Introduction to Proxy Indicators

Six proxy indicators emerged from our twelve discussion papers. These six indicators of community vitality are presented in the following sections using a series of ten images, a technique known as petcha kucha. They are intended firstly to convey the nature of the indicator and secondly to stimulate discussion on that indicator and its meaning for community vitality. But what is an indicator and why are they important? oOften what is measured doesn't count, and what doesn't count is often measured (Einstein).

The International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) in their paper Creating Indicators of Sustainability (2007), provides defines an indicator as:
"anything that gives an indication to its reader of a key feature or state of a human or environmental system. Moreover, a good indicator provides information valuable in the making of important decisions. Two commonly referred to examples of well-known indicators are the speedometer on an automobile dashboard and the growth rate of the gross national product. When driving, the speedometer provides the driver with a rough estimate of the speed he or she is traveling, providing input into decisions about whether to speed up or slow down in a wide variety of circumstances. Likewise, the growth rate of the gross national product provides input to decisions by federal reserve officials regarding the monetary supply, elected officials regarding taxation and spending, investors regarding investment choices, etc".
Despite the considerable and growing body of work around sustainable development indicators, there is no set of indicators that is universally accepted, nor has influenced the dominant measure, gross domestic product, GDP.  Parris and Kates (2003) explain this is because of the ambiguity of sustainable development, the plurality of purpose in characterizing and measuring sustainable development and the confusion of terminology, data and methods of measurement. In addition to the lack of consistent approaches, there are theoretical issues that make single, aggregate  indicators problematic as a tool to measure sustainability problematic. Specifically:
  • indicators are reductionist and fail to capture the emergent results of the inter-dependency and relationships between characteristics being measured and as a result there is a loss of complexity (Munda, in-press);
  • indicators do not in themselves represent a basis for decision-making without a broader analysis of cause and effect (Innes and Booher, 2000); 
  • there is not always a single, uniquely rational basis on which to aggregate different indicators; in other words, indicators are often incommensurable, making aggregation impossible; 
  • the selection of indicators is ultimately subjective. As a result different value judgements and assumptions can lead similar studies to radically different results (Stirling, 1999), yet this subjectivity is not acknowledged; and 
  • there is a problem of ignorance due to the complexity of the social and ecological systems being evaluated and their non-linear nature (ibid). In their presentation, indicators mask uncertainty by appearing as fact.
Nevertheless, it is important to try to measure what we are talking about, because if it isn't measured it often doesn't count. We have developed a simple tool (Vt) to rate a community.  This tool collects nation-wide data by allowing people across Canada to submit a subjective rating of the performance their community via an online survey. Survey questions were designed to provide insight on the wellbeing of a community in relation to the six proxy indicators identified in our research. Analysis of survey response data provides insights on the degree of a vitality within a community by creating index values for each of the indicators.
A critical point about the analysis of the Vitality Project (and other such decision-support methods) is that, on their own, they do not provide a clear ‘answer’ to questions about ‘which options are best’, or ‘is a project acceptable’. At root, such questions involve value judgements, and no method can provide a clear answer without being based on subjective values. Instead, these methods are best thought of as a framework for ordering preferences and judgements in a consistent and clear way.

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