Systems Thinking and Gauging Sustainable Development

  • Simon Bell
  • Stephen Morse


There has been a great deal of interest in how system sustainability can be measured. Assuming that sustainabililty reflects a consistency or improvement in some notion of system ‘quality’, then an ability to determine how the system ‘quality’ varies with time should give a handle on the sustainability of the system. System ‘quality’ can be gauged by the use of indicators such as soil fertility, forest cover and crop yields along with other indicators which reflect Socio-Economic ‘quality’ (income, employment rates, provision of services etc.). However, although this approach has been commonly applied to a variety of systems (e.g. the AMOEBA), the problem lies in what indicators to use and how to measure them. Clearly the choice of indicators is critical, and one can find any answer one chooses by selecting a particular group of indicators. Different interest groups will have very different views as to the indicators that need to be included and how these indicators are to be gauged. In short, in studies assessing indicators of sustainability objectivity is a major problem and subjectivity on the part of the researcher should be assumed. In this paper we will review the use of sustainability indicators (SI) in a SI Measurement Tool (SIMT) and provide a theoretical critique of their applicability. The amoeba approach will be discussed and developed, and it will be demonstrated that the problem is essentially one of locating a ‘credibility boundary’ which any given group of major stakeholders with multiple viewpoints would accept as a key set of Sl’s for the system. However, the attainability of the ‘credibility boundary’ may be very low and it may be impossible, and hence the question becomes what level of SI integration is acceptable and yet be achievable. The problems associated with attempting to determine an acceptable and achievable level of SI integration are discussed.


Stakeholder Group System Thinking Sustainability Indicator Multiple Viewpoint Torical Ideal 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Simon Bell
    • 1
  • Stephen Morse
    • 2
  1. 1.Systems DepartmentOpen UniversityMilton KeynesUK
  2. 2.School of Development StudiesUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK

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