We propose the QSSI as a first example of an indicator that is not based primarily on the measurement of flows. The QSSI combines methods from soft and hard system thinking. The QSSI has roots in our earlier work on the SCENE model and work in progress on the method of qualitative system analysis. By presenting the method for this indicator at an early stage, we want to stimulate the discussion on how sustainability indicators might reflect the whole instead of the parts.
The question is whether the QSSI is a useful addition to the existing set of indicators. The QSSI emphasizes the system properties, is suitable for stakeholder participation, and is able to process more qualitative information than any other sustainability indicator. It focuses on the long-term dynamics of a system by addressing the system structure driving the parts rather than the short-term development of individual parts. The QSSI also integrates the three domains of sustainability through its roots in the SCENE approach. In decision making, the strength of the QSSI lies in its indication of interventions for more than cosmetic sustainability. The QSSI will register only such changes in the system that fundamentally change the ability of the system to sustain itself in the long run.
The models are formulated in such a way that any interested layperson can understand and contest them. The structure of the system therefore is open to discussion, and several versions of the system can be developed in parallel. These different representa tions of the same system make differences of opinion and some of the underlying uncertainties explicit.
Most important, the resulting priorities for sustainability action are easily understood and communicated and quite different from priorities derived from traditional indicator sets. Where a traditional set might point to a loss in biodiversity, the QSSI might point to the trade-off between the building of industrial areas and reserving space for nature (which in turn supports biodiversity as well). In other words, the QSSI points out the problem rather than the symptom.
These advantages come at a cost. A major drawback of the QSSI is its lack of comparability. The QSSI is highly context dependent because the normative judgments of the stakeholders are a crucial element of the QSSI. In addition, the process of deriving the QSSI is costly and requires the commitment of stakeholders. If that commitment is present, the issue of communication is lightened, but the QSSI itself remains difficult to communicate to a broad audience.
Currently, the QSSI is not more than a concept for a new type of sustainability indicator. Much research is still needed in order to develop a sound, solid, and robust sus-tainability indicator. Future research questions must include its relationship to existing indicators, the normativity of the index, its results' robustness, its susceptibility to different perspectives, and questions of scale and system boundaries, the role of stakeholders, the suitability of different frameworks to develop systems from which the QSSI can be calculated, and the potential use in the policy cycle. Potential extensions of the index could help to address some of these issues.
We are confident that the road we have taken will stimulate a fruitful discussion on alternative types of sustainability indicators and that we are progressing toward an indicator that resolves the challenge of reflecting the whole instead of the parts.
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