Developing indicators for sustainable development entails a series of methodological trade-offs at many different levels during the process of defining, constructing, and communicating indicators. Defining a consistent yet useful framework of hierarchically interlinked levels of data, indicators, and indices is the first step toward developing unambiguous indicators for decision making. In the context of trade-offs between technical feasibility, societal usability, and systemic consistency, aggregation techniques should be considered one way to reconcile form and function of indicators.
The robustness of the methodological choices being made should be scrutinized. In this respect, indicators can be assessed with five quality criteria: purpose, measurability, representativeness, feasibility and reliability, and communicability. Again, no indicator can be perfect on all five criteria. However, in order to develop into useful and robust decision-making tools, indicators should not lack any of these basic qualities.
Methodological challenges in indicator development extend beyond the mere technical data-determined issues to the need for policy relevance. If we want to prevent indicators for sustainable development from being confined to sterile expert and stakeholder discussions (and eventually to fall into oblivion, as did the social indicator movement of the 1970s), we must continue to improve our understanding of the impact of indicators on decision making at the level of a society. The effective monitoring of the performance of specific indicators will partially determine further adaptations of the multidimensional decision framework necessary for sustainable development. The flexibility of indicators responses to the challenges of usability will determine the strengths of the individual indicators being developed today.
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