Designing for Action: Principles of Effective Sustainability Measurement

This report from the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Measuring Sustainability provides detailed guidance for decision makers on measuring for effective sustainability. The report provides a summary of the full report and aims to provide a framework and guide for those engaging with sustainability literature and the development and application of sustainability assessment tools. 


"Interest in sustainability is at an all-time high. This transformation has been brought about by two linked dynamics. First, high-profile challenges have driven home with sharp clarity that failure to achieve sustainability threatens all policy and business spheres, not merely the environment. The 2008 collapse of financial markets, the contagion of political crises linked to the Arab Spring, high volatility in energy and food markets, the increased impact and frequency of natural disasters, and the emergence of new diseases such as SARS, among other examples, have contributed to a dramatic convergence of views that sustainability is a pervasive challenge. Second, whereas sustainability was initially greeted as a threat to conventional public goals of growth, security and equity, and therefore deliberately shunted to the margins, today it is seen as both integrally supporting and essential to these objectives.

In short, sustainability is a permanent part of the decision-making landscape for communities, for policy-makers and for businesses – a defining feature of our age. As a result, more robust, operational approaches to measurement are called for so that mankind can manage sustainable pathways. Past efforts can provide valuable lessons to guide future metrics, but fundamental change is required. The traditional focal areas of sustainability – environmental degradation, resource scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss, etc. – have escalated to alarming levels. An effective global strategy for measuring sustainability must not only respond to these environmental challenges but must also be able to provide evidence-based guidance to other more established economic and social agendas in an integrated manner."


  • A General Framework for Implementing and Assessing Sustainability across Scales 7
  • Taking a System Perspective 7
  • Dealing with Cross-sector Interactions – The Food-Water- Energy Nexus 9
  • Social and Technical Contributions of Sustainability Assessment 9
  • Recognizing “Success” without Ignoring the Challenge of Sustainability 9
  • Conclusion: The Task Ahead 11
  • Appendix: Major Developments in Sustainability Theory and Practice during the Last 20 Years 12
  • Overview of Linkages between Sustainability Science, Assessment Tools and Global Initiatives 12
  • Underpinning Science and Methods 13
  • The First Decade after Rio: Sustainability Science and Concepts, and Implementation Tools and Frameworks 13
  • The Second Decade after Rio: Next Generation Sustainability Science and Emerging Implementation Tools and Frameworks 15


Deborah O’Connell, John Raison, Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Andrew Braid, Annette Cowie, Anna Littleboy, Thomas Wiedmann, Megan Clark (2013). Designing for Action: Principles of Effective Sustainability Measurement, World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Measuring Sustainability. Retrieved from: