Tim Jackson, Kate Burningham, Phil Catney, Ian Christie, Will Davies, Brian Doherty, Angela Druckman, Marit Hammond, Bronwyn Hayward, Aled Jones, Fergus Lyon, Nick Molho, Kate Oakley, Charles Seaford and Peter Victor

CUSP Working Paper Series | No 1

CC BY-NC 2.0 :: Geraint Rowland / Flickr


Understanding sustainable prosperity is an essential but complex task. It implies an ongoing multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research agenda. This working paper sets out the dimensions of this task. In doing so it also establishes the foundations for the research of the ESRC-funded Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP).

Our guiding vision for sustainable prosperity is one in which people everywhere have the capability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet. CUSP’s work will explore not just the economic aspects of this challenge, but also its social, political and philosophical dimensions. It will address the implications of sustainable prosperity at the level of households and firms; and it will explore sector-level and macro-economic implications of different pathways to prosperity. It will pay particular attention to the pragmatic steps that need to be taken by enterprise, government and civil society in order to achieve a sustainable prosperity.

The work programme itself is split into five themes – the MAPSS framework – which is described in more detail in this working paper. Theme M explores the moral framing and contested meanings of prosperity itself. Theme A explores the role of the arts and of culture in our society. Theme P addresses the politics of sustainable prosperity and explores the institutional shifts that will be needed to achieve it. Theme S1 explores the social and psychological dimensions of prosperity. Theme S2 examines the complex dynamics of social and economic systems on which sustainable prosperity depends.

This working paper explores the conceptual foundations for the MAPSS themes. It also sets out a portfolio of research and describes a strategy for cross-sector engagement involving government, business, academia and civil society. The overall aim of CUSP is to explore the economic, ecological, social and governance dimensions of sustainable prosperity and to make concrete recommendations to government, business and civil society in pursuit of it.


Prosperity matters. A prosperous society is concerned not only with income and financial wealth, but also with the health and wellbeing of its citizens, with their access to good quality education, and with their prospects for decent and rewarding work. Prosperity enables basic individual rights and freedoms. But it must also deliver the ability for people to participate meaningfully in common projects. Ultimately, prosperity must offer society a credible and inclusive vision of social progress (Jackson 2009, 2016).

This challenge was the motivation for establishing the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP). CUSP takes the form of a rich international network, drawing together expert partners from academic and non-academic institutions as co-producers of our work programme. Hosted by the University of Surrey, CUSP’s academic partners include Anglia Ruskin University, Goldsmiths College London, Keele University, the University of Leeds, Middlesex University, York University (Canada) and the University of Canterbury (Christchurch, NZ).

CUSP has established vital links to industry, civil society and policy by including as co-investigators the Aldersgate Group and the World Future Council, two alliances across business, civil society and policy, both driving action for a more sustainable society. CUSP also provides the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Limits to Growth. As our work progresses, we will widen this collaboration still further through an international network of CUSP Fellows hailing from a variety of academic and non-academic institutions.

Over the next five years we will explore the meanings and moral framings of prosperity, unravel its social and psychological dimensions and establish the political and institutional frameworks appropriate to it. We will also examine the role of culture and the arts in contributing to it, and analyse the macroeconomic, social and political implications of achieving it. At the same time, we aim to convene a wide-ranging public dialogue on the nature of prosperity across business, government, academia and civil society. The broad aim of this dialogue is to ask one simple question: what can prosperity possibly look like in a world of environmental and social limits? The aim of this working paper is to set out the principal dimensions of this task.

The Nature of Prosperity

The guiding vision at the heart of CUSP’s work is that prosperity consists in the capabilities that people have to flourish as human beings, within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet (Nussbaum and Sen 1993, Jackson 2016, Cassiers 2014). Core aims of CUSP are to elaborate on this vision, particularly in the context of advanced Western economies, to test its viability and to explore its macroeconomic implications.

It goes without saying that prosperity has not always been interpreted so broadly. For the last half a century at least, it has been cashed out (almost literally) in terms of per capita income. Increasing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been seen as synonymous with achieving a rising prosperity. Since the second world war, growth in the GDP has become the single most important indicator of economic success across the world. It has also been seen as the principal goal of government policy (Philipsen 2015).

There are some sound reasons for this formula. When GDP growth falters, as recent years have shown, calamity beckons. Investment stalls, consumer spending declines, tax revenues plummet. Firms find themselves out of business. People find themselves out of jobs. Lives and livelihoods suffer. And a government which fails to respond appropriately may rather quickly find itself out of office.

The prevailing response to economic recession is to try and stimulate private spending and investment through monetary policy (low interest rates and quantitative easing) and to impose an often severe austerity on public spending. A sense of urgency inhabits the priority to get growth back as quickly as possible. But in the process there is a real risk that prosperity (in any meaningful sense of the word) evaporates – particularly for the poorest in society (Stuckler and Basu 2014).

To make matters worse, the effectiveness of this response is hindered by continuing fragilities in the global economy. Debt overhangs, volatile commodity prices and trade imbalances conspire with demographic change, declining productivity growth (in advanced nations) and structural change to deliver a variety of adverse conditions for economic recovery. These economic headwinds suggest an ongoing risk of ‘secular stagnation’ and potentially catastrophic stock market collapses (Gordon 2016, Turner 2015, Wolf 2015).

Environmental concerns have added a particular twist to this near perfect storm. Recent decades have witnessed a progressive decline in environmental quality across the world: in particular, in relation to biodiversity loss, deforestation and desertification of semi-arid regions, the eutrophication of water supplies and the over-exploitation of mineral resources (IPCC 2014, MEA 2005, MGI 2013, Rockström et al 2009, Steffen et al 2015, Wiedmann et al 2015).

Global climate change is amongst the most pernicious of these concerns. The scientific consensus suggests that global average temperatures need to be less than 2o C and ideally less than 1.5o C above the pre-industrial average. The Paris agreement signed in December 2015, commits nations across the world to reducing carbon emissions in line with this target (UN FCCC 2015). But the transition to a low carbon world represents a substantial transformation in capital markets. Such a transformation would be challenging at the best of times and these are clearly not the best of times.

It is clear that environmental damage exacerbates the plight of the poorest in society, who often rely more heavily on ecological systems and have fewer means to defend themselves from its impacts. In fact, a striking feature of the prevailing paradigm of prosperity has been a deepening of inequalities within and between nations. In some of the richest countries across the world, overall increases in average per capita income have masked falling real wage levels and declining social investment, with wealth increasingly concentrated in the top percentiles (Oxfam 2015, Piketty 2014).

Eradicating poverty and reducing inequality must lie at the heart of any meaningful vision of prosperity. Particular attention is needed to improve the conditions under which the most vulnerable sectors of society live. It is abundantly clear that prosperity for the few, achieved only at the expense of the many, cannot be regarded as sustainable. Inequality itself erodes the basis for civility and undermines the prospects for living well, not just for the poor, but across society (Stiglitz 2013, Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).

In short, society is faced with a profound dilemma. Conventional formulations for achieving prosperity rely on a continual expansion of consumer demand. More is deemed better in the received wisdom. But global increases in the throughput of material goods already threaten the resource base and undermine the environmental conditions on which prosperity depends.

At the same time, the outcome of this expansion in economic activity across most regions of the world has been at best ambivalent in terms of human wellbeing outcomes (Kubiszewski et al 2013, APPG 2014). Increases in economic output are highly correlated with increases in wellbeing in the poorest countries; but the impacts are less pronounced in more developed countries (Jackson 2016, Victor 2008). Cross-sectional patterns in life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal morbidity, participation in education and even life-satisfaction all show diminishing returns as incomes rise (Steinberger et al 2013) and there is evidence to suggest that the increased materialism which has accompanied economic growth already undermines wellbeing (Dittmar et al 2014, Pieters 2013).

These challenges are global in nature. Economic interdependencies are reinforced by global commodity markets and financial systems. The relationships between the economic system and the nexus of energy, water, food and environmental dependencies are also cross-boundary in nature. No exploration of sustainable prosperity can entirely evade this global context. At the same time, the challenge for the richest countries is particularly acute for a number of reasons. Firstly, the richest nations bear the brunt of responsibility for historical environmental burdens (Agyeman et al 2003). Secondly, the welfare gains from increased material throughput appear to be diminishing in the richest economies (Inglehart et al 2008, Easterlin et al 2010). Finally, as we have already noted, there are a number of economic ‘headwinds’ that are reducing the growth rate in these economies leaving less room for conventional notions of prosperity to address the challenges outlined above.

For these reasons, the principal geographical focus of the CUSP work programme is on the nature of prosperity in the richest nations. There, in particular, there is an urgent need to reconceptualise prosperity and redefine its meanings. A continuously expanding throughput of material commodities cannot provide the basis for a sustainable prosperity. Nor does it exhaust the potential for people to flourish. It is of course absurd to suggest that people prosper when basic necessities of life – food, clothing and shelter – are lacking. But beyond these material concerns the ability to flourish is as much a social and psychological task as it is a material one. For the richest nations, the challenge is to maximise wellbeing whilst minimising material throughput. To live better whilst at the same time consuming less. To have ‘more fun with less stuff’ (Jackson 2016).

This challenge is both philosophical and pragmatic in nature. It demands an understanding of the social and psychological conditions of living well. It requires a robust understanding of the economy that would deliver these conditions. It is in part at least a cultural project, as much artistic in nature as it is scientific. And it demands a close attention to political institutions at the national and at the local level. These dimensions define a clear research agenda for sustainable prosperity and provide the foundations for our work in CUSP.

These considerations suggest that a research agenda dedicated to the understanding of sustainable prosperity must concern itself with a variety of tasks. First, discussions about prosperity have to be grounded in the physical realities of the material world, the nexus of energy, water, environment and food security on which prosperity depends. Next, it is clear that any vision of prosperity has to be articulated through a convincing economic model in which both macro-economic stability and micro-economic viability play a role. Finally, any understanding of sustainable prosperity must address the complex politics of transition (Stirling 2014).

Accordingly, the CUSP work programme is organised around five core (MAPSS) themes: (M)eaning and moral framings of the good life; the role of the (A)rts and culture in developing visions of prosperity; (P)olitical and organisational dimensions of sustainable prosperity; (S)ocial and psychological understandings of the good life; and (S)ystems analysis to explore narratives of sustainable prosperity. The following sections introduce each of these themes in turn.

Theme M: Meanings and moral framings

Questions of meaning and moral framing are often excluded from expert disciplines of economics, accounting, finance and behavioural science. Indeed, it has been repeatedly argued within sociology and anthropology that market societies are based upon a cultivated illusion that the ‘economy’ is a space of valuation, separate from moral, cultural and political domains of life (Polanyi 1957, Granovetter 1985, Callon 1998). It is only at moments of historic crisis that market societies are compelled to recognise the moral dimensions of economic institutions and practices, and to re-configure them.

This task is made more challenging by the increasing specialisation that has attended areas of finance, economic policy and professional services. The power of finance in today’s economy can partly be understood in terms of its control over the codes and languages through which economic life operates (Haldane 2012). Reinterpreting the economy in clearer and more accessible language is therefore a matter of significant public interest at the present juncture (Chang 2014, Lanchester 2014). Our goal is to open up space for a more inclusive discussion of the meaning and moral dimensions of prosperity, which reconnects specialist and technical spheres of economic debate with philosophical and public questions of meaning and morality. Two normative and philosophical problems in particular recur within this theme.

Firstly, there is a concern with the good life and human flourishing. Modern economics seeks to isolate questions of ‘value’ from those of ‘values’ (Stark 2009); yet this separation also produces institutional, technocratic and political frameworks which lose sight of ethical purpose. By posing philosophical questions about the nature of the good life and its economic components, this theme aims to reconnect economic and ethical considerations and debates.

Secondly, there is a concern with future inheritance as a moral and economic issue. Thomas Piketty’s (2014) work has demonstrated the growing importance of private inheritance as a source of capital, reasserting the significance of the family as an economic unit within capitalism. Questions of capital, capitalisation and post-capitalism have been revived in recent years. How else might we understand and value the future other than in terms of private returns to capital? What would be the moral underpinnings of an economy that conserved common goods for future generations?

In response to these challenges, Theme M aims to explore the ethical foundations of sustainable prosperity and develop pragmatic proposals for change in business and policy. Our work will pursue four specific research areas.

M1 Philosophical understandings

Sustainable prosperity is not yet a uniquely defined or unambiguous concept. Its meanings are likely to be complex and contested. This first area of research will explore the philosophical ideas and arguments which might inform these meanings drawing on key philosophical traditions (such as Aristotelian and Kantian ethical approaches). The work will help to identify specific institutional structures (such as property rights and taxation) where the question of economic justice and virtue might be tested.

M2 Professional understandings

The practical pursuit and framing of prosperity is shaped by professional advisors and consultants, with expertise and professional advice functioning in a normatively binding fashion. There is therefore a need to look at how explicitly moral dimensions of professionalism sit alongside technical matters of expertise, calculation and knowledge.

M3 Everyday understandings

Everyday lay or public understandings of ‘sustainable prosperity’ are likely to differ from those defined in expert arenas or informed through philosophical traditions. This project will focus in particular on how property, capital and future prosperity are conceived by ordinary people today. It will also explore how the economy involves competing moral visions of the future, and political strategies aimed at privatising or socialising the future.

M4 International dimensions

The bulk of our work programme is conceived with the aim of understanding forms of prosperity relevant for the richest economies. The reasons for this choice have already been articulated. We also recognise however, not only the global interconnectedness of modern society, but also the very real challenges arising in the fast industrialising nations and confronted by the poorest nations in the world. These challenges require us to bridge technical matters of economic policy with normative principles and philosophies which might provide a basis for reform and new consensus. This requires critical scrutiny of dominant concepts of international economic governance, analysis of their latent moral assumptions and a consideration of alternatives.

Theme A: Arts and culture

Sustainability and prosperity have conventionally been conceived as predominantly technical or economic concerns. Our approach departs from this framing to consider explicitly the role of culture and the arts, not just in communicating sustainability but as an inherent component of prosperity itself. The concept of sustainable prosperity provides a vision of society where free time and being with other people begins to replace money, and sufficiency and security replace maximisation and growth (Jackson 2016, Barry 2012). Art and culture must play a crucial role within that society. Research should not simply focus on how the arts deal with or express environmental concerns, (although this is an element of our interest), but also in how cultural production and participation works as a component of sustainable prosperity itself. This requires research to explore how the arts contribute to sustainable prosperity through shaping how we live, work, express and entertain ourselves.

Context is crucial. So research should take a place-based approach– to consider these issues through the lens of places shaped by different sets of economic and social conditions. The relationship between cultural activities and place, has been of interest both within the academy and to policymakers for several decades now, partly under a remit of ‘cultural regeneration’ and latterly under the nomenclature of ‘creative city’ or ‘creative economy’. While those terms originally represented different approaches – ‘creative city’ ideas were concerned with questions of urban governance rather than just cultural production (Landry & Bianchini 1995) – over time both have been harnessed to a largely growth-focused, agenda. As Grodach and Silver argue (2013: 5) policymakers have been, “guided by neoliberal deregulation and privatization and a reframing of traditional progressive policy goals such as diversity, inclusion, quality of life and sustainability as facets of urban growth.”

There are numerous academic critiques of culturally-led ‘regeneration’ and the creative economy (Peck 2005, Elsheshtawy 2012, Boren & Young 2013). While cultural sectors are growing (DCMS 2016), development has been highly uneven and socially polarising (Oakley 2015). The polarisation of the cultural workforce, and the increasing exclusion of working class, ethnic minority, female and disabled cultural workers is apparent in national statistics, but research is needed to understand how these processes operate at the local level. The links between cultural investment, rising land prices and gentrification are very well demonstrated, while cultural economies themselves often develop labour markets that are marked by social stratification and patterns of gender, class or ethnicity-based exclusion as well as by exploitative or poorly paid work (Gill 2014, Gollmitzer & Murray 2008, Banks 2007).

This raises questions about why arts and cultural activities, from professional production to everyday participation, remain so strongly associated with the potential for human liberation. Drawing on social movements such as Occupy, there is a need for research that focusses attention on the importance of public space, community and conviviality (Ehrenreich 2006, Gilbert 2014); these are elements of our cultural life that have recently been over-looked in favour of consumerism, the built infrastructure and the growth of digital technology.

Cultural work too retains its potential as ’good work’ (Hesmondhalgh & Baker 2011) despite its implication in the production of inequalities and exploitation. Much as some arts organisations are consciously contesting the creative economy script, cultural workers are increasingly organising to contest both the precarious nature of their own labour markets, but also the attendant inequalities (de Peuter & Cohen 2015). There is a growth in cultural work which, born of necessity, challenges both neoliberal aspirations and the constraints of austerity. These forms of cultural participation bring together both the explicitly symbolic, as in festivals or art exhibitions, with broader activities such as re-cycling / free-cycling; community gardens and allotments (Edensor et al 2010, Ghose & Pettygrove 2014) and small scale manufacturing (Warren & Gibson 2013).

Building on these insights, the A Theme explores the ways in which arts and cultural activities can help develop ideas of the good life beyond material consumption. Our work will be shaped around the following four related projects.

A1 Culture in the community

Arts and cultural activities are part of our understanding of meanings about the good life, and can contribute to visions for living better and more sustainably. Part of that is about their role in developing what the geographer Doreen Massey has called a progressive sense of place (1994), one which can recognises different histories, identities and even communities but can still develop imaginaries of solidarity within places. Such a role has been threatened, even undermined, by neoliberal emphasis on the ‘creative economy,’ a development paradigm that stresses cultural activity as an economic resource, one bound up with promises of growth and jobs. This research will consider how and in what ways local cultural economies can contribute to sustainable prosperity, by re-affirming the importance of place-specificity as one element of a more sustainable (or at least less unsustainable) society.

A2 Culture as ‘good work’

One of the primary ways in which the arts contribute to sustainable prosperity is through the provision of meaningful work. MacIntyre’s work on practices (1981) understands various skilled, complex and collective activities as possessing their own ‘internal’ goods and Hesmondhalgh and Baker’s (2011) explore the concept of culture as ‘good work,’. There is therefore a need to examine the non-material benefits that artists draw from their work and how they balance this against material and other needs. This is also shaped by the various networks and organisational forms – such as co-ops, freelancing, portfolio working – which people adopt in order to negotiate the precarious nature of cultural work. The polarisation of the cultural workforce, and the increasing exclusion of working class, ethnic minority, female and disabled cultural workers is apparent in national statistics, but we need to understand how these processes operate at the local level.

A3 Creativity in everyday life

Sustainable prosperity also requires understanding of the meanings that people attach to activities such as singing, writing, drama, crafts and online cultural production. The role of creativity in everyday life has been explored in the AHRC’s Understanding Everyday Participation Project, but there is a need for further research to examine the multiple forms that creativity takes in the lives of ordinary people from different socio-economic, cultural and geographical backgrounds. What is the connection between these sorts of activities and sense of place? How inclusive are the communities that they build? And what notions of prosperity, sustainability or the good life are they associated with?

A4 Drama and the ‘good life’

Different forms of media also provide spaces for dialogue and creativity with regard to exploring sustainable prosperity. The dramatic form has a long pedigree in elaborating contested visions of the good life. From Plato’s Dialogues to 1970s TV sitcom The Good Life, drama has been used to explore both moral and pragmatic dimensions of our ideas about prosperity. Indeed, it may be argued that this has been a central preoccupation of dramatists in the modern era, informing the work of Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, Michael Frayn, Polly Stenham and Tennessee Williams. In our context, we are interested to explore how dramatic forms can illuminate a range of issues related to sustainable prosperity.

Theme P: Politics and institutions

Around the world there are grassroots transitions to sustainability, alternative enterprise forms, investment models for sustainable prosperity, and a range of alternative political institutions related to the ‘ecological state’. Such diversity is based on different forms of governance and institutions at local, regional, national and international scales. However, research is needed to provide insights into how such transitions and innovations have emerged, the challenges and tensions faced, and the ways in which individuals, communities, organisations and governments can navigate their way to alternatives.

Since the second wave of grassroots environmentalism emerged in Western societies in the 1970s, environmentalists have pursued grassroots initiatives in a way that prefigures what a sustainable society would be like in practice. Prefiguration here is taken to refer to experimentation and creation of alternative social norms or ‘conduct’, and their diffusion (Yates 2015). The dynamics of associational activity directed at sustainability is shaped by the complex relationship between formal governmental systems and social movement initiatives. The diversity of place based communities demonstrates the wide range of current community activities. Examples in the UK include Transition Town Movements, community energy, waste management and city farms (Mason and Whitehead 2012; Nettles 2014) . In recent years these ‘prefigurative projects’ have often been closely connected to public institutions through funding and collaborative planning and community engagement. This necessary engagement with the state has been the source of dilemmas and tensions within activist communities.

There is also a diversity of organisational forms that shape sustainable prosperity and also lead to unsustainable outcomes. This includes community groups, civil society organisations and businesses of different kinds. While much debate is focused on large corporate businesses, there is a need for further research on alternative ‘hybrid’ models that pose a challenge to conventional models of business combining the logics and practices of the commercial sector with a core social and environmental mission (Doherty et al 2014). Early research suggests that these initiatives are diverse, hybrid and fluid in character, involving multiple levels and layered patterns of governance (Bailey and Caprotti 2014). Such issues are not without contestation both within organisations and with their wider stakeholders, therefore requiring attention to the power relations and different organisational logics that shape innovation and affect scaling (Pache and Santos 2012, Vickers and Lyon 2014).

The enterprises shaping sustainable prosperity also require a range of alternative investment models. While most small organisations tend to rely on their own funds, there is a growing industry of ethical and social investors (Daggers and Nicholls 2016). While some of these forms are similar to conventional investment models, others are radically different. Ethical funds, community shares, ‘crowd funding’ approaches and other forms of innovative lending and equity, can provide investment practices relevant to sustainability. These are shaped by aspects of the changing regulatory environment, such as company law reform and corporate reporting.

While these local transitions, organisational responses and forms of investment play a role in redefining prosperity, they also have implications on forms of governance in general, and democracy in particular. Governance can be conceptualised as the processes by which rules and actions are produced, sustained and regulated, and the way in which these are enacted through institutions in the public, private and third sectors. This raises questions about the ‘green state’ and the political institutions, culture and practices that both challenge sustainable prosperity and create space for alternatives.

Sustainable prosperity raises particular questions for the nature of democracy in the context of the need for urgent action related to averting environmental disaster, and the need to intellectual freedoms that challenge dominant interests and present social and political alternatives. This occurs at a range of scales from the very local, to national and international institutions.

The dynamic challenges posed by a sustainability transition require a general ethos of questioning, pushing boundaries, reflexivity and opening up new horizons. For this to happen, open, participatory and inclusive forms of governance will be vital to allow processes of reflection with a range of different voices. The relationship between democracy, reflexivity and sustainability is therefore key – yet thus far poorly understood. There are different political and cultural process innovations, in particular approaches to deliberative democracy, that are worth exploring as a potential enabling foundation for the kind of radical transitions implied by sustainable prosperity . These institutional structures and governance interactions operate between public, private and third sector actors at a variety of scales. Institutional arrangements, constitutional provisions, general duties in legislation, but also new forms of citizen engagement, at the level of the nation-state as well as devolved administration, will all shape the move towards sustainability.

Theme P will therefore examine the political and organisational dynamics shaping different visions of sustainable prosperity. The work programme will be developed initially through the following four projects.

P1: Place-based case studies of transition

Research will explore traditions of small scale sustainability initiatives and the contested meanings that these initiatives hold for local community members and environmental activists. A historical dimension to the research will also allow for greater understanding of how initiatives and places change over time.

P2: Alternative organisational forms

A sister project will examine organisational forms which provide an alternative to conventional and sometimes hegemonic institutions and structures. The research will explore the social and environmental performance of these new models, paying particular attention to procedures for accounting and measuring environmental and social value (Nicholls 2009).

P3: Investment for sustainable prosperity

Investment is critical to sustainable prosperity. Building, protecting and nurturing the assets on which future prosperity depends relies on appropriate investment frameworks and institutions. This research will look beyond conventional financial markets to explore both mainstream and alternative investment structures. These will include targeted social/ethical investment funds, but also different forms of conventional finance coming from banks or from institutional investors. The research will examine how different forms of investment shape strategy and create new missions. It will also assess the comparative success of these different strategies under different conditions.

P4: Political foundations of sustainable prosperity

A final project will explore the role of macro-level political institutions in delivering sustainable prosperity. The research will conceptually and normatively examine both those that currently exist and those that might be needed to progress the development of a ‘green state’. The aim is to explore both the existing structural and institutional limitations and the alternative forms of democratic engagement that might facilitate moving beyond them.

Theme S1: Social and psychological understandings

At the heart of any form of prosperity lie the desires, aspirations, needs and capabilities of ordinary people (Jackson 2009/2016, Nussbaum and Sen 1993). Lay visions of the ‘good life’ are diverse and informed by multiple dimensions of social, economic and environmental situation (Buonfino and Mulgan 2006, Randall et al 2014). Making progress relies on a robust understanding of ordinary peoples’ perspectives on what it means to live well, identifying where philosophical understandings enter lay narratives, how aspirations for prosperity and sustainability are negotiated and the role played by materialism (and material goods) in delivering (and hindering) a sense of prosperity.

A key aspect in our approach is the recognition that aspirations vary widely according to geography, locality, and differing levels of income and education. This theme is therefore developed through a spatially-focused research strategy which aims to explore how concepts of social and environmental justice enter people’s accounts of their own lives and how the ‘sustainable prosperity’ of particular places is understood (Macnaghten et al 1995, O’Riordan & Voisey 2001). In addition, it’s clear that individuals’ visions of prosperity and commitment to the good life are likely to change as they move through significant life-course transitions such as leaving home, parenthood and retirement (Burningham et al 2014).

The broad aim of this theme is to examine critically the hypothesis that it is possible to live better with less: to have ‘more fun with less stuff’ (Jackson 2009/2016). The basis for such a hypothesis may be found across the social sciences. Psychological research indicates that psychological well-being is damaged by an excessive focus on acquiring material goods (Dittmar et al 2014) while it is enhanced by activities that involve skill, empathy and concentration in lieu of high material inputs (Richins and Dawson 1994, Csikszentmihalyi 2000, 2004). Sociological research also suggests that ‘sustainable’ or ‘serious’ leisure (Røpke and Godskesen 2007, Stebbins 1997) which requires lower levels of resource may provide intrinsic personal rewards.

Our own research aims to explore this hypothesis through different understandings of the ‘good life’ looking both at differences between places and between different social groups. The research will be organised under four specific projects.

S1.1 Situated and contested understandings of the good life

This project focuses on visions of the good life and understandings of prosperity within specific localities. Attention will be paid to how aspirations vary along locally relevant dimensions of inequality. We will explore how concepts of social and environmental justice enter residents’ accounts and how the ‘sustainable prosperity’ of particular places is understood.

S1.2 More fun; less stuff? Exploring the potential to live better with less

Psychological research will test the relationship between psychic satisfaction and (more or less) materialistic behaviours. This will include research to explore the potential for mindfulness to reduce the pursuit of short-term gratification and increase engagement in more fulfilling (and less damaging) activities. A second strand will examine in what circumstances and for whom less materially intensive lifestyles are desirable and possible, exploring the possibility for ‘more fun, with less stuff’ for those living on constrained incomes.

S1.3 Shifting visions of the ‘good life’ through early motherhood

This project explores how visions of the good life develop through the early years of motherhood. Care for infants in early motherhood may stimulate an ethic of care and sense of connection to future generations, but the experience of ‘time squeeze’ (Southerton & Tomlinson 2005) associated with the practicalities of child care often militates against engagement in sustainable practices. In addition, commodities play a central role in the construction of ‘appropriate’ mothers and ‘proper’ childhoods, potentially challenging aspirations for less materialistic lifestyles (Clarke 2004). Building on existing longitudinal qualitative work we will map how visions of the good life shift from first pregnancy through to when the eldest child is around 8.

S1.4 Children and Youth in Cities – a Lifestyle Evaluation Study (CYCLES)

Finding ways to live well in urban communities within the limits of planetary and local ecosystems is one of the most urgent and difficult tasks confronting all communities (UN 2012). Cities are also youthful places: by 2050, 7 out of 10 of young people will live in cities. How they will live shapes our global future. This international project explores what is necessary for young people to live sustainable, fulfilling lives in diverse cities.

Theme S2: Systems analysis to explore narratives of sustainable prosperity

 The diverse elements of sustainable prosperity outlined above can be used to articulate a range of different narratives and scenarios. Through systems analysis techniques, research can then explore the economic, environmental and social implications of these different narratives and scenarios. This theme develops those capabilities and in doing so provides a synthetic strand through which the other themes can be drawn together.

Developing scenarios and fleshing out their associated narratives provides a pragmatic, interdisciplinary framework for envisioning solutions to the complex problems. It is a way of grappling with the uncertainties inherent in the future, of communicating a great deal of complex information, and it enables those involved to ‘think big’ and envision states that may be considered ‘outside the box’ (Alcamo 2008). Scenarios have been used by many thought leaders to communicate their visions of the future: examples include Porritt (2013), Schor (2010), and the eighty contributors, including Mary Robinson, Christiana Figueres, and Bill McKibben to Visions 2100: Stories of Your Future by O’Brien (2015).

Application of scenario analysis in the field of sustainability has its roots in the Limits to Growth study (Meadows et al 1972), in which twelve scenarios were analysed to explore their economic, financial, environmental and social dimensions. The analyses showed that population growth and natural resource use would impose limits to industrial growth, and this was a ‘novel and even controversial idea at the time’ (Meadows et al 2004: page 4). Recent research tends to support the broad findings of the Club of Rome’s work (Turner 2008, Pasqualino et al 2015).

Our research will build on this foundation in a variety of ways. The broad aim is to develop both the narratives themselves and the quantitative economic models which can be used to reflect and parametrise the possibilities for change. Possible narratives could include: futures dominated by technology investment and innovation (NCE 2014); futures featuring structural shifts towards sectors that deliver high social, psychological and cultural satisfaction but which require lower throughput of material resources (Jackson 2016, Jackson and Victor 2011, 2013); ‘sufficiency’ futures, in which everyone, including the poorest, leads a ‘decent’ life (Druckman and Jackson 2010); and futures characterised by alternative business models such as social enterprise, the collaborative economy, the sharing economy and green investment (Jackson and Victor 2016, Jackson et al 2016).

A key task in the development of quantitative ‘stories’ about the future is to identify an appropriate set of indicators to report against. Conventional indicators such as economic output, resource use, environmental emissions and employment will certainly be relevant to this task. But it is also clear that the most appropriate indicator set to describe sustainable prosperity is still open to debate. There are a variety of new alternative indicators such as adjusted GDP, wellbeing life-years, and inequality between wellbeing groups (Anderson 1991, NEF 2014, Kubiszewski et al 2013, O’Donnell et al 2014). A part of the task of Theme S2 will be to engage in this debate and develop appropriate indicators for sustainable prosperity.

The overall aim is develop and test narratives of sustainable prosperity arising from across the CUSP programme and beyond. It will also develop the analytic framework within which this testing can take place. The research is structured around four specific research projects.

S2.1 Model Development

A key task is to develop model platforms and frameworks capable of taking a long term view and addressing the functioning of national and of global economies. Such a model would need to address a variety of questions. What does an economy look like when it remains within ecological and resource limits? How can a low- or no-growth economy maintain full employment, improve distributional equity and deliver financial stability? What are the systemic and cascading risks in the near term in financial and economic systems as a result of resource scarcity?

S2.2 Narratives for Sustainable Prosperity

The task of narrative development is critical to our endeavour in understanding the possibilities for sustainable prosperity. It involves the collation, synthesis and development of a select number of core, alternative narratives, arising both within CUSP and from other sources. This will entail working with researchers and practitioners across academia, business, policy and civil society.

S2.3: Scenario Testing: outcomes and indicators

This project is key to being able to synthesise our long-term aim of understanding sustainable prosperity. It will explore the macroeconomic, social and financial dimensions of the narratives developed in S2.2, under different assumptions about behaviour and institutional structure. It will also examine resilience of our economies to shock events (acts of war, energy shortfalls, climate change) that might impact on prosperity.

S2.4: Calibrating Good Work

A key element of sustainable prosperity rests in the availability and quality of ‘good work’ in the economy. This project will test the hypothesis that there exists a ‘sweet spot’ of ‘good work’ (Jackson 2016, Jackson and Victor 2011) in which certain sectors of the economy offer a triple dividend: low environmental impact, high labour intensity, and high levels of worker satisfaction. Using a mix of statistical analysis and social research, the research will attempt to identify the potential for a triple dividend in sustainable prosperity: low environmental impact, high employment intensity, and high levels of worker satisfaction.

From Research into Policy

 It is clear from the preceding discussions that a research basis for understanding sustainable prosperity must be transdisciplinary in nature. First, discussions about prosperity have to be grounded in the physical realities of the material world, the nexus of energy, water, environment and food security on which prosperity depends. Next, the infrastructure in which we live, the technologies to produce the goods and services that support our lifestyles, and the innovations that will undoubtedly be key elements in a more sustainable future, require a sound understanding of engineering. Equally, it must be recognised that prosperity itself is a contested concept involving competing philosophical and social meanings of the good life. Next, it is clear that any vision of prosperity has to be articulated through a convincing economic model in which both macro-economic stability and micro-economic viability play a role. Finally, any understanding of sustainable prosperity must address the complex politics of transition.

Taking these needs into account, the work of the Centre will be guided by a range of over-arching research questions:

  • How do we understand the complex interplay of economic, environmental, social and governance factors in the transition to sustainable prosperity?
  • How is prosperity for the poorest communities to be improved, in the face of resource constraints and increasing environmental challenges?
  • How do we navigate competing social norms and narratives about the good life?
  • What role do new forms of enterprise and investment play in a sustainable economy?
  • What are the institutional and political dimensions of the transition to sustainable prosperity?
  • What is the role of culture in negotiating sustainable prosperity?
  • What are the macro-economic implications of the transition to a sustainable prosperity?

Addressing these questions must go beyond the combination of academic research disciplines in innovative ways. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, and faced with the combined challenges of climate change, constrained resources, and widening inequalities, there is an urgent need for creative, open dialogue to inform our visions of social progress. Research cannot be conceived in isolation from this dialogue, but must interact closely with it to promote a deeper understanding of the issues and to   develop viable proposals for change. Engagement with business, with policy-makers and with a wider lay public is essential to broaden horizons, to promote interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary relationships and to contribute to the co-production of shared understandings.

A core aim of CUSP is to build and strengthen a community of researchers, practitioners and policy makers involved in the understanding of sustainable prosperity. Stakeholders within this dialogue include businesses, social enterprises, central and local government policy-makers, NGOs, religious and ethnic groups and the media. Our portfolio of collaboration over the coming years will include the following specific engagement initiatives.

An Economy that Works (AETW)

Business will not be successful in an economy that doesn’t work. Low productivity undermines competitiveness now, carbon intensity may undermine it in the future. Inequality creates social instability. These problems require government action. But they cannot be solved without the support of business and citizens. AETW is an initiative of the World Future Council to bring progressive businesses together to generate a robust route-map for change. Our work with the World Future Council will involve a collaborative engagement with business, government and civil society to elaborate the dimension so of An Economy that Works.

Investing in the Future

Based on its strong relationships with businesses and with the financial institutions involved in the low-carbon economy, the Aldersgate Group aims to explore the changes necessary at a policy, regulatory and business level to increase the flows of finance towards green infrastructure projects. Our research with the Aldersgate group will focus on the theme of sustainable investment, exploring in particular a variety of perspectives on investment in low carbon energy, in ‘natural capital’, and in the ‘circular economy’.

The Limits to Growth

Establishing robust links to policy and to government is an essential component of an agenda for change. CUSP provides the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Limits to Growth. The APPG provides a platform for cross-party dialogue on economic prosperity in a world of environmental and social limits. It aims to contribute to a growing international debate on redefining prosperity and developing new measures of progress. The APPG is chaired by Caroline Lucas, MP and its membership is drawn from both Houses of Parliament and all main political parties.

 The Nature of Prosperity

Finally, our work seeks to engage widely with lay audiences. We aim to stimulate a wide-ranging debate about sustainable prosperity. The Nature of Prosperity is an extended public dialogue bringing people from all walks of life and all sectors of society together to develop new visions for a lasting and sustainable prosperity. Chaired by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, our Nature of Prosperity dialogue will provide a stimulating environment for engagement and a creative forum for change.


The Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity is a wide-ranging collaboration across academia, involving business, policy and civil society. Our guiding vision for sustainable prosperity is one in which people everywhere have the capability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet. Our work will explore not just the economic aspects of this challenge, but also its social, political and philosophical dimensions. We address the implications of sustainable prosperity at the level of households and firms; and we will explore sector-level and macro-economic implications of different pathways to prosperity. We will pay particular attention to the pragmatic steps that need to be taken by enterprise, government and civil society in order to achieve a sustainable prosperity.

A prosperous society is concerned not only with income and financial wealth, but also with the health and wellbeing of its citizens, with their access to good quality education, and with their prospects for decent and rewarding work. Prosperity enables basic individual rights and freedoms. But it must also deliver the ability for people to participate meaningfully in common projects. Ultimately, prosperity must offer society a credible and inclusive vision of social progress. The over-arching goal of CUSP is to contribute to that essential task.


No Replies yet