Whilst the answer to this question may seem to be axiomatic, I argue that we need to better understand the kind of work sustainability indicators can do inside local government. Too often studies about indicators focus either on the science that goes into their development seeking to make them rational and relevant or on the soft impacts such as social capital, community empowerment or capacity building that are outcomes of their use. When attention is turned to what effect they have on policy, it is often difficult to discern any link between their use and policy change. My article in Local Environment (an earlier version can also be found here) seeks to address this problem by consolidating current thinking on indicators and asking the question: How far have notions of governance been incorporated into current research into indicators? The answer to this question has implications for the continuing utility of indicators as policy tools, not only in so far as they are able to aid the evaluation of policy, but also, and arguably more importantly, in how they are able to facilitate relationships between actors and act a catalyst around which various contested meanings of sustainability can be evaluated.
The article concludes that indicators may provide two important benefits to cities and citizens striving to create more sustainable places. The first is that indicators play a role in developing and constructing what it means to “do” sustainable development. In other words, their creation and implementation help us to frame the way we talk about sustainability and act as sites for innovation to occur. Secondly, and in my mind most importantly, indicators themselves act as portals of communication between and within departments and across the divide between formal government and civill society. Their use and the negotiation of their meaning creates the opportunity for dialogue to occur about sustainability and for this to be more normalised in our daily life.
Much of the work that we have undertaken with the Cities’ Biodiversity Index recognises these principles along with the importance of sound science on which to base vital decisions about the future of biodiversity in cities.