Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 20:35
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Institutions    Topic: Indicators

An indicator is a sign that represents something, or more specifically a variable that summarizes or simplifies relevant information, makes something perceptible, or measures and communicates relevant information (Gallopin, in Moldan et al., 1997). This is distinct from data, which are actual measurements or observations. Indicators may be derived from data, but they have an additional or wider meaning.

Indicators can take many forms, from different colours, light signals or graphic symbols through to numbers on a scale. Traffic lights indicate whether it is safe (or legal) to enter an intersection; a pilot's instruments indicate an aircraft's speed, orientation, direction, etc.; GDP indicates a form of economic activity; and a figure for life expectancy indicates the general health of a country or community.

Measuring or expressing something with an indicator makes it visible and creates the possibility of managing or improving it. Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, called for the development of indicators of sustainable development as one way of encouraging governments to adopt policies and actions for sustainability.

For a general discussion of the challenges of measuring sustainability with indicators, see the paper "Towards indicators of sustainability".

In response to Agenda 21, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) launched a programme of work on indicators that has produced indicators for use at the national level to measure sustainable development. The most recent set prepared in 2006-2007 includes 50 core indicators within a larger set of 96 indicators of sustainable development.

The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) has produced two reviews of Indicators of Sustainability (Moldan et al, 1997) and (Hak et al. 2007) with inputs from many experts that provide some of the best summaries of the field.

For more information on indicators and indices of sustainability, see the Indicators page in the IEF e-learning centre.


Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1995. Towards Indicators of Sustainability. Paper presented at the SCOPE Scientific Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development, Wuppertal, Germany, 15-17 November 1995.

Hak, Tomas, Bedrich Moldan and Arthur Lyon Dahl (eds.), 2007. Sustainability Indicators: A Scientific Assessment. SCOPE Vol. 67. Washington, D.C., Island Press. 413 p.

Moldan, Bedrich, Suzanne Billharz and Robyn Matravers (eds), 1997. Sustainability Indicators: A Report on the Project on Indicators of Sustainable Development. Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, SCOPE 58. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester. 415 p.

Article last updated 25 November 2007

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