Identifying Methodological Challenges

Tom Bauler, Ian Douglas, Peter Daniels,Volodymyr Demkine, Nina Eisenmenger,Jasper Grosskurth, Tomás Hák, Luuk Knippenberg,Jock Martin, Peter Mederly, Robert Prescott-Allen, Robert Scholes, and Jaap van Woerden

The methodological challenge in deriving indicators for sustainable development lies in constructing indicators that are accurate representations of environmental or societal states or trends but are easily understood by their target audiences. Methodological challenges thus involve two broad sets of questions: those concerned with the design and development of indicators and those concerned with the purpose and use of indicators. Basic concerns over data availability, data quality, and the adequacy of the algorithms used can be resolved largely through technical, scientific agreement. However, the central issue of adjusting methods to indicator relevance and use has to be addressed through trade-offs between form and function in specific societal and political settings.

Constructing a sustainable development indicator raises such methodological issues as the multidimensionality of domains, the complexity of the socioenvironmental system under scrutiny, and the presence of cross-scale (both temporal and spatial) effects and impacts. The translation of these issues into coherent procedural and substantive methods largely determines the formal quality of the assessment tool.

The use and purpose of the indicator are part of the process of developing awareness of sustainable development (i.e., contributing to the self-generation of sustainable development; see Chapter 1, this volume), essentially an iterative process wherein new indicators are developed, tested, reformulated, and improved as a result of interaction with and feedback from users in all walks of society. This chapter concentrates on the methodological challenges in the development of indicators. First we break sustainable development down into a hierarchical setting of subdomains necessary for the con struction of indicators. Such constructed frameworks are necessary in order to link explicitly the different indicators stemming from different origins (economic, social, and environmental). Linked to the hierarchical level of the indicator is the definition of its degree of aggregation and the adequacy of the link between the type of the indicator and the particular use that is made of it. Indicator construction reflects a series of trade-offs between antagonistic, or at least noncomplementary, criteria. After having sketched five criteria, which can help us assess the methodological strength of an individual indicator, we apply them to a limited series of headline economic indicators. Finally, the last sections of the chapter link challenges of policy relevance and conceptual issues with methodological challenges as the three types of issues that occur during the construction of an indicator.

The complex issues related to the practical use of indicators and their acceptability to stakeholders in government, the private sector, and civil society are explored less in this chapter but are addressed in Chapter 4. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 should be read together.

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