Beyond the indicators: Improving science, scholarship, policy and practice to meet the complex challenges of sustainability

Ortwin Renn, Ilan Chabay, Sander van der Leeuw, Solène Droy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Many teams have developed a wide range of numerical or categorical indicators of progress in the implementation of the SDG targets. But these indicators cannot identify why target goals have not been accomplished, whether or how they do or do not do justice to the social and cultural context in which they are applied, and how newly emerging social dynamics affect indicators. Nor do they provide means for resolving conflicting values and making balanced trade-offs. Our starting point in examining why we have not been successful in progressing towards sustainability is that the sustainability conundrum is primarily a societal, rather than an environmental problem. Our present emphasis is to maintain our way of life while minimizing its impact, hoping that such a minimization strategy would make the world more sustainable. Reducing for example the extent of pollution but keeping the same industries alive would not be sufficient for a transformation towards sustainability. Instead we should ask "How did we come to this point and what practices, in our societies and in our science, need to change to make progress towards sustainability?" To answer these questions, one needs to go much further back than usual in the history of western societies to identify the societal, scientific, technological and environmental co-evolutionary dynamics that have brought us to the current conundrum. And the fact that most societal challenges are of the "wicked" kind, as well as the need to decide among many societal options and many future pathways that may lead to positive results require that we seriously engage in using "Complex Systems" approaches. It is up to our scientific community to identify these pathways, and we need to move fast!.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number578
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • Complex systems science
  • Conflicting societal values
  • Evidence-informed judgments
  • Narrative expressions
  • Sustainability indicators
  • Sustainability science
  • UN SDGs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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