Can we agree that it is one thing when the NGOs, the on-the-ground community groups, the warm-and-fuzzy progressives say that making economic growth the be-all and end-all measure for how Nova Scotia is doing is just plain wrong?
But when the show-me-the-money chambers of commerce start talking about the economic importance of quality of life, when the folks running the regional economic networks bring up things like community and connectedness as a way to make a place prosperous — well, at that point, Danny Graham says, you know that you are onto something.
“It feels like the business community in Nova Scotia recognizes this is a potential differentiator to attracting and keeping young people, and to attracting investments,” says the man who carries the lofty title of chief engagement officer of Engage Nova Scotia.
His organization was created to get ordinary Nova Scotians thinking about ways to address the sweeping problems laid out in Ray Ivany’s Now Or Never report.
By “this” he means emphasizing things that broadly improve life rather than just swell the tax coffers.
That this idea’s time has come is hopeful news for Nova Scotia, a place with an economy that seldom flourishes, but which, nonetheless, exerts a magnetic pull on people even if they can’t quite articulate why.
History, for once, seems on our side.
In the last few years, as Graham points out, there’s been recognition locally, nationally and internationally, of the limits of leaving everything up to Adam Smith’s market-driven invisible hand.
Three years ago, when Engage hired Corporate Research Associates to ask Nova Scotians how we should measure our province’s success, a higher percentage of them came out fervently in favour of an improved quality of life than of pursuing economic growth.
Armed with this information, Engage has been working to quantify such notions as “happiness” and “quality of life” as complements to the traditional economic indicators, to provide what Graham calls “a more complete reflection of what Nova Scotians value.”
And, if the right people jump onside, eventually a way to move ahead.
“It is a narrative, in a sense, about who we are as people and as Nova Scotians,” he says of the organization’s new Nova Scotia Quality of Life Index, “and how we can make the best life we can for everybody.”
Click on the Engage Nova Scotia website as of Tuesday and read all about it.
The index, which is modelled on the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and builds upon earlier work by GPI Atlantic, measures a mess of data in a variety of quality of life “domains,” which are based on such easy-to-grasp concepts as education, health and the standard of living, and more complex notions such as democratic engagement and community vitality.
It shows where we lag by the quality of life barometer: Our housing is too expensive; the disparities between the well off and struggling, as they are everywhere in this continent, are too wide.
But what excites Graham, a self-professed policy nerd, about the report and its underlying message is the same thing that, in my low-brow way, excites me: It highlights some of our natural advantages.
“If people come together around this idea (that improving quality of life matters), it could be a differentiator for us,” he says, bringing up that term for the third or fourth time in our conversation.
Then he proceeds to illustrate.
Take millennials, for instance.
Research shows that although this group, born between 1981 and 1996, is looking for a variety of things when they move somewhere, a great work-life balance is high on their list.
Nova Scotia’s short commutes, flexible work hours and generally balanced lifestyle, which the report groups together under “time balance,” is 3.5 times better than it is for most Canadians.
This “creates its own natural attraction,” for these young smart folk, says Graham.
So does a sense of community.
Graham points to research by John Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia, showing that the farther east a Canadian lives the happier they become.
Even more relevant to this column is another discovery by Helliwell: Rural people are happier than urban folk.
At the heart of that fact is something undeniable: What makes people enjoy their days is being part of a vital community, where it is possible to have strong and positive relationships with others.
Engage Nova Scotia’s research shows that almost three-quarters of Nova Scotians have a strong sense of belonging to their communities, versus 66 per cent for Canada as a whole.
We can’t ignore the demographic or economic challenges, Graham says.
But Engage’s new index, plus reams of other research, underscores the importance of building social cohesion and trust within our communities and ensuring that our villages and towns are vital places where human relationships are paramount.
“Over time,” Graham says, “it is nice to imagine that we remain a place of, I don’t know whether to say sanity or sanctuary.”
That should count for something in the days ahead, shouldn’t it?