New Metrics
Reporting 3.0 ‘Data Blueprint’ Explores Future of Integral Information Systems

This is part two of a four-part series on themes explored at the upcoming 4th International Reporting 3.0 Conference. Read part one here.

“The only thing more dangerous than no progress is the illusion of progress,” says Reporting 3.0 (R3) Steering Board Member Brendan LeBlanc of EY, riffing off a well-known Daniel Boorstein quote.

More important than identifying current gaps and shortcomings, the R3 Data Blueprint proposes solutions:

  • First and foremost, a general specification for data and information system architecture that can spur bona fide sustainability and help trigger the emergence of a truly regenerative, inclusive, and open global economy; and
  • a host of specific examples of emerging best practices of what it dubs “integral” information, or metrics that integrate and contextualize data and activate responses that preserve our natural resource base while supporting human well-being and fulfillment.

Integration, Contextualization and Activation

The Data Blueprint’s general specification takes its cue from a 1998 report by Limits to Growth author Donella Meadows, entitled Indicators & Information Systems for Sustainable Development. In it, Meadows visualized “the human economy within a hierarchy, resting on a foundation of natural resources and reaching to the height of ultimate purpose” that she called the Daly Triangle, named after the World Bank economist who first conceived it.

Here’s Meadows on integration:

Extending the definition of capital to natural, human and social capital could provide an easily understood base for calculating and integrating the Daly triangle…Integration of the triangle from bottom to top requires good science, just and efficient political and economic systems, and a culture that illuminates the higher purposes of life. The focus of such a society would be wholeness, not maximizing one part of the system at the expense of other parts. The goal of perpetual economic growth would be seen as nonsensical – partly because the finite material base cannot sustain it, partly because human fulfillment does not demand it. The focus would be on quality, not quantity, and yet quantity sufficient for the physical needs of all would not be lacking.

This final sentence points toward the contextualization of quantity within thresholds of need. Here’s Meadows on contextualization:

An environmental indicator becomes a sustainability indicator (or unsustainability indicator) with the addition of time, limit or target. The central questions of sustainability are: How long can this activity last? How long do we have to respond before we run into trouble? Where are we with respect to our limits?...

[S]ustainability indicators should be related to carrying capacity or to threshold of danger or to targets. Tons of nutrient per year released into waterways means nothing to people. Amount released relative to the amount the waterways can absorb without becoming toxic or clogged begins to carry a message.

Almost all so-called corporate sustainability data falls into the “means nothing to people” category, creating the illusion of progress but actually not telling us what really matters. Information that embeds substantive meaning qualifies as bona fide sustainability data, as it dynamically compares a numerical quantification with the threshold a system can handle (its carrying capacity).

Which brings us to Meadows’s last key element from the Daly Triangle: activation.

Integrated, contextualized data “begins to carry a message” that answers the question, “How long do we have to respond before we run into trouble?” For Meadows, bona fide information systems signal calls-to-action.

The most important indicator, without which the others make no sense, is an indicator of ultimate ends. … We need to press courageously to discuss well-being and define indicators that reflect it, even if we suspect that this process will shake up our worldviews and challenge our power structures and our lives. If those power structures and lives are in fact creating well-being, then they won’t be challenged. If they are not, then they should be shaken.

Here, Meadows describes what Reporting 3.0 calls “positive mavericks” (with thanks for coining to Raj Thamotheram, CEO of Preventable Surprises, an R3 Partner), which characterizes R3’s community. Positive mavericks:

  • Work productively (not obstructively) toward positive change
  • Are motivated more by ultimate ends, with intermediate ends and means serving as vehicles, not destinations
  • Challenge the constraints, structural limitations, unconscious biases and shadow agendas of the institutions and organizations they work with
  • Backcast from a desired future, building bridge foundations on the far side of the river
  • Work collaboratively in networks with other positive mavericks
  • Think and act at systems levels
  • Seek transformative (on top of incremental) change

If you would like to join the R3 community of positive mavericks, join us at the 4th International Reporting 3.0 Conference on May 30-31, where Global Reporting Initiative co-founder Allen White (a Reporting 3.0 Validator) will join me in releasing the report.

And keep your eyes peeled here on Sustainable Brands for more information about the other Reporting 3.0 Blueprints – on Reporting, Accounting and New Business Models.

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