded Wellbeing Project, a first attempt to develop a “holistic” single metric for mayors to measure overall well-being.

City staff are now busy figuring out what in the world that means and navigating how to measure it. In the first half of this year, they are working with RAND and the U.K.’s New Economics Foundation to convene a virtual panel of experts–from psychologists to public health researchers–from around the globe to help them weigh these questions.

The factors that contribute to an individual’s well-being aren’t mysterious: health, safety, community, and employment are a few big examples. The larger question is how to weigh these factors, what existing statistics can be used to measure them, and what new tech-enabled measurement tools to deploy.

“We’re wrestling with being forward thinking–how do you build upon standard social science surveying metrics?” says Jonathan Mooney, a strategic advisor to the project. The advisory panel is exploring ideas like the use of analytics from Twitter and Facebook, including sentiment analysis for the community and analysis of how people in the city are connected. Other possibilities include sensor data from roadways that could gauge metrics like walkability and even voluntary data feeds from citizens’ mobile devices. This kind of data collection is potentially contentious, because the city government doesn’t want to overstep its bounds on privacy.


The eventual goal by the end of 2014 or early 2015 is to arrive at a single well-being index for Santa Monica that other cities in the U.S. and around the world could adopt or adapt as their own. As for Santa Monica itself, the city hopes to use it to encourage different kinds of internal collaboration and conversation. “We want to use it as not just a static report on the shelf, but something that’s going to be living and breathing in a way that will inform city policy over time,” says Rusk. “The drivers of this are interrelated and holistic, but a lot of city services and social services are siloed.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.