Limiting the Numbers

Analyzing complex systems and their properties involves reducing complexity to a degree that we can understand. Simplification is an accepted part of the scientific research process and is naturally associated with difficult choices about how much to simplify and how to do it without misrepresenting reality. The process of developing indicators entails simplifying complex and detailed information to provide communication tools for larger audiences. Specialists may be quite happy with a large number of indicators, but policymakers often request a single number for each problem to be dealt with. The latter may help policymakers attract attention but has limited usefulness in determining management action. The purpose and target audience determine the effec tive number of indicators, ideally the minimum necessary. At the same time, indicators of sustainable development should represent the large number of relevant issues. Selecting indicator sets and aggregating them into fewer indices are two of the most challenging aspects of indicator development.

Although few believe it is practical to develop just one aggregated index for sustainable development, incorporating all three pillars, there have been efforts to develop one index for each pillar. This still ignores the need for more systemic indicators linking the pillars that can provide higher-level integration. Any such cluster of highly aggregated indices has to be conceptually sound, with a supporting second layer of data that is easy to disaggregate, as demonstrated by the Dashboard of Sustainability, for example.13

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