A Critical Review of the Role of Indicators in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

Simon Mair*, Aled Jones, Jonathan Ward, Ian Christie, Angela Druckman, Fergus Lyon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) bring together environmental, social and economic concerns. They therefore have the potential to move society away from the dominant model of prosperity as purely economic toward a more holistic and ‘sustainable’ prosperity. But, the success of such a transformative agenda rests on its implementation. At the heart of planned implementation of the SDGs is a set of 230 indicators. Indicators have been strongly critiqued in a range of literatures. However, in the context of the SDGs, indicators have been described as ‘essential’ with little critical assessment of their role in implementation. Therefore, this chapter aims to provide this critical voice. To do this, the chapter reviews critiques of indicators from sustainability science, anthropology and sociology and provides illustrative cases of indicators implementation. From this review we are able to draw lessons for the use of indicators in SDG implementation. Specifically, the chapter argues that indicators are reductionist and struggle with contested concepts. Nevertheless, by making the operationalisation of concepts visible and enabling quantified analysis, indicators can have a useful role in SDG implementation. However, this requires that indicator critiques are taken seriously and inform indicator use.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWorld Sustainability Series
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9783319630076
ISBN (Print)9783319874517
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Publication series

NameWorld Sustainability Series
ISSN (Print)2199-7373
ISSN (Electronic)2199-7381

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements This work was completed as part of the ESRC Research Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, Grant Number ES/M010163/1.

Publisher Copyright:
© Springer International Publishing AG 2018.

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