Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development

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Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development
Donella Meadows
The Sustainability Institute, Balaton Group




Chapter 1: The nature of indicators, the importance ofindicators

Indicators are natural, everywhere, part of everyone’s life. Indicators arise from values (we measure what we care about), and they create values (we care about what we measure). When indicators are poorly chosen, they can cause serious malfunctions. Indicators are often poorly chosen. The choice and use of indicators are processes full of pitfalls. The choice of indicators is a critical determinant of the behavior of a system.

Chapter 2: Indicators, models,cultures, worldviews

Indicators are partial reflections of reality, based on uncertain and imperfect models. We need many indicators because we have many different purposes — but there may be over-arching purposes that transcend nations and cultures, and therefore there may be overarching indicators. We need many indicators because we have many worldviews — but indicators may help narrow the differences between worldviews. Indicators need not be purely objective, and in fact few of them are. Despite their difficulties and uncertainties, we can’t manage without indicators. The search for indicators is evolutionary. The necessary process is one of learning.

Chapter 3: Why indicators of sustainable development?

Development and sustainability are old problems; now they come together on a global scale and in an urgent time frame. Sustainability indicators must be more than environmental indicators; they must be about time and/or thresholds. Development indicators should be more than growth indicators; they should be about efficiency, sufficiency, equity, and quality of life.

Chapter 4: The challenge of coming up with good indicators

It’s easy enough to list the characteristics of ideal indicators. It’s not so easy to find indicators that actually meet these ideal characteristics. Most of us already have indicators in the backs of our minds, “beloved indicators” that reflect issues of great concern to us. It’s important to get them out on the table. Indicators can take many forms. They don’t have to be numbers. They can be signs, symbols, pictures, colors. What is needed to inform sustainable development is not just indicators, but a coherent information system from which indicators can be derived.

Chapter 5: Suggestions for indicator process and linkage

Hierarchy: coherence up and down the information system The information system should be organized into hierarchies of increasing scale and decreasing specificity. Information from the hierarchy at all levels should be available to people at all levels. Information should also come from all levels. The public can be important contributors to, as well as users of information and indicators.

Chapter 6: A suggested framework for sustainable development indicators

The hierarchy from ultimate means to ultimate ends The “Daly Triangle,” which relates natural wealth to ultimate human purpose through technology, economy, politics, and ethics, provides a simple integrating framework. Sustainable development is a call to expand the economic calculus to include the top (development) and the bottom (sustainability) of the triangle. The three most basic aggregate measures of sustainable development are the sufficiency with which ultimate ends are realized for all people, the efficiency with which ultimate means are translated into ultimate ends, and the sustainability of use of ultimate means. Extending the definition of capital to natural, human, and social capital could provide an easily understood base for calculating and integrating the Daly triangle.

Chapter 7: Sample indicators

Chapter 8: Implementing, monitoring, testing, evaluating, and improving indicators

Indicators don’t guarantee results. But results are impossible without proper indicators. And proper indicators, in themselves, can produce results. Indicator measurement can be a costly, bureaucratic process. But it can also be relatively simple. There may be clever ways to measure indicators that don’t even require numbers or disturbing the system in any way. The process of finding, implementing, and improving sustainable development indicators will not be done right at first. Nevertheless it is urgent to begin.


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Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development



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