While there are thousands of organizations working to solve the world's problems, the ways these groups operate and measure success differ markedly.
Perhaps these differences could be overcome if local public interest and community development groups were to use similar metrics, tools and methodologies to support their efforts and realize their aims?
Could the most pressing challenges facing society – including those of socioeconomic and environmental justice – really be resolved with better data? Imagine if community organizations made use of holistic triple bottom line metrics to do the same sorts of empirical, data-driven research and strategic planning conducted by IBM, Apple, ExxonMobil, Walmart and World Bank.
Leading international organizations, NGOs, and business groups, including the United Nations, World Bank Group, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), are also leading the charge.
One example of a new framework is UN University's first Inclusive Wealth Indictor (IWI) report, introduced during the June 2012 Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
The Inclusive Wealth Report measures the wealth of nations by analyzing a country's capital assets, including manufactured, human and natural capital, and their corresponding values.
Encapsulating groundbreaking metrics and methods that integrate economics, ecology and social development, the Natural Capital Project has developed innovative, free-to-the-public, open source software applications, such as InVest, which is used to measure natural capital, and RIOS, which focuses on watersheds, that can be used by just about anyone looking to assess the socioeconomic and ecological costs, benefits and impacts of a broad range of investments, from power generation facilities, dams, highways and property development to wastewater processing, reforestation and other ecological restoration projects, in an integrated manner.
We focus on using relatively simple models that can be applied widely with fairly commonly available data. They can't address all the complexities, so we've focused on a few key elements and the relationships between the decisions people make, their effects on the environment and communities, and then the likely costs and benefits,” Natural Capital's Lisa Mandle explained during a 3p interview.
“The work we do doesn't say what the right answer is, but it does help clarify the effects, the costs and benefits...and minimizes the tradeoffs between stakeholders,” she elaborated. “It reconciles the likely winners and losers and makes the end results more sustainable and equitable.”
The Natural Capital Project team found that they could map ecosystem “servicesheds” based on the economic and social value they provide in the local community to demonstrate the distribution of the costs and benefits of a proposed investment project. The model could show how community members might be impacted by a dammed river or a new highway.
Real-world use of the Natural Capital Project's tools and methodology has been growing. Project team members have been working closely with TNC and the Latin American Conservation Council, a consortium of business leaders led by former GW Bush administration Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, to apply triple bottom line metrics and methods to assess the costs and benefits of a growing range of development and infrastructure projects.
They [the Latin American Conservation Council] have three focal areas right now: water security, sustainable food security, and smart infrastructure – development with minimal environmental impact and maximization of a diverse range of benefits, and not just in terms of dollars and cents,” Mandle elaborated.
The effort incorporated measures and valuations of biodiversity, water quality, forest and habitat loss, carbon sequestration, health impacts, job creation and the loss of livelihoods. The Natural Capital project team concluded that while ecosystem services losses might be small if strong mitigation measures were taken, the losses in some communities could be quite high. “When we look at the distribution of losses, indigenous communities would likely wind up bearing a disproportionate share [of them],” Mandle related.
One of the most important things we can take away from this body of evidence is that we can map and value the goods and services people get from nature,” according to Natural Capital project lead scientist Dr. Anne Guerry. Furthermore, “ecosystem service information can make – and has made – a difference in diverse decision contexts around the world.”
NCP isn't the only group working to find better ways to measure social and environmental impact. A host of community development organizations, including Boston Indicators, Data Driven Detroit, Green Living DC, Roanoke Neighborhood Indicators and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project are working on these same issues at the local level. They provide tools, skills, metrics, methods and training for measuring triple bottom line impacts. These groups share a common process: community members identify and prioritize the most pressing economic, social and environmental problems in their area. Once empowered with hard data, community groups find it easier to unravel practical solutions to difficult problems.
The more that tools like those developed by NCP and other groups are utilized, the more effective they will become and the easier complex social and environmental problems will be to unravel and address.
An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.