Assessing the intangible; parallel challenges in evaluating culture and nature

Picture of the bottom of a signpost at Tafwyl, with people and stands blurred in the background

This article was written by Afallen Partner David Clubb, and first published in February 2023 by the Design Commission for Wales, in their 20-year anniversary publication.

Culture has a uniquely defined place within Wales’ statute, being defined as one of the Well-being Goals within the Well-being of Future Generations Act [1]:

A Wales of Vibrant Culture and Thriving Welsh Language: A society that promotes and protects culture, heritage and the Welsh language, and which encourages people to participate in the arts, and sports and recreation [2]

Nature is also embedded within the same legislation, although somewhat more nuanced; I read the two goals of a Resilient Wales and a Globally Responsible Wales as having significant weight for the protection and enhancement of our natural environment. 

Both culture and nature are interconnected with every other Future Generations Goal. Enhancing both improves the ability of Wales to achieve the ultimate goal of well-being for all our citizens. 

So far, so positive. However, the difficulty with policy is, as usual, in the implementation. Although public sector bodies are obliged to report on their progress against sustainable development and the Well-being Objectives [3] there are doubtless numerous challenges in undertaking this assessment, not least because some things, such as the value of culture and nature, are so hard to quantify.

The Well-being of Future Generations guidance gives a potential ‘loophole’ for those public bodies that are unable to – say – achieve significant progress in promoting culture and nature, because the requirement to take  ‘all reasonable steps’ to deliver progress is a fairly subjective approach. An entirely legitimate strategy to deliver against public sector obligations could therefore include strong progress against ‘hard’ goals or objectives such as ‘prosperity’, ‘equality’ or ‘health’, all of which can be measured to a reasonably objective standard; and less progress against more challenging goals such as culture.

I make this point for purely illustrative purposes; I have no reason to believe that any public sector body in Wales takes a cynical approach to their obligations. However I think the illustration is useful because it highlights that the ‘measurability’ of objectives or goals is also a lever with which progress can be mandated. Galileo Galilei’s aphorism of five hundred years ago is still relevant today:

“Measure what is measurable; make measurable what is not so”. 

Culture is hard to define and considerably harder to measure. Building on the thoughts of others, and in particular on UNESCO definitions [5], I have created a mind map that attempts to contain cultural sectors that could – in principle – be valued to help us understand impact.

The Cultural economy as defined by Afallen. Note that this economic sector is just one component of a ‘five economies’ model that we are developing that includes a Just economy, a Foundational economy, a Planetary Health economy and a Well-being economy. The well-being indicators [6] are highlighted in yellow; the Welsh TOMs [7] components are highlighted in purple.

Even with the work of reputable organisations that try to support the valuation of socially valuable contributions, such as the National Social Value Framework for Wales [7], very few of the cultural components within our cultural economy mind map have a monetary value associated with them.

This is despite the fact that, as with nature, culture provides extraordinary benefits to health and well-being that far exceed the investment needed to allow culture to flourish.

An example particularly pertinent to Wales is the value of the Welsh language. Derided for centuries as an irrelevance or worse by some, the Welsh language is now being rightly cherished as a wonderful community and social asset in its own right. Furthermore there is now a mountain of peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating that bilingualism offers a whole host of benefits to health, educational attainment and well-being.

A systems map demonstrating some of the benefits of the Welsh language to a range of socio-economic and well-being outcomes [8]

If it’s true that bilingualism offers so many benefits, how can we evidence this in a way that increases the perceived value of the Welsh language to public and private sector organisations in Wales. And the bigger question; if some of these benefits also arise for other cultural aspects, how can the cultural sector as a whole improve the evidence base for outcomes that benefit every one of us? For example, how can we ‘reward’ culture and society for playing a crucial role in mitigating the loneliness and isolation that occurred during the pandemic lockdowns? How do we value the interventions that reduce the future burden of mental health on our health services and on society more generally?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do have some ideas about things that may help guide us.

  1. Carry out a project to collate the peer-reviewed evidence on the benefits of bilingualism, and to try to develop a metric for assessing the value of different interventions to support or facilitate the use of Welsh language. This could be done in partnership with established ‘social value’ organisations, or as a stand-alone 
  2. Take the latest evidence from international bodies such as the G20 [9], UNESCO [10] and the OECD [11] that carry out work to examine the accounting of cultural value, and use the best international practices in cultural accounting to supplement existing frameworks in Wales
  3. Incorporate the outcomes of the above two projects into the Future Generations guidance to support public sector bodies in understanding and appropriately valuing their contributions to culture, and therefore wider society, economy and well-being

In a previous life, I worked at the European Environment Agency, an organisation which helped translate science into policy. I was part of a fierce internal debate about the merits of trying to assign a value to nature and ecosystem services, and at the time I was convinced that we needed to engage with the world of ‘accounting’ (in its most general sense) in order to make the case for valuing nature more highly. 

Notwithstanding that myself and a colleague were able to demonstrate the staggeringly powerful impacts of the Montreal Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as showing the terrible price paid for the use of lead in petrol [12], I now believe that I was wrong. Attempting to value nature, and ecosystem services, feels as though it is a trap laid by an extractive system that attempts to create a framework of worth against which everything can be bought and sold.

But the value of a tree, a woodland, a river, an ant colony; these things have intrinsic worth, and the myriad of inter-relationships between them and the rest of the ecosystem (and hence to human society) are truly impossible to calculate. We know that experiencing nature, even in the most ephemeral ways, improves physical and mental well-being [13] [14], so there must be an ‘in principle’ metric that enables us to value the reduced need for medical intervention, that would enable us to argue more effectively for increased green space. 

My contention is that, due to an inefficient understanding or methodological approach, we will always be playing ‘catch up’ on the valuation of our natural resources. This raises the risk of ‘playing the game’ of an accounting system that systematically undervalues nature, so that decisions continue to be made that jeopardise Wales’ ability to provide well-being to its citizens.. 


I think the same argument can be made about attempts to assess the economic value of culture. In doing so, we run the risk of reducing the argument for a strong and thriving cultural sector to a game of numbers, where winners and losers are apportioned according to their ability to navigate different accounting systems.

And yet; decisions are made within frameworks that use accounting to apportion effort and resource. If we resile from making arguments within those institutions and frameworks, we might obtain outcomes that are not conducive to creating the conditions that allow a flourishing of both culture and nature.

I can see the inherent contradictions in wanting to value the intangibles such as wonder, companionship, and fulfilment that arise from participation in culture or nature, but for now I can see no way out of the conundrum.

Perhaps by travelling a little further down the road of seeking to assess and account for these things, we can develop our understanding and make new connections between groups, communities and concepts that will strengthen society’s appreciation of culture and nature.

Nature provides every single one of our most basic human needs; food, shelter, water and air. It provides incalculable joy and wonder. Culture elevates us as thinking, caring beings of community, providing cohesion and enabling us to communicate and coordinate in mind-bogglingly sophisticated ways. In our quest to ascribe value, we must never lose sight of the intangible.

Bibliography

[1] ‘The Well-being of Future Generations’, GOV.WALES. https://gov.wales/well-being-of-future-generations-wales (accessed Apr. 15, 2022).

[2] ‘A Wales of Vibrant Culture and Thriving Welsh Language – The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales’. https://www.futuregenerations.wales/a-wales-of-vibrant-culture-and-thriving-welsh-language/ (accessed Apr. 15, 2022).

[3] ‘Well-being of future generations: public bodies guidance’, GOV.WALES. https://gov.wales/well-being-future-generations-public-bodies-guidance (accessed Apr. 15, 2022).

[4] D. C. Cone and L. W. Gerson, ‘Measuring the Measurable: A Commentary on Impact Factor’, Acad. Emerg. Med., vol. 19, no. 11, pp. 1297–1299, 2012, doi: 10.1111/acem.12003.

[5] ‘Measuring the economic contribution of cultural industries: a review and assessment of current methodological approaches – UNESCO Digital Library’. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000218251 (accessed Apr. 15, 2022).

[6] ‘Wellbeing of Wales: national indicators’, GOV.WALES. https://gov.wales/wellbeing-wales-national-indicators (accessed Apr. 15, 2022).

[7] ‘National TOMs: Wales’, National Social Value Taskforce. https://www.nationalsocialvaluetaskforce.org/national-toms-wales (accessed May 09, 2021).

[8] D. Clubb, ‘Systems approach to Welsh language’, Kumu, Apr. 06, 2021. https://kumu.io/davidafallen/systems-approach-to-welsh-language (accessed Apr. 16, 2022).

[9] ‘Rome Declaration of the G20 Ministers of Culture’. http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2021/210730-culture.html (accessed Apr. 16, 2022).

[10] ‘Culture Satellite Account’, Oct. 09, 2018. http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/culture-satellite-account (accessed Apr. 16, 2022).

[11] ‘Project on the International Measurement of Culture – OECD’. https://www.oecd.org/sdd/na/projectontheinternationalmeasurementofculture.htm (accessed Apr. 16, 2022).

[12] ‘Late lessons II Chapter 23 – Understanding and accounting for the costs of inaction — European Environment Agency’. https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/late-lessons-2/late-lessons-chapters/late-lessons-ii-chapter-23/view (accessed Apr. 15, 2022).

[13] M. Richardson, H.-A. Passmore, R. Lumber, R. Thomas, and A. Hunt, ‘Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship’, Int. J. Wellbeing, vol. 11, no. 1, Art. no. 1, Jan. 2021, doi: 10.5502/ijw.v11i1.1267.

[14] ‘Green space, mental wellbeing and sustainable communities – Public health matters’. https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2016/11/09/green-space-mental-wellbeing-and-sustainable-communities/ (accessed Feb. 25, 2020).