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An Adaptive Learning Process For Developing and Applying Sustainability Indicators With Local Communities

An Adaptive Learning Process For Developing and Applying Sustainability Indicators With Local Communities

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An Adaptive Learning Process For Developing and Applying Sustainability Indicators With Local Communities
An Adaptive Learning Process For Developing and Applying Sustainability Indicators With Local Communities

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Published by: KitsiouMene on Jun 10, 2012
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An adaptive learning process for developing and applyingsustainability indicators with local communities
Mark S. Reed
, Evan D.G. Fraser, Andrew J. Dougill
Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, West Yorkshire LS2 9JT, United Kingdom
 Article history:
Received 10 December 2004Received in revised form 9 June 2005Accepted 2 November 2005Available online 19 January 2006Sustainability indicators based on local data provide a practical method to monitor progresstowards sustainable development. However, since there are many conflicting frameworksproposed to develop indicators, it is unclear how best to collect these data. The purpose of thispaperistoanalysetheliteratureondevelopingandapplyingsustainabilityindicatorsatlocalscalestodevelopamethodologicalframeworkthatsummarisesbestpractice.First,twoideological paradigms are outlined: one that is expert-led and top
down, and one that iscommunity-based and bottom
up. Second, the paper assesses the methodological stepsproposed in each paradigm to identify, select and measure indicators. Finally, the paper concludes by proposing a learning process that integrates best practice for stakeholder-ledlocal sustainability assessments. By integrating approaches from different paradigms, theproposed process offers a holistic approach for measuring progress towards sustainabledevelopment. It emphasizes the importance of participatory approaches setting the contextfor sustainability assessment at local scales, but stresses the role of expert-led methods inindicatorevaluationanddissemination.Researchfindingsfromaroundtheworldareusedtoshow how the proposed process can be used to develop quantitative and qualitativeindicators that are both scientifically rigorous and objective while remaining easy to collectand interpret for communities.© 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Sustainability indicatorsCommunity empowermentStakeholdersLocalParticipation
1. Introduction
Tohelpmakesocietymoresustainable,weneedtoolsthatcanboth measure and facilitate progress towards a broad range of social, environmental and economic goals. As such, theselection and interpretation of 
sustainability indicators
has become an integral part of international and nationalpolicy in recent years. The academic and policy literature onsustainabilityindicatorsisnowsoprolificthatKingetal.(2000)refer to it as
...an industry on its own
(p. 631). However, it isincreasingly claimed that indicators provide few benefits tousers(e.g.,Carruthersand Tinning, 2003), andthat
millionsof dollars and much time
has been wasted on preparing national, state and local indicator reports that remain on theshelf gathering dust.
(Innes and Booher, 1999, p. 2).Partly this is a problem of scale since the majority of existing indicators are based on a top
down definition of sustainability that is fed by national-level data (Riley, 2001).This may miss critical sustainable development issues at thelocal level and may fail to measure what is important to
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Corresponding author.
Tel.: +44 113 343 3316; fax: +44 113 343 6716.
E-mail address:
mreed@env.leeds.ac.uk (M.S. Reed).
Wedefine sustainability indicatorsasthecollection ofspecific measurablecharacteristics ofsociety that addresssocial, economic andenvironmental quality.0921-8009/$ - see front matter © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2005.11.008
available at www.sciencedirect.comwww.elsevier.com/locate/ecolecon
local communities. For example, the widely quoted environ-mental sustainability index (Global Leaders, 2005) providesan assessment of national progress towards sustainabledevelopment. National rankings are based on indicatorschosen by a group of American academics and reflect their conceptualization of sustainability. This is contrary to thespirit of Local Agenda 21 that puts local involvement at thefront of any planning process and challenges policy makersto allow local communities to define sustainability for themselves. As a result, the ESI has been thoroughlycritiqued for ignoring local contextual issues (Morse andFraser, 2005).A second problem is that communities are unlikely toinvest in collecting data on sustainability indicators unlessmonitoring is linked to action that provides immediate andclear local benefits (Freebairn and King, 2003). As a result, itis now widely agreed that local communities need toparticipate in all stages of project planning and implemen-tation, including the selection, collection and monitoring of indicators (e.g.,Corbiere-Nicollier et al., 2003). In othewords, indicators must not only be relevant to local people,but the methods used to collect, interpret and display datamust be easily and effectively used by non-specialists sothat local communities can be active participants in theprocess. Indicators also need to evolve over time ascommunities become engaged and circumstances change(Carruthers and Tinning, 2003). Consequently, sustainabilityindicators can go far beyond simply measuring progress.They can stimulate a process to enhance the overallunderstanding of environmental and social problems,facilitate community capacity building, and help guidepolicy and development projects.On the other hand, the participatory approaches, popular amongst post-modern scholars, also have their failings.Community control in and of itself is irrelevant tosustainability if local people fall prey to the same beliefsand values that have led to current unsustainable positions.Development hungry local agencies are just as capable of allowing urban sprawl as national governments, so divest-ing power from central governments down to municipali-ties, thereby returning power to communities, may notserve the needs of sustainable development. What is neededis to provide a balance between community and higher levelactions.The aim of this paper is to contribute to finding thisbalance. This will be done by critically analyzing existintop
down and bottom
up frameworks for sustainabilityindicator development and application at a local level.After systematically evaluating the strengths and weak-nesses of published methodological approaches by analys-ing a range of case study examples, we present a learning process that capitalises on their various strengths. To thisend, the paper will1. Identify different methodological paradigms proposed inthe literature for developing and applying sustainabilityindicators at a local scale;2. Identifythegenerictasksthateachframeworkimplicitlyor explicitly proposes and qualitatively assess different toolsthat have been used to carry out each task
and3. Synthesize the results into a learning process that inte-grates best practice and offers a framework that can guideusers in the steps needed to integrate top
down andbottom
up approaches to sustainability indicator develop-ment and application.
2. Methodological paradigms
The literature on sustainability indicators falls into twobroad methodological paradigms (Bell and Morse, 2001): onethat is expert-led and top
down; and one that is commu-nity-based and bottom
up. The first finds its epistemolog-ical roots in scientific reductionism and uses explicitlyquantitative indicators. This reductionist approach is com-mon in many fields, including landscape ecology, conser-vation biology, soil science, as well as economics. Expert-ledapproaches acknowledge the need for indicators to quantifythe complexities of dynamic systems, but do not necessarilyemphasise the complex variety of resource user perspec-tives. The second paradigm is based on a bottom
up,participatory philosophy (referred to as the
approach byBell and Morse, 2001). It draws more on thesocial sciences, including cultural anthropology, socialactivism, adult education, development studies and socialpsychology. Research in this tradition emphasises theimportance of understanding local context to set goalsand establish priorities and that sustainability monitorinshould be an on-going learning process for both communi-ties and researchers (Freebairn and King, 2003). Proponentsof this approach argue that to gain relevant and meaningfulperspectives on local problems, it is necessary to activelyinvolve social actors in the research process to stimulatesocial action or change (Pretty, 1995).Table 1provides a summary of sustainability indicator literature and how proposed frameworks can be dividedinto top
down and bottom
up paradigms. There arestrengths and weaknesses in both approaches. Indicatorsthat emerge from top
down approaches are generallycollected rigorously, scrutinized by experts, and assessedfor relevance using statistical tools. This process exposestrends (both between regions and over time) that might bemissed by a more casual observation. However, this sort of approach often fails to engage local communities. Indicatorsfrom bottom
up methods tend to be rooted in an under-standing of local context and are derived by systematicallyunderstanding local perceptions of the environment andsociety. This not only provides a good source of indicators,but also offers the opportunity to enhance communitycapacity for learning and understanding. However, there isa danger that indicators developed through participatorytechniques alone may not have the capacity to accurately or reliably monitor sustainability. Whilst it is simple to viewthese two approaches as fundamentally different, there isincreasing awareness and academic debate on the need todevelop innovative hybrid methodologies to capture bothknowledge repertoires (Batterbury et al., 1997; Nygren, 1999;Thomas and Twyman, 2004). As yet, there remains noconsensus on how this integration of methods can be best
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achieved and our analysis is designed to inform theseongoing debates.
3. Steps and tools
Notwithstandingepistemologicaldifferences,itisnotablethatindicator frameworks from bothschools set out to accomplishmany of the same basic steps (Table 2). First, sustainabilityindicator frameworks must help those developing indicatorsto establish the human and environmental context that theyare working in. Second, sustainability indicator frameworksprovide guidance on how to set management goals for sustainable development. Third, all sustainability indicator frameworks provide methods to choose the indicators thatwill measure progress. Finally, in all frameworks, data arecollected and analysed. The following discussion analysesmethodological issues for use of both bottom
up and/or top
down approaches in each of these steps in turn.
3.1. Step 1: establishing human and environmentalcontext 
Therearetwoprimary componentstoestablishingcontext:(1)identifying key stakeholders and (2) defining the area or system that is relevant to the problem being studied. Withregard to the first issue, in most top
down processesstakeholders are often identified in a somewhat informalfashion. For example, researchers and policy-makers using theOECD's (1993)Pressure-State-Response (PSR) frameworktypically only identify stakeholders if they are the source of human pressures on the environment (e.g., farmers using irrigation in dryland Australia (Hamblin, 1998) or people living inwatersheds(Brickeretal.,2003)).Ontheotherhand,thereisa growing body of participatory research that is more preciseand formal when it comes to identifying stakeholders. For example, some suggest it is useful to begin an analysis byinterviewing key informants who can suggest other relevant
Table 1
Examples of methodological frameworks for developing and applying sustainability indicators at alocal scale
Selected examples Brief description
Soft Systems Analysis(Checkland, 1981)Builds on systems thinking andexperiential learning to developindicators as part of aparticipatory learning process toenhance sustainability withstakeholdersSustainable LivelihoodsAnalysis (Scoones, 1998)Developsindicatorsoflivelihoodsustainability that can monitor changes in natural, physical,human, social and financialcapital based on entitlementstheoryClassification HierarchyFramework (Bellows, 1995)Identifies indicators byincrementally increasing theresolution of the systemcomponent being assessed, e.g.,element = soil; property =productivity; descriptor = soilfertility; indicator = % organicmatter The Natural Step (TNS, 2004)Develops indicators to representfour conditions for a sustainablesociety to identify sustainabilityproblems, visions and strategies
Panarchy Theory and AdaptiveManagement (Gunderson andHolling, 2002)Based on a model that assesseshow ecosystems respond todisturbance, the Panarchyframework suggests that keyindicators fall into one of threecategories: wealth, connectivity,diversity. Wealthy, connectedand simple systems are mostvulnerable to disturbancesOrientation Theory (Bossel,2001)Develops indicators to representsystem
(existence,effectiveness, freedom of action,security, adaptability,coexistence and psychologicalneeds) to assess system viabilityand performancePressure-State-Response (PSR,DSR and DPSIR) (OECD, 1993)Identifies environmentalindicators based on humanpressures on the environment,the environmental states thisleads to and societal responsesto change for a series of environmental themes. Later versions replaced pressure withdriving forces (which can beboth positive and negative,unlike pressures which arenegative) (DSR) and includedenvironmental impacts (DPSIR)Framework for Evaluating Sustainable LandManagement (Dumanski etal., 1991)A systematic procedure for developing indicators andthresholds of sustainability tomaintain environmental,economic and socialopportunities with present andfuture generations while
Table 1
Selected examples Brief description
maintaining and enhancing thequality of the landWell-being Assessment(Prescott-Allen, 2001)Uses four indices to measurehuman and ecosystem well-being: a human well-being index, an ecosystem well-being index, a combined ecosystemand human well-being index,and a fourth index quantifying the impact of improvements inhuman well-being on ecosystemhealthThematic Indicator Development (UNCSD, 2001)Identifies indicators in each of the following sectors or themes:environmental, economic, socialand institutional, oftensubdividing these into policyissues
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