Press release

New instrument will help public visualize, track progress towards sustainable development

April 23, 2001

WINNIPEG — The prototype of a new tool to help policy makers and the public visualize and track progress towards sustainable development will be unveiled today at United Nations headquarters.

"The Dashboard of Sustainability" is a unique new way to present indicators of sustainable development - as gauges similar to the control panel of an aircraft or car. The instrument turns a complex array of economic, social and environmental performance indicators into a simple graphic representation of a country's current position relative to an agreed consensus about sustainability.

The product of a six year international project led by the Canadian-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, the prototype will be demonstrated April 24 during the 9th session of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-9), meeting at the U.N. in New York.

The prototype presents the performance of three countries (Finland, the Philippines, and South Africa) on a set of 57 indicators of sustainable development currently being tested by the CSD. Data for other nations, obtained from the U.N. Statistical Division, the World Bank, the OECD and other international agencies, have also been included in the prototype.

The goal is to enable quick assessment of the weak and strong points of a nation's performance. On-going data updates will facilitate tracking of trends over time. On completion of testing, the Dashboard will be freely available for download from the Internet.

The data clusters can also be modified according to the end-users' specific needs.

For each indicator, performance can be displayed relative to a nation's level of income (thus providing a way to reflect the different circumstances of developed and developing countries).

View the Dashboard here.

Peter Hardi, who heads the project for the IISD, said the Dashboard serves a valuable function by drawing attention to interconnections between many activities, problems and solutions in the field of sustainability.

"The challenge of sustainability reporting is to cluster all the relevant information on various issues and demonstrate the connections between seemingly disparate factors," he said. "Because it shows the relationships between the different aspects of development - economic, social and environmental - the Dashboard is an essential tool for national policy making."

"The Dashboard is an imaginative approach that makes complex information about the economy, society and the environment more easily understandable," said IISD President David Runnalls.

"It provides a tool to signal what is significant and to go deeper into the underlying causes. Like the instrumentation of an aircraft, the Dashboard offers a visual signal of progress towards sustainable development, and warnings of problems."

Runnalls cautioned, however, that the tool can offer results only as good as the data input. "The quality of data on all aspects of sustainable development still needs considerable improvement," he said. "Widespread adoption of the Dashboard and supporting data systems would give governments and the public clear signals of how well they are performing in meeting their goals."

Hardi said the Institute and its consultative team - drawn from 12 leading global institutions - is inviting experts, particularly in the developing world, to participate in future discussion, development and testing of the software.

Mr. Hardi said next steps in the project are to:

  • Invite all testing countries to check how the Dashboard works with data in their own national context;
  • Show changes to the indicators over time;
  • Further develop and complement the database, particularly in developing countries;
  • Create a functional Internet connection to national documents and datasets; and
  • Create an association between the Dashboard indicators with international news, negotiations and other developments in each country.

"Our grand vision is that this will become the tool of choice for everybody who wants to work with indicators, including government decision makers, NGOs, academics, students, journalists and the public," he said.

The Dashboard project is funded by the Bellagio Forum for Sustainable Development, Sweden's Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA) and Deutsche Bank's Global Head, Sustainable Development.

* * * * *


An aircraft dashboard contains instruments that signal the flight path and performance, enabling the pilot to know when corrective action is needed. The signals are often integrated in one panel to avoid overwhelming the pilot with information, but individual problems and more specific information can be traced back through the detailed instrument displays.

The Dashboard of Sustainability takes an analogous approach to the presentation of sustainable development indicators. It is an instrument panel designed to inform decision-makers and the public on the status of a nation's progress toward (or away from) sustainability. The concept grew out of the work of the Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indicators (CGSDI), engaged in critical assessments and design discussions since 1996.

Recently, the Dashboard was made functional by using 57 indicators offered by the UN CSD to compose the three main clusters for over 100 countries. Algorithms and graphic presentation software have been developed; data are presented in an animated version of the Dashboard.

The specification has a built-in flexibility and the clusters can be modified according to the end-users' specific needs, without changing the functioning of the Dashboard. It allows the presentation of four dials, corresponding to the four clusters of the UNCSD indicator set (economic, environmental, social and institutional). The Dashboard allows presentation of complex relationships in a format that is digestible for decision-makers and other persons who might specialize in one field (e.g. environment or social issues or economics), but need to integrate policy fields in which they are not experts, into their work.

The correlation between any pair of indicators can be shown graphically. A list of indicators, sorted by "best fit," allows identification of the most relevant linkages (for example: is unemployment correlated with GDP growth?). In particular, these functions allow identification of synergies (indicators whose "desirable" values are positively correlated) and potential conflicts (e.g. environment vs. many economic and social variables).

Work on the Dashboard has brought together a multidisciplinary team, and a unique constellation of partner institutions. One particularly important area where significant efforts are still needed is the input of developing countries to enrich the selection of sustainability measures.

Following its initial presentation at CSD-9, the project will move to a testing and modification phase, the experiences from which will be synthesized in a final report to be published as a manual on how to use the Dashboard, at different levels and by different audiences.

Members of the Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indicators

Alan AtKisson, President, AtKisson + Associates, Inc.
Senior Fellow, Redefining Progress
Director of Arts & Culture, Sustainability Institute, USA

David Berry, Executive Director
Interagency Sustainable Development Indicator Group
U.S. Federal Government

Arthur L. Dahl, Deputy Assistant Executive Director
Division of Environment Information and Assessment, U.N. Environment Programme

Edgar E. Gutierrez-Espeleta, Director
Observatorio del Desarrollo
Universidad de Costa Rica, Costa Rica

Allen Hammond, Senior Scientist and Director of Strategic Analysis
World Resources Institute, USA

Peter Hardi, Coordinator
Senior Fellow and Director
Measurement and Indicators, IISD, Canada

Jochen Jesinghaus, European Commission Joint Research Centre
Institute for Systems, Informatics and Safety (ISIS), EU

Bedrich Moldan, Professor, Environmental Sciences; Director, Environmental Centre
Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

Yuichi Moriguchi, Head, Resources Management Section
Social and Environmental Systems Division
National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan

Adil Najam, Director, Board of Governors
Pakistan Institute of Environment-Development Action Research (PIEDAR), Pakistan

John O'Connor, Consultant
OconEco, USA

Robert Wallace, Honorary Chairman President
Wallace Global Fund, USA

† Dana Meadows, Professor, Environmental Studies Program,
Dartmouth College, USA.
Professor Meadows passed away in February 2001.

About IISD

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is an award-winning independent think tank working to accelerate solutions for a stable climate, sustainable resource management, and fair economies. Our work inspires better decisions and sparks meaningful action to help people and the planet thrive. We shine a light on what can be achieved when governments, businesses, non-profits, and communities come together. IISD’s staff of more than 250 experts come from across the globe and from many disciplines. With offices in Winnipeg, Geneva, Ottawa, and Toronto, our work affects lives in nearly 100 countries.