Sustainability assessment: Exploring the frontiers and paradigms of indicator approaches

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Sustainability assessment approaches could support all levels of decision-making and policy processes (including strategies, policies, plans, programs, projects, and activities/operations), thus improving the management of natural and human systems. Sustainability Indicators (SIs) have been extensively used to assess and communicate the progress toward sustainable development. However, despite all the SI initiatives and the well-known advantages and popularity, several risks have been pointed out, so there is a need to rethink the current state of SIs and build visions that could reshape the indicator reality. The main goal of this research is to develop a constructive debate around the possible futures and paths of SIs', by conducting a critical analysis of a set of challenges and opportunities identified by the literature. This was explored through a critical perspective and viewpoint article that discusses what could be some of the new frontiers and paradigms in SIs. Exploratory research supported by a combination of methods was conducted, consisting of a search of the literature and qualitative document analysis, followed by an assessment procedure based upon an evaluation ranking scale. The classification scale integrated three main criteria of valuation: Relevancy, feasibility, and societal impacts. The findings showed that most of the challenges and opportunities analyzed are old and mainly technically oriented, with a low potential impact on society, including end-users and practitioners. The majority of the challenges have low-to-medium feasibility, showing that there would be difficulty in implementing them, and so they should be improved or redesigned. A set of key questions on SIs' futures is proposed, aiming to represent a critical view of the relevant challenges and opportunities analyzed, but underpinned and observed from a crosscutting angle, represented by the societal role. The SI research community should be ready to adapt ways of thinking and doing, responding to new global and local paradigms and using transdisciplinary collaborative scientific development and innovation as the foundations for the change process, wherein communities and the individual have central roles to play.

Original languageEnglish
Article number824
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 5 Feb 2019


  • Challenges
  • Goals
  • Indicators
  • Opportunities
  • Societal impact
  • Stakeholders
  • Sustainable development


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