Quizzical Societies: A Closer Look at Sustainability

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Abstract: The functionality of measuring the sustainability of societies is a quizzical concept. The foundation of this manuscript utilises the index of sustainable ...

Quizzical Societies: A Closer Look at Sustainability and Principles of Unlocking Its Measurability Giuseppe Tommaso Cirella, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy Stefan Zerbe, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy Abstract: The functionality of measuring the sustainability of societies is a quizzical concept. The foundation of this manuscript utilises the index of sustainable functionality (ISF) via four key recommendations: (1) uncertainty and sustainability governance, (2) definitional concerns, (3) characterising measurability and natural capital and (4) measuring sustainability toward an indicator-based system. Each development is examined from an appraisal viewpoint, since sustainability measures are complex and subjective. The examination formulates the methodology for the design of a novel ISF model. Reviewed methodological recommendations are to be integrated to better cognise measurability via historical to present-day trends. The research is based on decision-making and learning from state-of-the-art and source deliberation. At length, it is the aspiration of the authors that this work add to the knowledge-base and decrease levels of unsustainable action. Keywords: Sustainability, Index of Sustainable Functionality, Sustainability Governance, Natural Capital, Sustainability Indicators



he functionality of sustainable societies is a pressing notion. One approach to understanding functionality, in this case, is via its measurability. This measurability when looked at through a lens becomes quizzical, or puzzle-like; it superimposes a quizzical concept often referred to as the measurement of sustainability. This measurement is complex and subjective; in order to measure sustainability there should be some definitional understanding of what it means and how it is to be organised. Sustainability has, indeed, become a quintessential example of what is wrong, but at the same time embodies an ultimate practicality since it is literally meaningless unless it can be repaired. As such, it is firmly rooted in the present (Bell & Morse, 2008) and in characterising its measurability one could begin investigating what is required to survive on the planet? Moreover, moving slowly away from this question necessary needs versus unnecessary wants should become clearer. Sustainability is an example of a paradigm recognisable from what some see as the contradictory word to sustainable growth. Paradigms are vital in that they are philosophical and theoretical frameworks within which “theories, laws and generalisations [are derived]” (Bell & Morse, 2008). According to Bell and Morse (2008) the broadest spectrum of the sustainable component within the sustainability paradigm implies, and dates back to the Brundtland Report, that whatever is done now will not detriment future generations (UN, 1987). However, the clearcut definition of sustainability, and what it encompasses varies depending upon “who is using it and in what context” (Bell & Morse, 2008). The quizzical element of this type of research became a worldwide phenomenon with the increase of technological innovation in which most, if not all, societies began to view our planet as Spaceship Earth (Boulding, 1966; Fuller, 1968; Ward, 1966). Boulding (1966) quoted “gradually man has been accustoming himself to the notion of the spherical Earth and a closed sphere of human activity.” This closed sphere concept became ever so evident in the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development where an international cooperative effort to answer these uncertainties came to light. The Brundtland Report, titled Our Common Future, stemmed from this event and originated the classic definition of sustainability. “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the

The International Journal of Science and Society Volume 5, 2014, www.science-society.com, ISSN: 1836-6236 © Common Ground, Giuseppe Tommaso Cirella, Stefan Zerbe, All Rights Reserved Permissions: [email protected]


ability of future generations to their own needs” (UN, 1987). The achievement of sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Report is an all-embracing task for societies. Government, the key institution charged with the achievement of sustainable development, is a complex system; the assignment of a specific task to appropriate sections of government is an important dynamic in the successful completion of those tasks. “Addressing the question of appropriate governmental levels and the division of powers in a wider sense does not necessarily infer exclusive consideration of federal states, that is, a national level of authority. Unitary states are also organised at various administrative levels with some degree of autonomy” (Eser, 2007). Consequently, in practice we are confronted with a continuum between unitary and federal states. Given the broader understanding of government levels, a kind of multi-level government becomes apparent in almost all countries, which can to be further looked into – that is – by finding the appropriate government level for the task at hand (Eser, 2007). Many governments, and societies that are formulated around them, have a vague urgency to undertaking such demands locally, let alone globally. At present, there is much debate over exactly what actions must be taken, in which goals should be baseline and progress should be prudently gauged. There are some schools of thought that consider sustainability as merely an environmental issue (i.e. many green and deep ecology based movements) (Carson, 1962; Naess, 1947); others see it within the scope of ecological economics stating it as an equitable relationship among a triple bottom line (TBL) approach of economic, social and environmental dimensions (Boulding, 1966; Daly & Cobb, 1989); another view is to give more importance to one dimension over another; and lastly based on the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (CEPAL) came about a viewpoint that is based on a relationship between energy and the economic dimension. The CEPAL-based notion considers the economic aspect of sustainability as more important than environmental and social ones, due to the hypothesis that economic growth is indispensable to causing environmental and social improvements (Sheinbaum-Pardo, Ruiz-Mendoza, & Rodríguez-Padilla, 2012). These schools of thought illustrate the primary complication and tangent of dealing with sustainability-based research and relating ideologies. This manuscript provides the results of a review process in which the uncertainties of such ideologies are examined as a preface to developing a novel index of sustainable functionality (ISF) (Imberger, 2005; Imberger et al., 2007). The ISF model, based on a multi-criteria analysis, is to integrate these varying uncertainties into an innovative methodology. At this point, qualitative considerations and parameter fine-tuning appear to be the most appropriate adjustment techniques. This research’s standpoint will delineate key sustainability ideas for a novel ISF formulation and, simply put, will extend only methodological design and not actual model implementation.

Methodology: Designing a Novel ISF As aforementioned in the introduction, there is a huge demand for methodologies that can identify with the primary problem of dealing with sustainability-based research and their interlinking ideologies. A literature and internet search was conducted to identify with varying founding principles related to societal development and associated with, what the authors feel are, key notions of sustainability and principles of unlocking its measurability. Measurability is denoted via Australian-based research from Imberger et al.’s (2007) ISF model and extended concepts from Cirella and Tao (2009). Figure 1 is an adapted version of the ISF framework that exemplifies the systematic process of the approach. The purpose of this manuscript is to review methodological recommendations for a novel ISF model according to Cirella & Tao (2009) and Imberger et al. (2007); in doing so, updated information is to be integrated as knowledge-base into the index to better cognise applicable indicator-based systems and examine measurability via historical to present-day trends. The research has minimal reference to predictive or future-based modelling and the authors’ premise



is to embrace decision-making and policy as key – leaving past events as learning-base for stateof-the-art and source deliberation.

Figure 1: ISF framework. Sources: Adapted from Imberger et al. (2007) and Cirella and Tao (2009). In relation to the ISF model, four key progressive points have been identified; each point is to be methodological integrated, they are as follows: 

Uncertainty and sustainability governance, relates to the precautionary principle and the uncertainties that come about from pathways of why we are where we are and what our carrying capacity as a species is on the planet. Dynamic fluctuations in resource availability must be integrated into a sustainability governance system and key annotations on this problem elaborated. Qualitative remarks from the historical record would most likely suit these research findings. Definitional concerns, notes Daly’s (2006) utility- versus throughput-based ideologies and illustrates the broadened spectrum of sustainability. Measurability, by way of the ISF model, will adapt these definitional viewpoints at the initial stage to assist in corrective inputs. Quantitative and qualitative information will be necessary for more cohesive, accurate and integrative modelling. Characterising measurability and natural capital, reports on the developments of intergenerational equity concerns and conflicts between differing perspectives via constraints and thresholds. A key factor is to assist with indicator selection and help with the development of sustainability communication. Natural capital is an offset topic in which qualitative consideration, via resource productivity, is also to be integrated. Measuring sustainability toward an indicator-based system, reveals the need to optimise data via the use of indices. An indicator-based system can be improved by understanding that there must be a certain level of forethought when dealing with sustainability indicators, as best results can be obtained when they are cross-related via multi-dimensional categories. Values obtained from indicators often do not belong to just one category; in reference to sustainability metrics, the ISF model 31


will seek to adapt a reasonable taxonomy of metrics that are small in number, and as independent of each other as possible. It will reinforce the use of a crossreference matrix and model traditional TBL dimensions. It is not the purpose of this manuscript to illustrate or apply the knowhow of implementing these four points noted for ISF re-modelling; however, suggestive implementation will be hinted upon for research and development purposes. Projected application of the methodology and model, per se, are designed with the aspiration of adding to the knowledge-base to this field of science via better understanding and increasing awareness for sustainable societies.

Uncertainty and Sustainability Governance The first point identified in this study digs back to the 1990s; we can uncover an interesting fact about the impact of sustainability on development within national and international policy: they both have continually risen. Sustainability now plays a core role in government policies, university research projects and corporate strategies. Regardless of the variety of definitions and interpretations, sustainability consistently means “continuity through time” (Cornelissen, van den Berg, Koops, Grossman, & Udo, 2001). As such, sustainability associates continuity to contextdependent environmental, social and economic issues (Cornelissen et al., 2001; Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999). It does not represent the endpoint of a process – rather the process itself. Sustainability implies an ongoing dynamic development, driven by human expectations about future opportunities, and is based on contemporary TBL issues and knowledge. In this context, “sustainability is sustainable development” (Cornelissen et al., 2001) and policy development reflects this viewpoint. One of the fundamental difficulties that has emerged in global environmental governance is the level of uncertainty that occurs in the science, economics and “policy prescriptions of environmental threats and solutions” (Speth & Haas, 2006). Due to scientific uncertainty, the precautionary principle has been amalgamated within several major sustainability conventions of the United Nations and the European Union. The principle asserts that where there are “threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental harm” (Speth & Haas, 2006). This is imperative, as it is a key conception in overlooking preventative anticipation, proportionality of response and burden of proof – vital in sustainability theory. To its end, the precautionary principle applies to scientific uncertainty and risk regulation; it permits regulatory authorities to act or adopt measures in order to avoid, eliminate or reduce risks to health and the environment. The precautionary principle may also compel regulatory authorities to take action, when required, to circumvent exceeding the acceptable level of risk. The basic duty of global environmental governance is “to act cautiously or to err on the side of safety in protecting public health” (Vig & Faure, 2004); this has been a long-standing principle in the legal systems of nearly all major jurisdictions, including those of the United States and the European Union. These two leading industrial populaces have important consequences for global environmental governance and sustainability per se; they offer great hypothetical resolve due to their economic wealth, technological expertise and dedication to environmental security. To facilitate this trend, tools are needed that can both measure and simplify progress towards a broad range of environmental, social and economic ambitions. As such, the selection and interpretation of sustainability indicators has become an integral function of international and national policy in recent years. The academic and policy literature on sustainability indicators has become so abundant that it is often referred to as an industry; however, it is increasingly argued that indicators provide limited benefits to users and large amounts of money and time are allocated in preparing national, state and local indicator reports that recurrently do not go beyond the bookshelf. In part, this is a problem of scale since the majority of existing indicators are based on



a top-down definition of sustainability that is fed by national-level data. This may overlook “critical sustainable development issues at a local level [and] may fail to measure what is important to local communities” (Reed, Fraser, & Dougill, 2006). Since there are more people and economic activity on the planet than ever before, and the environmental consequences of actions, whatever the size, are now more widely felt, threats can be examined from global, national and local perspectives. Each perspective has value and certain consideration at varying levels. Via the global perspective, the health of our planet can be gauged and examined on how well human societies are interacting with the natural world. At the national level, territory is controlled by sovereign nations where key political decisions are dictated. Local level threats are split via the individual and community perspective in which choices about what we buy and what kinds of lives to live are put forth. Local environmental quality is better understood mostly “because we see it, breathe it, work and play in it” (Speth & Haas, 2006).

Governance The capacity for control in our concreteness, our cities and urbanised lifestyles, but also the potential for confusion if the threats are global, make societies alike “seemingly remote and certainly hard to perceive” (Speth & Haas, 2006). In the last few decades, sustainability has assumed a prevalent place in policy discussions. As levels of material wealth increase, so have the prospects for addressing a range of unmet environmental and social issues and the abilities of societies to adapt to adverse impacts. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), governments are facing the complex challenge of trying to find suitable balance between the “competing demands on natural and social resources, without sacrificing economic progress” (OECD, 2001). It is increasingly recognised that this objective cannot be embarked upon from merely a domestic viewpoint, as growing economic sovereignty has shifted priorities in policy from local and national levels to vast regional and global ones. “Economies and societies have become more closely connected, making it difficult, if not impossible, to circumscribe the consequences of policy decisions within national boundaries” (OECD, 2001). Recently, the OECD (2013) proclaimed globalisation has also been driven by international financial flows, which to a better part have augmented at yet a higher pace then trade itself. Even though most of these flows have been between OECD countries, they are continually extending to others. Among these transactions, private financial flows from OECD to developing countries were almost four times larger in 1996 than public ones, and – although declining since – are still nearly double public flows. This critical gap, more than a decade old, dates back to the OECD’s (2001) report, Sustainable Development: Critical Issues, where it states the dysfunctionality, concern and unsustainability of modern societies within the bureaucracies that confine them. As pervasive as these economic links between countries and economic agents are, the increasing interaction of individuals – through travel, migration, information and communication – has accelerated the diffusion of ideas and consumption styles, shaping public attitudes towards global social and environmental conditions. The urgency with which the international community has begun addressing a number of environmental challenges is reflected in several international conventions and treaties; international goals for pollution control, protection of biodiversity and preventing desertification have been established since the Rio Summit in 1992. Unfortunately, these accords often do not mean concrete action to their achievement and lags in implementation translates into a growing gap between goals and outcomes. (OECD, 2001, pp. 13–14) In much of the industrialised world, there is an emerging attitude of pessimism regarding the modernisation of society with disregard for traditional life. The mood can be seen as both severe and regrettable; it is severe due to modification of traditional values and it is regrettable, or



unfortunate, because “it saps popular interest in development and political commitment for its support, [often just as interest is accumulated or as when long-term success may feel unattainable]” (Mehrotra & Jolly, 2000). In fact, the development record over the last three decades indicates widespread human and social progress (OECD, 2013b). Albeit the tragedies and setbacks in situations of conflict, in the least developed countries and more recently in nations of transition like those from socialist to market economies, the “human indicators of development have with few exceptions advanced impressively in all parts of the world, developed and developing” (Mehrotra & Jolly, 2000). This development pessimism is destructive if it prolongs; fortunately, in parallel with this mood in the West, are signs of optimism, selfassurance and strengthened governance in the East. Asia in the last few decades has proved that swift economic progress and human development are achievable. As an example, four countries – China, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand, together total approximately one-quarter of the world’s population – have triumphed rates of economic growth and human development well beyond anything ever experienced even a decade or two ago. Asian performance also far surpasses any expected projections from the 1950s and 1960s when the international effort for development first was initiated (Mehrotra & Jolly, 2000). During the last decade, Chinese development has superseded expectations. Its economy expanded rapidly despite a dire international context; in a long-run perspective, “China has now overtaken the euro area and is on course to become the world’s largest economy around 2016, after allowing for price differences” (OECD, 2013a). This fact alone makes it an admirable candidate for future sustainability research and the like.

Carrying Capacity A key aspect to unlocking the measurability relates to the dynamic fluctuations in the availability of resources, renewable or non-renewable, influenced by TBL sustainability. To date, most environmental problems have come from production and consumption processes; our planet’s capacity to supply various resources tends to be fixed in physical terms, as in the case of nonrenewable resources. Since we live on a planet that also has a finite mass, the availability of resource appropriation, as in some mining metals and groundwater, under proper conjunctive use will not apply. The complexity of source and sink problems as “impediments to ecological sustainability can be better appreciated if we recognise that these impose limitations on the planet’s carrying capacity” (Rao, 2000). Carrying capacity is defined as a population level of an organism that can be supported indefinitely by an ecosystem without destroying that ecosystem (Hart, 2010). Figure 2 illustrates the logistic population curve of an organism in which the population growth stops when its carrying capacity is reached. The debate on human beings’ carry capacity is directly related to sustainability via its measurability.

Figure 2: Logistic population curve. Source: Rao (2000).



Carrying capacity is a dynamic function of various resources, transformation methods and outputs. According to Sayre (2008) and Rao (2000), the roles of human and other disturbances, adaptation and evolutionary mechanisms and technical innovations remain instrumental in the challenging fluxes of carrying capacity. An essential strategic planning and implementation idea that can build upon carrying capacity is the idea of merging sustainable development and nontraditional environmental protection. This aspect has been a central feature in which it distinguishes between environment and environment-and-development. Thus, according to Laffert (2001), dynamic fluctuations in the availability of resources, at a societal scale, should take into consideration four arguments: 1.

2. 3.


Cross-sector integration, both within governing structures of local authorities and external to government in the form of stakeholder mobilisation and cooperative management regimes; Innovative policies for sustainable production and consumption, both locally and with respect to global linkages; Greater awareness on the part of local authorities of the dependency between shortterm economic dispositions and long-term consequences for environment and development; and Broader application within local governance of the principles of resource management and biodiversity.

Sustainability governance, at large must incorporate all of these points as it plays an important role in interlocking more functionality for sustainable societies and debates the uncertainties over human-based carrying capacity.

Definitional Concerns Defining sustainability and sustainable development in operational terms has proved problematic in which no universal consensus has yet emerged (Crabtree & Bayfield, 1998). Focus on the interrelationship between environmental impacts, economic policy and growth – and with the link between sustainable resource use and maintenance – remain key issues (Raskin, Electris, & Rosen, 2010; Goldin & Winters, 1995). We know sustainability is a complex and subjective concept and in order to be measured, it must first be defined before it is in principle useful (HUD, 2011). According to Daly (2006), two conceptual competing definitions of sustainability have been at the forefront of sustainable development research: utility- versus throughput-based. First, utility-based thinking formulates the notion that utility should be sustained; that is, “the utility of future generations is to be non-declining. “The future should be at least as well off as the present in terms of its utility or happiness as experienced by itself” (Daly, 2006). Utility here refers to average per capita utility of members of a generation. Second, physical throughputbased ideology should, like utility, also be sustained; however, it is different in that the entropic physical flow, that is, nature’s services go via the economy and back into nature in a nondeclining cycle. “More exactly, the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain those flows is not to be run down” (Daly, 2006). Natural capital is to be kept intact (Hawken et al., 1999) and the future should be as well off as the present in terms of its access to biophysical resources and services supplied by the ecosystem. Throughput here refers to total throughput flow of the community over some period – that is – the product per capita throughput and population. These two ideologies are completely varying in definition. Utility is a key concept in standard economics – whereas throughput is not; hence, it is no surprise our modernised world favours the utility definition. According to Ott et al. (2010) and Daly (2006), keeping natural capital constant is a strong sustainability perspective, whereas in a weak sustainability perspective the constant is the sum of



natural and human-made capital. Nonetheless, the throughput definition is somewhat better adoptable for two reasons: (1) utility is non-measurable and (2) more importantly, even “if utility were measureable it is still not something that we can bequeath to the future, [as it is an experience not a thing]. We cannot bequeath utility or happiness to future generations, [we can leave them things and to a lesser degree knowledge]” (Daly, 2006). To this end, the definition of sustainability, as a non-declining intergenerational endowment of something that can neither be measured or handed down strikes the argument as a failed viewpoint; it would not, therefore, be a stretch to believe economic theory cannot get along without the concept of utility. Therefore, it is somewhat sound to define sustainability in terms of throughput as it is much more measureable and transferable across generations – that is, “the capacity to generate an entropic throughput from and back to nature” (Daly, 2006). The definitional concerns of sustainability go beyond the simple idea of just jargon – it is rooted to the concept of subsistence and allows for an elementary attempt at understanding its measurability. Formulating recommendations on the performance of sustainability can be done via decision alternatives; it is important for analysts to recognise that applying, for instance, a multi-criteria analysis introduces subjectivity, not only explicitly, through the incorporation of subjective values, but also implicitly, through methodological preferences via a step-by-step approach. For the ISF model, a weighted sum is frequently used to form a comprehensive arbitration on the sustainability performance of decision alternatives; however, this is only one approach from the many multi-criteria methods available. “Each of the methods operationalises different assumptions, which affects their suitability for different problem contexts” (Rowley, Peters, Lundie, & Moore, 2012). Table 1: Sustainability spectrum. Technocentric Cornucopian, anthropocentric and utilitarian

Sustainability labels

Green labels


Type of economy


Accommodating, anthropocentric and utilitarian

Communalist, ecosystems perspective

Deep ecology, bioethical and ecocentric

Very weak



Very strong

Modification of existing structures; surface appearances and minor changes Resource exploitative, growth orientated position Support for traditional ethical reasoning rights and interests of contemporary individual humans instrumental value in nature Anti-green economy; unfettered free market

Some processes change; less tangible problems dealt with

System changes as a whole; examining system as one element Resource preservationist position Further extension of ethical reasoning; collective interests take over individual interests

A cultural change; external as well as internal elements of system altered Extreme preservationist position Acceptance of bioethics; intrinsic value in nature (i.e. valuable in its own right)

Resource conservationist and managerial position Extension of ethical reasoning: caring for others; intra and intergenerational equity; instrumental value in nature

Green economy and Deep green economy; Very deep green green markets guided no economic and economy; heavily by economic population growth regulated to minimise incentives resource-take Sources: Adapted from Davies (2013), Ott et al. (2011), Barr (2008) and Pearce (1993).

Expanding on the definitional relationship between Daly’s (2006) viewpoints and the formulation of a multi-criteria analysis for sustainability measurements, two types of data are available: quantitative and qualitative. First, quantitative methodologies allow quantification and more precise estimation of probabilities and potential negative consequences. A primary advantage of quantitative methodologies is a clear assessment procedure according to the



methodology and quantifiable goals for improvement. Disadvantages of quantitative methodologies, to mention a few, are they are time consuming due to their complexity and data intensive via indicator calculations. Second, qualitative methodologies provide a better understanding of the system performance from initial stages, even before any quantitative information becomes available. Qualitative methodologies are advantageous as they are time efficient, easy to use and orient ideas in a general-sense rather than a detailed accurate evaluation. Disadvantages of qualitative methodologies include a high level of subjectivity and a difficulty to set up goals with clearly defined quantified metrics. Research indicates that the best approach is a combination of both quantitative and qualitative methods (Kinderytė 2010). The ISF model, by default, quantifies the definition of sustainability; Table 1 illustrates a sustainability spectrum (Barr, 2008; Davies, 2013; Ott, Muraca, & Baatz, 2011; Pearce, 1993) in which qualitative integration of definitional concerns cannot be overlooked. Clearly only a quantitative definition of a system-to-perspective viewpoint falls short. With the integration of sustainability labels, and to some degree other parts of Table 1, the ISF model will be significantly improved.

Characterising Measurability and Natural Capital Economic theory characterises sustainability via the use of sustainability criteria, which respectfully, induces two main challenges: intergenerational equity concerns and conflicts between differing perspectives, such as environmental concerns and economic development (Grosskurth & Rotmans, 2007). First, at the intergenerational level, proposed sustainability criteria implies the avoidance of drawbacks from a diminished or reduced utility criterion from future generations resulting in a decreasing in weight; Martinet (2011) refers to this viewpoint as a “dictatorship of the present.” Second, the examination of conflicts between differing perspectives considers all generations with anonymity, and “has been criticised as it often results in a constant utility [which, in turn, is inconsistent with sustainability theory]” (Martinet, 2011). In practice to bypass such an issue, sustainability can be handled by using lists of indicators that reflect several issues, often classified for the sake of simplicity via the three-pillar TBL approach (Nelson & Wilson, 2003). Indicators by themselves are neither policies nor objectives (Shen, Ochoa, Shah, & Zhang, 2011) – they are merely measurements of something (Bell & Morse, 2008; Lawn, 2006). Placing thresholds that can act as constraints on indicators can draw “boundaries within which the economy should stay and defines the minimum standards of the current generation [ought to ratify for future ones]. The use of sustainability indicators by policymakers can be viewed as the bottom-line of sustainability” (Martinet, 2011). The theoretical implications of such practice are the core notion of developing measurability and, potentially, a functional approach to sustainability itself. These two theoretical ideas play an important part in laying out the trade-offs between sustainability thresholds. In Figure 3, constraints on indicators and their associated thresholds can be used to represent varying levels of sustainability. Figure 3a illustrates a convex-concave benefit function in which diminishing marginal returns can be used for utility or productionbased indicator functions; whereas, Figure 3b exemplifies the indicator threshold equivalent in which a sustainability constraint and an indicator threshold are classed between BAD and GOOD state. From a strong sustainability perspective, the use of constraints to represent sustainability is a clear-cut procedure (Ott et al., 2011); “in complex ecological systems, which tend to be discontinuous around some thresholds, strong sustainability constraints may represent the willingness to avoid irreversible outcomes” (Martinet, 2011). From a weak sustainability perspective, the use of constraints is much less apparent, and the use of a convex-concave benefit and damage analysis for functions is favoured. It is interesting to note that the convex-concave benefit function is basically a spinoff of the logistic population curve in that outside the indicator threshold, the constraints or carrying capacity must be met otherwise there is dysfunctionality.



Figure 3: Differentiating illustrations between (Figure 3a) convex-concave benefit function and (Figure 3b) indicator threshold equivalent. Source: Martinet (2011).

Natural Capital Although the focus of sustainability is often the environment, unsustainable development has also resulted in serious social and developmental issues; hence, solutions are needed within a wide range of problems, including: climatic changes and the hole in the ozone layer; extreme poverty, with nearly half of the world living on less than two dollars a day; resource wars; growing water shortages; and inequitable development with more than 80 percent of the world’s population consuming less than a fifth of its resources (Hersh, 2010). These statistics relate to issues of natural capital and it is important as a key mechanism when considering sustainability measurements. Natural capital, as an idea emerged in 1994, in which industry and government needed an overall biological and social framework within which the transformation of commerce could be consummated or practiced. It is the capacity of the ecosystem to yield both a flow of natural resources and a flux of natural services (Ott et al., 2011). A key element of this concept is the idea that the economy shifts from an emphasis on human productivity to a radical increase in resource productivity. This shift would provide more meaningful community-based employment, a better worldwide standard of living to those in need and a dramatic reduction in humankind’s impact upon the environment. So while natural capital has existed in a theoretical framework for almost 20 years (Hawken et al., 1999), the exposition of a shared framework that harnesses the talent of the economic paradigm, like in the CEPAL-based approach, has yet to resolve the most profound environmental or social concerns. Key threats include: environmental degradation, inequitable and inadequate social development and global insecurity – often masked by scarcity (Hersh, 2010). As a backdrop to developing sustainability policy, it is evident that natural capital, via resource productivity, in all regards must be taken into consideration (Döring, 2009); a qualitative approach to measuring such an idea seems most probable. Intergenerational equity concerns and conflicts between differing perspectives is related to natural capital via linking factors of what actually happens to it. This point when integrated into an ISF model will acquaint, or familiarise, the system with better indicator selection and a more rigorous basis for where the system is ranked in terms of sustainability communication (Ott et al., 2011).



Measuring Sustainability toward an Indicator-Based System In order to evaluate the sustainability of a system, optimal account includes time, scale and domain; a measure of sustainability should represent changes in the system that are relevant in the long-term – counted in decades and up to approximately half century. It should reflect developments within the system and trade-offs to systems on other scaled levels. Similar to the ideas stated by Kinderytė (2010), quantitative indicators prove useful in communicating the urgency of key issues in participatory settings. However, duplicate information can often causes confusion and frustration when the goal of information extends beyond raising awareness to include the development of policy options for improvements. For this reason, Grosskurth and Rotmans (2007) have proposed that if sustainable development is interpreted as a balanced longterm development of a TBL sustainability process, “then development of one part of the system toward a desirable state should not occur structurally at the cost of developments elsewhere in the system [as] this would compromise its continuity and functionality.” Table 2: Examples of sustainability-based indices based on data type. Data type

Quantitative methodology

Qualitative methodology

Index for sustainable economic welfare (Daly & Cobb, 1989)

Assessing the sustainability of societal initiatives and proposing agendas for change (Devuyst, 1999) Gross national happiness (Royal Government of Bhutan, 1999) Significance and sustainability model (Gibson et al., 2001) Quality-of-life index (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2005) Happy planet index (New Economics Foundation, 2006)

Ecological footprint (Rees, 1992) Genuine progress indicator (Redefining Progress, 1995) Millennium development goals (UN, 2000) Environmental performance index (preceded from the Environmental sustainability index) (Esty, Levy, Srebotnjak, & de Sherbinin, 2005) Living planet index (WWF, 2005) Index of sustainable functionality (Imberger et al., 2007) n-bottom line sustainability concept and performance approach (Foliente, Kearns, Maheepala, Bai, & Barnett, 2007) Human development report (preceded from the 1990 Human development index) (UNDP, 2010)

Global peace index (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2007) Sustainable project appraisal routine (Arup, 2008) Structured analytical process for assessing measured sustainability (IUCN, 2008)

In such, they propose the Qualitative System Sustainability Index (QSSI) as an indicator for the degree to which the system structure causes such compromise. The QSSI consists of two layers of information: an index (i.e. a single number that summarises the information contained in the underlying system) and the body of information (i.e. a model in matrix or more commonly a list of indicators) (Grosskurth & Rotmans, 2007). Aggregated indicators use indices to model varying forms of quantitative and qualitative methodologies; some noteworthy examples are shown in Table 2. It is clear that social progress, production and consumption are important for human wellbeing. It has been pointed out that scoring systems, including aspects of TBL practices, have problems in which choice of components and assigned weight are subjective and aggregation of



different dimensions is often not meaningful (Foliente et al., 2007). Observation is important and more criticism can be directed against the construction of sustainability indicators, for example within communities that have safeguards against environmental, social and economic aspects of human activities. According to Hueting and Reijnders (2004) criticism concerns three problematic indicators: 1.



The requirement of a positive relation between proposed constitutive elements of the indicator and environmental sustainability, understood as a sustainable production level; Its construction of sustainability indicators on the basis of world views, that is, the United Nations system of national accounts (UNSNA) versus the three-pillar approach (UNSD, 2014); and Conflicting goals, which relates to our physical environment and the notion of inevitable sacrifice of either sustainability or production level.

The use of sustainability indicators for measuring sustainability unlocks the notion of industry indicators and poses another challenge of where this industry is headed.

Indicators: Two Key Examples Indicators are the ideal means by which progress can be examined and monitored; they provide a summary of conditions, rather like temperature and blood pressure used to measure human health. [An expanded definition of an indicator is] a characteristic of the status and dynamic behaviour of the system concerned. Or equivalently: an indicator is a one-dimensional systems description, which may consist of a single variation or set of variables. The characteristic of the system that we are most interested in is its ability to sustain itself in the long run in a desired state or on a desired trajectory; a system with that ability is sustainable. (Grosskurth & Rotmans, 2007, p. 177) One important example of where indicators have been used for many years is within economics; they have been used to explain economic trends – two typical examples are gross domestic product and UNSNA of a country. Fairly recently there has been an effort to introduce and determine the sustainability of environmental systems as required by Agenda 21 dating back to the 1992 Earth Summit (Fernández-Sánchez & Rodríguez-López, 2010). Most indicator initiatives have been aimed at providing information at a national level for state-of-theenvironment reporting or for answering specific policy questions at national and international levels (Walmsley, Carden, Revenga, Sagona, & Smith, 2001). A second example is in measuring performance, but more specifically, in the process of urban sustainability assessment. Several approaches to assess urban sustainability, based on indicators, have been developed. The methodological foundations of various assessment methods propose a classification, which divides them into three diverse groups: biophysical, system engineering and monetary evaluation (Shen et al., 2011). Such an approach is group specific and culturally urban-centric. This relates to some emerging viewpoints where sustainable development in both the urban planning and construction of projects have become fact; hence, needed methodologies via novel tools and techniques will only broaden the science and knowledge-base towards a better indicator-based system of sustainability measures. The key inclusion from this point is that models must be area specific and flexible to change, as a onemodel-fits-all approach does not seem pragmatic. The ISF model already partially assimilates this concept into its design and further adjustments to the broadening of this point, at the framework-level, will be incorporated.



Value of Sustainability Indicators Indicators have produced a huge number of local projects that have focused on designing sets of sustainability indicators; mostly however, when these projects end the indicators are shelved and forgotten. Usually they are neither updated or reused; often they have a limited understanding of the local context and relationships between experts and laypersons are weakly developed (Mickwitz & Melanen, 2009). The direct use of data and information produced by academics, and consultants alike, is often much smaller than expected. “This insight has resulted in extensive research into how information is produced, how it is actually used,” (Mickwitz & Melanen, 2009) and which features are fundamental in terms of advantages and limitations of different data types. Developing indicators cannot be a purely technical or scientific process; instead, it should be an open interactive practice and policy-based. Public participation, at some level, is one of the principal components for designing and implementing sustainability indicator sets. “The importance of participatory approaches becomes more evident on a regional and local scale, where the distances between communities, experts, decision-makers and stakeholders overall are smaller and the interaction can be simpler and more effective” (Ramos, 2009). Additionally, at lower levels stakeholders have an important practical knowledge and particular sensitivity to where strengths, opportunities, pressures and risks of their territory are concerned (Ramos, 2009; Rogers, Jalal, & Boyd, 2007). There are two main reasons why the use of regional sustainability indicators are important. First, many resources are invested in developing such indicators and therefore there is a need to know which factors affect their utilisation in order to avoid wasting them. Second, there is a multi-level governance dilemma; “local and regional levels are essential for [sustainability], since only at this level can specific environmental and social context be taken into account. If the development of regions is to become more sustainable, information on different aspects of sustainable development are required and regional sustainability indicators could provide such information [if they are used]” (Mickwitz & Melanen, 2009). Thus, it is essential when measuring sustainability indicators that communication (Ott et al., 2011) and policy development both play a role. Indicators, thus signal a condition, for a decision to be taken, to give an early warning or to show the results of a certain action or process. They can be designed to control conditions that have been set up for the achievement of a certain objective, or conversely, they can be used to adopt an action based on the information they provide. These two concepts are (1) top-down approach, where indicators are selected according to the goal, and (2) bottom-up approach, whereby indicators condition the goal. Top-down is related to where policy-makers decide on their goals and what indicators they will use to gauge a progress. Bottom-up is grassroots information utilised to determine the status of something and to select the indicators to measure it, to gauge variations and perhaps to limit the scope of the goal (Munier, 2009). Values obtained from indicators seldom belong to just one category; from the point of view of sustainability, it is necessary to have as simple as possible a value relating to all the areas involved, that is, an integration of indicators. Obviously, nobody can pretend that a single number can adequately express the often-complex relationships between TBL dimensions. For this reason, values given by indicators must be treated with a certain level of awareness, and must always be cross-related with other data. This is why the development of indices can help – in which a final number is aggregated or combination with several indicator values give a general idea, or trend, of what is occurring. In addition, indicators can help in making rational policy centred on predicted or observed impacts. “Hidden behind the calculations are very important, and often debatable, value judgements. There is no simple conversion factor to the economic cost of, for example, smog or air pollution to society” (Rogers et al., 2007). Hence, is it possible to objectively quantify the quality of our environment and the impact that our actions have on environmental quality? A



question that asks if we are working toward sustainability and if the chosen indicators and metrics are accurate, then the targeted solution should be made clearer. In reference to the ISF model, sustainability metrics should be small in number, and as independent of each other as possible, even though no consensus or consolidation exists on a reasonable taxonomy of metrics. When such an agreement is reached, the need would be to find ways of consolidating the metrics, probably into TBL aggregates, which will provide a quantitative and, potentially, strong qualitative measure (IChemE, 2003). These concepts reinforce the use of indices as a measuring stick; correspondingly, the ISF model utilises a cross-reference matrix in which values of sustainability indicators are tested against varying TBL dimensions. The argument of measuring sustainability by using an indicator-based system, though limited, is still by in large sound science.

Conclusion The academic world is actively realising that in many sustainability-based initiatives it can play a prominent role by providing credibility and scientific and technical support. It can also contribute to increasing public participation by helping to generate consensus and commitment across member parties (Ramos, 2009). The challenges of the scientific community to develop sustainability indicators that measure the functionality of system processes best represent the capacity for ISF development. Indicators that reflect the whole and not just the parts should highlight problems rather than just symptoms (Grosskurth & Rotmans, 2007). The value of these indicators, assessed by policy-makers, with reference to a single sustainability scenario vows toward some sort of partisanship in the political arena over sustainability (Lawn, 2006). It is clear that the value of sustainability covers a vast array within science and society – it is this collection of uncertainties and ideologies in which the development of a novel methodology will aid in the ISF re-modelling. The four key progressive points in this manuscript pose a challenging task for criteria re-design and future implementation, but ultimately, the ambitious goal of betterment within societies alike is fundamental. Future research will look at the implementation and application process of this novel approach.

Acknowledgement This research is in collaboration with the Sustainable Water Management and Wetland Restoration in Settlements of Continental-Arid Central Asia (SuWaRest) Project; funding is on behalf of the Kurt Eberhard Bode Foundation within the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft.



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ABOUT THE AUTHORS Giuseppe Tommaso Cirella: Research Scientist, Faculty of Science and Technology, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy Stefan Zerbe: Professor, Faculty of Science and Technology, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy