2nd Biennial ISIN Meeting
March 13-16, 2003, Toronto
Measuring Progress Toward Sustainability:
Where We've Been, Where We're Headed
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More than 150 sustainability indicators practitioners made their way to Toronto March 13-16, 2003 for the 2nd Biennial Meeting of the International Sustainability Indicators Network (ISIN). Participants came from as far away as Australia, South Africa, Spain and the United Kingdom as well as from all over Canada and the United States to meet their peers and learn about sustainability indicator work going on around the globe. Many participants remarked how pleased they were to be meeting face-to-face with people they had only been communicating with via e-mail for a long time.
The theme of the meeting was "Measuring Progress Toward Sustainability: Where We've Been, Where We're Headed" and highlights included:

  • An opening plenary presentation by David Berry who reminded us of the role of humans in the grand scheme of the universe. He also pointed out that we shouldn't consider the meeting as preaching to the 'choir' but rather "choir practice" for sustainability indicator practitioners working to change the methods by which progress is measured.
  • Friday night dinner, Stuart Smith, former director of the Canadian National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, spoke of efforts in Canada to develop a System of National Accounts to supplement the picture of "progress" painted by reliance on the Gross Domestic Product as the primary measure.
  • Renowned futurist Hazel Henderson spoke Saturday morning about the current "attention economy" and emphasized our need to make sustainability indicators transparent, understandable and connected to people through the mass media in order to be useful and effect change.
  • A closing plenary on Saturday afternoon where Alan AtKisson reminded us - in song - about systems thinking, and why our work on sustainability indicators is important if we are to stop (or a least slow) current trends toward overshoot and collapse of the Earth's life-supporting systems. He also pointed out that, although at times it may feel like we are 'banging our head against a wall' when we are working on sustainability and indicators, we are really just pushing the envelope as change agents of this complex global system in which we live and work.
During Friday's presentation sessions, participants heard about sustainability indicators projects at specific scales including national, regional, community and organizational -- how the indicators have been effective and what challenges were encountered in the process of developing and using indicators. Discussion sessions on Saturday focused on how indicators can be used most effectively and why and how indicator projects at various scales could or should be connected to each other. Creative report back sessions on Saturday afternoon featured singing, role-playing, (bad) poetry and even some contortionist moves (you had to be there…) However, through all of the creativity and fun, some common themes emerged, including:
  • The need to make sure indicators are relevant, easily understood, and clearly communicate relative measures of progress
  • The need to include a broad range of stakeholders in developing sustainability indicators at whatever scale you are working at
  • The need to make sure indicators are linked to credible and reliable sources of data consistently over time
  • Having indicators and using indicators are two different things
  • Indices used as indicators have the advantage of being easily understood, but can face challenges on how components of the index are weighted relative to each other
  • Yes, you can have too many indicators; a core set of indicators often is valuable
  • The work we are doing to encourage a shift toward the use of sustainability indicators as the way to measure progress is important to the future of the planet
  • Attending the ISIN 2nd Biennial meeting was extremely uplifting, in part because, now when we "bang our head against the wall," we will know that we are not alone!
To find out more about the meeting, see the agenda, the presenters and presentations, and check out the photos. If you didn't make it to Toronto, check this web site periodically for information about the next biennial meeting in 2005.

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International Sustainability Indicators Network
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