Can you really measure wellbeing? And why would you?

From left to right: Jason Haber, city of Carlsbad, CA; Lisa Parson, Civic Wellbeing project manager; Julie Rusk, Civic Wellbeing chief; Anthony Sardella, evolve24 CEO, and Adam Beck, panel moderator, Smart Cities Council —SCC photo

It may seem counter-intuitive. How can you possibly measure how people are 'feeling?' And even if you could, why would you want to do that? It turns out knowing how citizens are feeling can provide numerous very real benefits for citizens and the communities they live in, as the city of Santa Monica's Wellbeing Framework and Index demonstrates. Our story below shares the highlights of a panel discussion held during Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley with the people behind Santa Monica's wellbeing project and one of the companies they're working with, Council Associate Partner evolve24. Cities interested in really connecting with their citizens and understanding them may well want to consider adapting and adopting a wellbeing program of their own. — Doug Peeples


For Julie Rusk, chief of Santa Monica's Civic Wellbeing program, the concept of "wellbeing" is a simple one. "The wellbeing construct is about 'How are people doing?' And the purpose of government is thriving communitie--and we can measure that."

But why would we want to?
For Rusk, there are several reasons for measuring wellness. Understanding citizens' attitudes and feelings give cities the opportunity to collect localized data that allows them to establish or continue policies that ensure citizens are living in an environment where they feel safe, reasonably satisfied with the services they rely on—places where people feel as if they're doing well.

And one way to do that is with data and analytics, in much the same way big corporations collect and analyze data to make critical business decisions, as evole24 CEO Anthony Sardella explained. And the data and analytics that guide policy making for continued wellbeing can be extended for use in similar ways to guide improvements in housing, race and equity issues, behavioral and other types of health services and crime—all of which can loop back and feed enhanced wellbeing in communities.

Lisa Parson, project manager for Civic Wellbeing, said the increasing reliance on data was a major but welcome change. "It's a massive transformation, moving to a data culture. We collect data because we want our information to be meaningful, and we do recognize concerns about data privacy." All external data is anonymized so not personally identifiable—and Parsons noted that sources of some of the data used have become less reluctant to share it.

Rusk explained that data collected from relatively simple surveys that focus on how people are doing paired with more traditional forms of data "…helps us as a government make better decisions for citizens." The pairing of traditional data with non-traditional sources gives program staff a more specific, "nuanced" understanding of how citizens are feeling, to the point where they can take the wellbeing pulse of much smaller areas: micro-communities.

The economic perspective
As Sardella explained, citizens' wellbeing can be tied to economic metrics because how people are feeling, their attitudes, emotional state can influence whether they accept or reject new ideas, services or innovations in their communities.