Breaking through the glass ceiling: Who really cares about Sustainability Indicators?

Bell, Simon and Morse, Stephen (2001). Breaking through the glass ceiling: Who really cares about Sustainability Indicators? Local Environment, 6(3) pp. 291–309.



This paper describes some of the insights gained by the authors in the development of an approach for systemic sustainability analysis to arrive at sustainability indicators (SIs) for development. The paper describes the problems of perspective and mindset which such research involves, and the necessity to rethink both the purpose and content of SIs as well as taking into account the perspective of the researcher. The result represents a new perspective on the classification of SIs that serves to highlight one of the central difficulties encountered so far with these tools, namely their limited use in management and the setting of policy. We argue that this is due in large part to the nature of the SI frameworks created to date, even if carried out in a 'participative' mode. The framework itself is representative of a mindset or paradigm of understanding which, when applied as the sole device, we find less than adequate in achieving useful SIs. SIs arising from this mindset tend to be quantitative and explicit (clearly stated and with a defined methodology), while in practice most people's and institutions' use of SIs tends to be more qualitative and implicit ('understood' to apply in vaguer terms, with no defined methodology). These two paradigms or mindsets are represented here as the reductionist and the conversational: the first is characterised by quantitative and explicit indicators (or QNE* indicators); and the second is characterised by qualitative and implicit indicators (QLI* indicators). We suggest that what is required is far more research on the evolution and use of QLI* SIs (and the mindset which is necessary to develop them), in order to best appreciate how they can be hybridised with the QNE* group. The result may be termed 'multiple perspective' SIs.

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