Please join me praising Corinne Le Buhan, who won the Economist/Innocentive Human Potential Index challenge. Loads of good food for thought in her proposal.

I, too, happen to believe that we should learn how to measure collective intelligence. And Le Buhan’s work, although still imperfect, is a step forward on the road toward quantitatively assessing the values of the “knowledge economy”.

Unfortunately, one limitation laying heavy on all methodologies aimed at measuring human development or potential and going beyond GDP, is that “development” or “potential” are political concepts.

Different groups of people (social classes, political parties, partisans of various inclinations, bigots, laics, etc.) will have different views on them, and will tend to assign very different weights to whatever groups of variables researchers may come up with.

A smartphone is a status symbol for the oi polloi, a working tool for the professional, and a nuisance for the consummated digital native; street safety and a small percent of immigrants are much valued metrics for the proletarian who takes the bus or subway everyday, while a non-issue for the chauffeur-driven lady; patents per capita is not the most crucial metric for the vast majority of Indians who leave on a $5 per day budget; et cetera.

Human development being a political issue, I am afraid it may be impossible to capture it aseptically as if it were a physical quantity. I believe that GDP sticks because it is as close as possible to a “neutral”, if relatively content-poor, measure…

All progressive researchers can do is to come up with new variables to be measured. But politics will assign the weights. Then, an index can be computed: and it will be different from country to country, depending on the respective political inclinations. Furthermore, the same index will look different even in the same country, when a new political majority prevails. That is, the new indices are probably not very useful.

However this may not be the case with Le Buhan, whose proposed metric has the goal of measuring the knowledge potential of a society and therefore can be a useful add-on to GDP and a much more far-looking measure.

P.S.: The title of our post alludes to how a few years ago The Economist announced the news that President Sarkozy had hired top-notch intellectuals to get to a measure that went beyond GDP, arguing that economic growth cannot be the only measure of a Nation’s success and that quality of life should be taken into account, too.

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