This workshop brought together leading scientists in the field of sustainability science to further the discussion on sustainability indicators and metrics, models for supporting decision making, and opportunities to inform decision making. The workshop’s overarching objectives were to reflect on the last 15 years since Our Common Journey was released and identify advances, knowledge gaps, and barriers to progress in
- Sustainability indicators,
- Models for supporting decisions,
- Frameworks for environmental decision making, and
- Efforts needed to address the range of needs and opportunities related to sustainability.
Indicators were discussed throughout the workshop. In her opening remarks, Pamela Matson said much progress has been made in developing metrics and indicators. For example, indicators are increasingly integrative and indicator systems better help decision makers understand trade-offs and gain a fuller understanding of coupled social-environmental systems. In many research areas, however, there is a drive to create new indicators while not giving enough attention to how indicators relate to other indicators. Instead of collecting data on new indicators, some participants said it would be more useful to map existing indicators against ongoing efforts. Others commented that there exists a multitude of metrics for sustainability, yet an individual decision maker can only handle a few at any one time. Paring down the number of indicators to fewer of the most useful ones may better facilitate decision making.
Participants discussed models extensively, and integrated assessment modeling (IAM) in particular, noting that such models have improved the relevance of integrated assessments by incorporating more governance, land, water, and food capabilities into assessments. There is a need, however, some said, to continue addressing gaps in understanding various systemic linkages, feedbacks, and uncertainties in models. Additionally, despite progress made in integrating human and physical earth systems in assessments, there is a lack of social indicators such as equity, connectedness, culture, and health. Participants discussed remaining barriers to IAMs and other models, such as large scale ones not being used regularly for decision making and having a limited set of topics and focus. Models often have a single focus on the effect of a single intervention, and a number of participants observed that ecology and socials systems, except for economics, are often missing from models.
Several frameworks for environmental decision making were presented during the workshop, including the World Health Organization’s operational framework that helps decision makers build better climate-resilient health systems. Urban systems over the last 15 years have been an increasingly research-intense area for indicator and framework development. Many participants noted that observations and models of urban systems, however, lack sophistication compared to models of climate systems that have progressed not only spatially but also in complexity. Urban research needs to progress from models that only analyze interactions within a city to a global model that incorporates global hinterlands and feedbacks across multiple levels. In the urban context, participants discussed shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs) as a framework for considering development and progress toward sustainability. Frameworks were also discussed as a key component to transitioning to sustainable food systems. As some participants noted, that is important to model issues in agriculture and food systems in an integrated biophysical-social framework. Regardless of the sustainability topic, participants said that indicator and model development efforts need to be done in the context of a sustainability framework focused on people, equity, and long-term thinking.
Although many participants provided examples of progress made on sustainability indicators and metrics, models for supporting decision making, and opportunities to inform decision making, there were many remaining research gaps identified that would need to be filled in order to address the range of needs and opportunities related to sustainability. For example, well-being was discussed throughout the workshop as a key component to sustainability. It was noted by some, however, that although aiming for human well-being is a notable goal, it does not translate easily into quantifiable information for scientists and decision makers to use. There was ensuing discussion on how future research should focus on different metrics and indicators of well-being, along with the importance of interdisciplinary research and of engaging and clearly communicating research efforts and results to non-technical audiences and policy makers.