Measuring and Acting on Sustainability: Where Are We Now and What’s Next?

The Toronto 2013 Meeting of the Minds featured a number of sessions on sustainability including how to measure it.  Cities around the world are pursuing their goals for a sustainable future through a variety of projects, programs, policies and plans. There is clearly great momentum and interest in pursuing sustainability goals.  The challenge comes in maximizing the impact these activities have on making a more sustainable environmental, social, and economical community.

Measuring sustainability is far from easy – it is an inherently complex subject. Many actions and desired changes fall under a “sustainability banner” and are long-term, constantly changing, and often influenced by factors beyond the control of any one community. Communities around the world are struggling with how to measure sustainability and act on the information they obtain. Here are some key questions and potential opportunities for moving forward in the realm of measuring sustainability.

Why Do We Measure Sustainability?  Ideally, measuring sustainability will inform better decisions that lead to better sustainability outcomes. Given that “what gets measured gets managed”, measuring sustainability is one important way to generate urgency and attention to a portfolio of important issues. 

Do Sustainability Measurement Frameworks Currently Exist?   There is a plethora of measurement frameworks with different content, focus and levels of generality in the sustainability field. In fact, it is hard these days to find groups who are not working on sustainability indicators and metrics. Canada, the US and the EU all have a number of frameworks, ranging from specific indicator sets related to greenhouse gas reduction to broader sets targeted at the sustainability of cities, metropolitan regions and transportation systems. One effort at the Meeting of Minds conference was to seek an ISO international standards framework for sustainability. Clearly there are many different strands to the sustainability metrics agenda.

Does Everybody Use These Frameworks?   In a nutshell, no. At the local level, many of these frameworks do not fit. Communities need sustainability indicators that give a good sense of what is working well in a community and where efforts and resources may need to be re-directed. Indicators also need to be effective communication tools – to Council, the public, media, and key stakeholders. Few communities have the resources for the time-intensive collection of new data and need to cater to the interests of their residents. This often leads to cherry-picking indicators that meet criteria such as what information is already being collected, and what will resonate best with the general public. Coming with a set of indicators that are a good fit for a community and for its needs is a core challenge.

Why is the Proliferation of Sustainability Metrics Systems a Concern?  With a variety of different systems, we are left comparing “apples” to “oranges” across cities and regions, making it difficult to get a broad sense of how bigger geographical regions and nations are progressing in sustainability.  At a local level, it is very costly and time consuming for a community to start a system from scratch and re-invent the wheel to devise their own sustainability metrics. Frankly, if a lot of energy is expended in developing a set of indicators there is a danger that the framework may not last enough to guide meaningful action over time.

What is a Way Forward for Measuring Sustainability?  North American communities, never mind the global network of communities, vary greatly along many dimensions. What is relevant to a large city on the East Coast may not be of such a great concern to a small prairie town. Since we measure what is important to us, indicator frameworks need to be able to respond to circumstances in each community.  So what are some potential opportunities for moving forward with this challenge?

Way Forward: Pairing Core with Custom Metrics. Diversity does not need to lead to a “tower of babel” of incomparable, competing metrics. It is possible to bridge the divide between ‘every community is unique’ and ‘every community shares commonalities with others’. We should consider and act on the possibility of developing and using a core metrics that every community – rural or urban – can measure and compare in addition to a set of optional “drop-down” choices for addressing the more unique aspects of a community.

Way Forward Pairing Quantitative with Qualitative. It is debatable whether “sustainability success” can be measured solely through quantitative indicators. Becoming more sustainable involves other hard-to-measures changes in areas such as decision-making processes, relationships, networks, and the perceptions of what sustainability is. Pairing sustainability metrics with an exploration of qualitative change can provide a more comprehensive understanding of progress in sustainability.  For example, communities can do annual polls with residents on ‘what does sustainability mean to you?’ and compare responses over time, looking for increases in public knowledge and awareness. With the advance of social media these types of polls can be done relatively easily and at low-cost using on-line approaches.

More Conversation Needed. While predicting the future for measuring sustainability is all but impossible, engaging in conversation on this journey is a good start.  A vigorous learning community of practitioners developing and using sustainability metrics has already emerged – a perfect opportunity to explore the use of a common indicator framework supplemented by locally attuned custom metrics and qualitative approaches. If we are to measure sustainability to better inform decisions that lead to better sustainability outcomes, it is worth the time and effort to move ahead.

About the Authors :

Lyle WrayLyle Wray serves as Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments based in Hartford, Connecticut. He has served in state and local governments and as director of a nonpartisan think tank based in Minnesota.

Sandra ZnajdaDr. Sandra Znajda is an Independent Consultant with over 14 years of applied research, evaluation, and communication experience in the areas of social and environmental sustainability. She is currently part of a cross-sectoral research partnership, including Brock University, Lura Consulting, and four municipal governments, to explore how to address current challenges in assessing sustainability in the Canadian context.


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