The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights the importance of developing new measures of progress at societal levels – rather than relying on gross domestic product (GDP) as the sole indicator. Values-based approaches can be helpful for generating new indicators, and new ways of designing indicators, in response to this challenge.
What should be measured?
Traditional approaches to indicator development usually start from the question “what can be measured, using established methods or data sets?” – framing the creation of indicators primarily as a technical issue, rather than a political or ethical one.
By contrast, values-based approaches start by asking “what should be measured?”
This question can never have a single, straightforward answer. Different stakeholders will respond in different ways, depending on what they regard as worthwhile, meaningful and valuable in life.
Turning indicator development inside-out
Values-based approaches can help us to move beyond the myth of a clear and universally accepted definition of sustainability or progress, with a single set of indicators.
Instead, we can envision dynamic ‘inside-out’ processes of indicator design, each starting with individuals within clearly defined contexts of collective action – e.g. organisations, schools, hospitals, or neighbourhood regeneration groups – and spiralling out to broader contexts. These can generate multiple sets of values-based indicators, for use either within specific educational initiatives, projects or programmes (micro-level) or across a whole organisation or institution (meso-level).
This document shows a set of values-based indicators that were developed from the ESDInds project. It is important that these are used in the context of a carefully facilitated approach.
Advantages of values-based approaches
Values-based approaches to indicator design are highly participatory, engaging group members in co-creating shared visions of what they want to achieve and evaluate. This can have a number of advantages, both in terms of the `product’ – the indicator set – and the transformative process itself.
Quality of the product: Widening participation in design can help to ensure that indicators are seen as valid, useful, understandable and relevant by their target audiences. ‘Co-designed’ values-based indicators are often used by different stakeholders for different purposes – e.g. by authorities or funders for ensuring accountability, and by project staff and beneficiaries for reflective self-evaluation and improvement. Regular processes of reviewing and changing indicators can be built in.
Effects of the process: When well facilitated, the process of developing values-based indicators can be an example of best practice in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Reflecting on values and how they can be lived out in practice is itself a core ESD competency identified by the United Nations. Yet the process can also help to build other ESD competencies, e.g. ‘learning to learn’, communication and collaboration skills, critical thinking, and becoming an active change agent. At the collective level, it can strengthen shared visions and improve communication – both within the group and in terms of articulating the group’s achievements to others, such as donors or the public.
Please see our paper which argues the case that “that the need for a core ‘fourth pillar’ of sustainability/sustainable development, as demanded in multiple arenas, can no longer be ignored on the grounds of intangibility”.