MSSI newsletter

MSSI Metrics Workshop

Image by arielrobin from Pixabay .

This February workshop on the use of metrics (i.e., goals, targets, indicators) in sustainability governance, led by Professor Jaye Ellis (Faculty of Law & co-lead with the Sustainability Transitions research theme), brought together over 30 researchers from across seven faculties.

Researchers sit around long table during a workshop in the Redpath Museum

Why metrics

Sustainability challenges – such as climate change, poverty and inequality – sit at the intersection of social, environmental and economic systems. Research related to sustainability challenges generates an abundance of data and insight, and the interactions and feedbacks within and between these complex systems result in an inevitable amount of uncertainty. Despite this, we need to make decisions – as policymakers or consumers, for example – and we need the tools to help inform, communicate, compare and evaluate our decisions. Metrics can help us summarize data and knowledge in meaningful and measurable ways.

An example of metrics are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a series of 17 goals developed to mobilize all countries around ending poverty, promoting human rights and protecting the environment. These goals are broken down into 169 targets, and each of these targets are measured using one or more indicators. Without ignoring the interconnectedness and overlap of the various goals, they have been developed in a way to help all countries evaluate and track their progress.

The use of metrics does not come without criticism. Some of the those highlighted by Professor Ellis include: metrics development processes are not always transparent; treating problems as measurable or technical makes it hard to incorporate political, social and cultural dimensions; the tendency to prioritize scientific knowledge over non-expert knowledge or Traditional Ecological Knowledge; the oversimplification of complex problems; and the commodification of complex systems.

Workshop outcomes

Groups discussed the use of metrics, as well as how and by whom they are developed. Some of the key challenges and considerations identified during the discussion are listed in the figure below. This workshop laid the groundwork and connections for more targeted events and discussion in the coming year.


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