The EU Social Progress Index 

Story archived: 
The 2024 EU SPI edition is public on 
this site.

1. Introduction

The "Beyond GDP" discussion promotes alternative indicators to better reflect societal development. Indicators and comprehensive metrics of quality of life are key elements for setting objectives, monitoring implementation and benchmarking performances. During the past century, progress was largely reduced to a single figure: the growth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is a single number and easily understandable by the general public, the media and policy-makers. However, using GDP as a measure of progress is an oversimplification. As admitted by its own creator - Simon Kuznets - it can only capture material well-being. It completely neglects social and environmental negative externalities, such as pollution or crime, and fails to measure other important aspects of quality of life, such as health and education.  
The EU-SPI was developed as a measure to contribute to the "Beyond GDP" agenda in the European regional context. It is also designed as a tool to facilitate benchmarking across EU regions on a wide range of criteria helping policymakers and stakeholders to assess a region's strong and weak points on purely social and environmental aspects. Many of these aspects are at the heart of the investment supported by the EU's cohesion policy, whether in the area of basic services (health, education, water and waste), access to information and communication technologies, energy efficiency, education and skills, or pollution.

2. Exploring the components and dimensions of social progress

By excluding economic indicators, the EU-SPI represents a direct metric of social progress, rather than an indirect one through economic proxies, allowing for a clearer analysis of the relationship between economic and social development. Through its twelve components, the EU-SPI assesses not only aggregate levels of social progress but also the strengths and weaknesses of the regions in all its different aspects. Its components are further aggregated into three broader dimensions describing respectively basic, intermediate and more advanced aspects of social progress. 
Similarly to the global Social Progress Index, published yearly by the Social Progress Imperative at the country level worldwide, the assumption behind the index structure is that three nested dimensions - basic, foundation of well-being and opportunity - are necessary to describe social progress.  
Each dimension includes four components describing different aspects of social progress. Components included in the basic dimension are necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve good levels of social development. They can be considered as enablers of societal development. The components forming the foundation dimension go a step further and measure more sophisticated factors of social and environmental progress. The opportunity dimension includes the most subtle components of a cohesive and tolerant society. From a policy point of view, these three dimensions feature different levels of difficulty: it can be easier to achieve good results on the basic aspects of the EU-SPI than to improve societal attitudes and people's trust. Quoting Charles Landry, the inventor of the concept of the creative city, "the soft is the hard".

.... and the indicators of the EU-SPI

The 2020 edition of the EU-SPI includes fifty-five indicators. There is a marked improvement in the reliability of regional estimates with fourteen indicators new to this edition, most of them enriching the opportunity dimension.  
All the EU-SPI scores are calculated based on a 0-100 scale, with 0 meaning the worst performance, 100 the best, ideal performance. This scale is determined by identifying the best and worst global (possible) performance on each indicator by any region in Europe. This type of normalisation allows the EU-SPI scores to benchmark against realistic rather than abstract measures and track absolute, not just relative, performance of the regions on each component of social progress as described by the index
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3. Exploring the EU-SPI 2020 scores

3.1 Mapping the EU-SPI across Europe's regions

Social disparities vary greatly both across regions and across different aspects of social progress. Not surprisingly Nordic countries perform quite well while south-eastern countries lag behind. All top-ten regions are Swedish, Finnish or Danish. The Swedish region of Övre Norrland region is estimated to have the highest level of social progress in the EU, which was also the case in the 2016 version. This most northern Swedish region, with it sparsely populated territory, proved again to be at the cutting edge of social development in Europe. In this regions the synergic effort of businesses, academic and public institutions manages to challenge climatic and geographic conditions such as the cold, dark winters, distance and sparsity to generate inclusiveness, innovation and enterprise.  

Explore the regional EU-SPI performance using the interactive map below.  From the menu on the top right of the map you can change the visualisation from the overall 2020 EU-SPI scores (the default) to one of its three dimensions or a particular component.  Click on a region to see the EU-SPI score and selected statistics

3.2 The unfolding fan 

If we observe how the scores vary from the basic to the opportunity dimension we can see a high variability across countries and, even higher, across different regions within each country. Performance tends to be better on basic human needs, the building blocks of societal well-being. Good levels in basic components can be achieved, for example, by investing more in wastewater treatment and social housing.
The opportunity dimension reveals more variation with some regions performing very well and other quite poorly. This dimension includes more sophisticated aspects of social progress that are harder to improve, such as fighting corruption in public institutions and helping women entering and remaining in the labour market. This is where European decision makers will find the most difficult challenge. Building the basis for an inclusive and cohesive society, where trust and participation in social life are shared values, is slow process but can prove to be the ultimate competitive advantage of a society. The American author and public speaker Stephen Covey claims that trust is “the one thing that changes everything”. He crucially adds that enhancing societal trust not only makes people happier but organisations and societies run more smoothly and, as a consequence, more efficiently.

3.3 Capital regions? Not always the most socially advanced

Capital regions are generally considered as hubs of remarkable agglomeration benefits leading to knowledge exchange through cross-fertilisation and radical innovation. But does living in the national capital ensure greater social progress? The answer is not straightforward. Only in ten cases are the capital city region scores better than the other regions in the country. Notably, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Madrid are not the top performers in their countries. They start making the difference in the opportunity dimension where they score at the top in most countries. This reflects the situation where metropolitan areas offer their citizens more job opportunities, better access to health care and higher education. Urban citizens also tend to develop higher trust in others and a more inclusive view of minorities.

In the figures below countries and their regions are reordered from best to worst according to their national SPI value. Orange dots indicate capital regions. The name of the best region in the country is shown. 

3.4 Compare one country's regions

Use the drop down filters top right in the chart below to deselected/ select a country or deselect/select the EU-SPI, a dimension or a component.      

... with another country's

Use the drop down filters to select another country to compare the EU-SPI, a dimension or component.

3.5 The rounder the better: a closer look into regional performance

If you want to get a further insight on the performance of your region across all the twelve components of the EU-SPI, explore the spider graph across (also called radar chart). 
It allows you to visualise a region's scores across the components of social progress and to compare it with the EU average and /or another region. 
The shape of the spider graph outline is very informative. The wider and rounder the outline radar, the higher and morebalanced the social progress level of your region. The narrower and more irregular, the lower its social level. The key to social progress is a balanced combination of good performances across the various components of the index.  
Below some examples of: 
  • better ranked regions on the EU-SPI (top row): Övre Norrland - Sweden, Helsinki-Uusimaa - Finland and Midtjylland - Denmark;
  • lower ranked regions on the EU-SPI (bottom row): Calabria -Italy, Budapest - Hungary and Yugozapaden, Bulgaria. 
The blue radar represents the EU average. 

3.6 Flipping the point of view

The correlation between GDP per capita and social progress is positive and high (0.62) but GDP cannot be the sole measure of well-being when it comes to quality of life. 
The richest regions are not the top performers on social progress, and similarly the poorest regions are not always the last ones when it comes to social progress. Two scenarios are recognisable: regions achieving similar levels of GDP, but vastly different social progress outcomes and regions achieving similar level of social progress at vastly different levels of GDP. 
Both situations can provide valuable information. 
Identifying regions with similar levels of GDP and different outcomes of social progress and vice versa enables us to identify lessons to learn and to emulate good practices.

If we flip the point of view, we can also observe that high scores in the opportunity dimension tend to be associated with more socially developed societies, with a correlation value of 0.63, proving that Mr Covey may be right.

4. Link with post-2020 cohesion policy objectives

The EU-SPI was developed as a measure to contribute to the ‘Beyond GDP’ agenda in the European regional context. It is also useful as a tool to facilitate benchmarking across EU regions on a wide range of criteria helping policymakers and stakeholders to assess a region's strong and weak points on purely social and environmental aspects. Many of these aspects are at the heart of the investment supported by the EU cohesion policy whether in the area of basic services (health, education, water and waste), access to information and communication technologies, energy efficiency, education and skills, or pollution. Cohesion Policy has set different specific objectives for investment supporting growth for the funding programming period 2021-2027. The table below lists these specific objectives, as they were defined at the time of the publication of this document, and associates them to the different EU-SPI components.

As you can see, most of the index components are linked to one or more cohesion policy specific objectives. The EU-SPI can help policymakers and stakeholders to identify the best policy mix, target resources on the most problematic areas, and fix clear and measurable objectives. With its region’s scorecards and peer region analysis, regions can use the EU-SPI to compare itself to others, to find regions achieving similar level of social progress, and learn from good practices by focusing on each aspect included in the index. In short, the index can help policy makers to fine-tune interventions in regional development programmes.

5. More information

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AUTHORS: Paola ANNONI and Paolo BOLSI (working paper) with John WALSH (data story)
TEXT: December 2020
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