Swiss Sustainability Indicators

Harmonizing urban sustainability measurement initiatives without losing context-relevance. The case of Cercle Indicateurs in Switzerland.

Project team: Prof. Claudia R. Binder, Dr. Livia Fritz, Dr. Albert Merino-Saum – EPFL/HERUS

Duration: 2021 – 2022

In the past three decades, a broad range of indicator-based measurement initiatives have been developed worldwide for monitoring the sustainability of individual cities. Such a proliferation of local initiatives poses key challenges in terms of: (i) regional and national governance; (ii) assessment of policy measures’ performance; and (iii) resource efficiency (each initiative involving specific costs, and budgets allocated to sustainability monitoring being generally scant). Given this backdrop, which has been named the indicator “zoo” or “industry” in the scientific literature, there is a clear need for the harmonization of existing indicator sets. Yet, it is far from being obvious how to properly account for context-specific sustainability issues while bringing cities’ initiatives together within one region or country. This research project aims at empirically investigating the challenges and opportunities underpinning the tension between local pertinence and a coherent multi-level governance. It proposes to do so by focusing on the example of the harmonization efforts made over the last 20 years by the Swiss Cercle Indicateurs.

In Switzerland, 19 cantons, 31 cities and two federal offices form the Cercle Indicateurs, a collaborative platform launched in the early 2000s by several federal offices, cantons and cities under the auspices of the Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE). The Cercle Indicateurs aims at harmonizing municipal and cantonal sustainability measurement initiatives, pooling monitoring resources and fostering mutual learning. To do so, the participating cities, cantons and federal offices meet regularly and decide collectively about common needs, challenges and ways forward. In this context, members of the Cercle Indicateurs are currently revising the indicator system built up more than 15 years ago.

Taking this revision process as the key entry point, this project aims at analyzing this unique initiative from three complementary perspectives:

  • From the first perspective, the Cercle Indicateurs is principally seen as an indicator system; the focus lies on exploring diverse perspectives on the relevance of the outputs created by the Cercle Indicateurs;
  • From the second perspective, the Cercle Indicateurs is apprehended as a collaborative platform; the focus lies on grasping the ways in which heterogenous actors from the local, regional and national level interact and jointly take decisions on what and how to measure;
  • From the third perspective, the Cercle Indicateurs is understood as a potential sustainability enabler; the focus lies on understanding to what extent the Cercle Indicateurs informs and supports sustainability governance in the participating cities and cantons.

Methodologically this research will principally rely on:

  • document analysis;
  • participant observation;
  • in-depth interviews with representatives of cities, cantons and federal offices.