Smart Economics for the Environment and Human Development


The Smart Economics for the Environment and Human Development (SEED) Kenan Creative Collaboratory brings together a wide range of people from the community, businesses, politics, academics, and NGO’s, attempting to identify and formulate smarter goals for economic activity, and laying the groundwork for the design of economic indicators that promote sustainable and equitable development.

Interested members of the community, as well as scholars and Duke students, should contact the initiative’s PI, Dirk Philipsen, at

Dirk Philipsen (PI)  – Duke/ Kenan Institute for Ethics
Brent Lane – UNC / Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Corey Madden – UNC School of the Arts / Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts
Roby Sawyers – NCSU / Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology, and Science

How do we know whether economic activities are beneficial or detrimental to wellbeing—of ourselves, of others, of civil society, of our planet, of future generations?

Today the world of business hums with debates about social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility. Several businesses now espouse the principle that “[p]rofits are necessary and good, but only as a metric of sustainability.” Success, according to this line of reasoning, is predicated not just on fulfilling the demands of quarterly bottom lines, but also on meeting the needs of customers and communities. New terms have entered the conversation, such as the triple bottom line, addressing social, environmental, and financial requirements, or serving people, planet, and profits.

Given the mounting combined challenges of inequality, ecosystem deterioration, and viable economic development, finding smarter goals for economic activity may well be the moral imperative of our times. Moreover, these challenges have far reaching policy implications for our communities, our state, and our nation across a range of areas.

The project will benefit from and build upon the experience of previous initiatives such as the NC Progress Board, which was created in 1995 by the NC General Assembly under the leadership of then Governor Jim Hunt and former President of UNC, William Friday. Its mission included the development of the “North Carolina Scorecard,” a set of performance indicators assessing “progress toward goals for North Carolina’s long-term prosperity”.

A growing list of states and international organizations (Maryland, Vermont, the EU, the World Bank) have taken on the challenge of finding a set of measures to replace GDP.  Some are experimenting with how these measures can actually inform and guide social and economic policy decisions.

Taking on a leadership role in the rapidly emerging debate of viable economic performance indicators with growing local, national, and international significance could situate the Kenan institutes as a model for cutting-edge interdisciplinary research and educational outreach with potentially wide-ranging policy implications.



After some three decades of serious study on the nature of national economies—the products they make and the incomes they generate—the father of national income accounting, Simon Kuznets, raised some fundamental questions about economic activities.  What was the purpose of the economy?  Whom or what did it serve?

The problem, as Kuznets clearly understood, is that the bottom line as defined by our national accounts matters a lot more than all other considerations. To his growing dismay, direction of economic activity came to be defined by a measure of output.  GDP became the primary metric of success and national welfare.  Considerations about social progress or environmental impacts are secondary, often no more than a function of growth.

That GDP growth is not a sufficient measure of progress or prosperity is well understood by now.  Less well understood is how a single economic metric—GDP—continues to define national and international economic activities. In the words of sustainability entrepreneur Paul Hawken, “At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product.”

In short, Kuznets’ question, “what are we growing, and why,” remains largely unanswered. Today, the combined challenges of sustainability, inequality, and social cohesion require approaches that go beyond the confines of single disciplines. Direction and purpose of tomorrow’s economies requires input from business as well as politics, from the humanities as much as from the natural and social sciences.

What is needed is a broader exploration into viable economic goals – and smart indicators capable of representing such goals. We believe that the quality of this exploration depends on best available knowledge, which, in turn, is a function of bringing together vital expertise and perspectives from across all major disciplines and walks of life.  Above all, young people need to be a significant part of the conversation.

We also believe that the arts can notably contribute to a creative and meaningful dialogue on economic goals and indicators. Inventors, trailblazers, and paradigm shifters are often artists, using the larger canvass of the human experience in order to raise new and more expansive concepts of life.

Rethinking big, fundamental questions requires creativity and discipline, broad conceptual thinking as much as an appreciation for detail and practicality, and above all input from a wide range of different perspectives.

With a clear focus on two central questions, this project serves as an incubator for a variety of possible follow-up projects and initiatives—conceptual and practical, scholarly and political, international and local.  The two central questions are

  1. What are smart goals for future economic activity?
  2. What indicators can be used to guide economic activities toward smart and sustainable development?



  • This project will hold four roundtables on the core questions of the project during the 2015/16 academic year (if you are interested in attending, please contact Dirk Philipsen <
    • November 17, Duke University
    • January 26, University of North Carolina
    • March 1, North Carolina State University
    • April 12, Duke University
  • With the help of a group of undergraduate and graduate students, the project is putting together a comprehensive resource site on alternative goals and metric