When we provided advice on regional sustainability to civil servants in strategic departments of subnational governance bodies, we found that they were quite capable of identifying economic, environmental, and social states and trends in their region, such as a low education profile in the population or a rapid loss of biodiversity.
The target audience could not map these fragmented parts as a system of stocks and flows. Consequently, they could not understand the complex dynamics resulting from these interactions. The target audience was even less able to design and test policy actions for their effects on the sustainability of their region. This results in inefficient actions and counterintuitive surprises. Forrester (1968) discusses the consequences for action resulting from an insufficient system understanding from a system dynamic perspective, Dorner (2003) from a psychological perspective, and Sterman (1994) from a learning perspective.
For our work, this meant that a selected list of sustainability indicators or an aggregated indicator of sustainability would not address the most urgent questions and would not help to make better decisions for a sustainable future. Instead of focusing on the states of the parts of the system, we needed to focus on the system structure itself.
Any indicator based on the system structure must use a representation of the real world in a system format. The representation and evaluation of a system are intrinsically subjective, normative, ambiguous, uncertain, and incomplete (Rotmans and de Vries 1997). In response, several authors have proposed public participation (Spangenberg and Bonniot 1998) or stakeholder participation (Jaeger et al. 1997). Participation at the very least is potentially enriching for the scientific analysis of sustainability while addressing issues of legitimacy and transparency of sustainability studies and facilitating communication processes. For our work this implied the challenge to develop methods or interfaces for integrated sustainability assessments that are suitable for stakeholder participation.
Where available, quantitative indicators proved useful in communicating the urgency of key issues in participatory settings. However, the exact same information caused confusion and frustration when the goal of the information was extended beyond raising awareness to include the development of policy options for improvement. The reason for this was the lack of information on the systemic causes of indicator values and thus a lack of information on what one could do to change the value of a given indicator without negatively affecting other indicators. The availability of quantitative information caused a neglect of issues for which quantitative indicators were not available. In response, we had to develop methods to better integrate qualitative and quantitative information.
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