We are what we measure.   It's time to measure what we want to be.

Organizing indicators

Just as sustainability is about finding the balance point between a community's economy, environment, and society, developing a set of indicators for a sustainable community requires balancing many different needs within that community. A brainstorming session might produce hundreds of indicators. Deciding how many to keep can be difficult. More is not better. Less is not better. The right number depends on many factors including what type of audience the indicator report will have, how much time is available to research the data, the number of issues involved, and any specific needs of the community.

For example, the US Interagency Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators initially identified 400 possible indicators, which they then reduced to 30. After further discussion they added 10 more, for a total of 40. Feedback from knowledgeable reviewers generally said that 40 was too large a number, although each reviewer then suggested one more to add!

If the indicators will be used by different departments within large organizations, 50 to 100 might make sense. If the indicators are to be used to keep the public informed, a smaller number of 10 to 20 would make more sense. Knowing which ones to keep is more than a matter of evaluating them with a checklist and keeping the highest scores. It is also important that the final set of indicators cover all the issues that are important to the community. Organizing or sorting the indicators in one of several ways can help a community evaluate the effectiveness of the entire set of indicators.

There are four common methods for organizing sustainability indicators. These methods, often called frameworks, are:

  • Category or issue lists based on the main focus of each indicator show whether all aspects of the community (environment, society, and economy) are represented. This method is what you see when you go to our searchable database and use one of the browse options, either by topic or by category.
  • A goal-indicator matrix can show how each indicator relates to many issues or a set of community goals. The matrix shows whether all issues or goals are evenly addressed. This was used by the Alberta Roundtable in their final report.
  • Driving force-state-response tables balance measures of causes or driving forces; measures of the results, or state; and measures of programs and other human activities designed to alter driving forces with the goal of improving the state. This provides a secondary level of analysis mainly for use by policy-makers or decision-makers. This is described in reports by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.
  • Endowments, liabilities, current results, and processes are headings in another table used by the US Interagency Working Group on Sustainable Development Indicators to check for balance among measures of what we are leaving for the future, what we have now, and what is happening to create both situations.

None of these frameworks are the best framework. Different frameworks work well for different purposes. For organizing indicators in a report, a category list is easily understood by many people. The Goal-Indicator matrix is useful for showing whether the indicator set measures all the goals of a community. The Driving Force-State-Response framework shows the connections between human activities and environmental states. The Endowments framework can highlight the longer term aspects of sustainability. What is most important about the framework is that it works well for the intended purpose.