The results show that there are divergent views of sustainable development as well as of whether and how SDIs are useful, among the key actors in the urban water sector.
Conventional urban water systems function well in the sense that they keep receiving waters healthy and supply the people they serve with water and sanitation. The rate at which energy and resources are consumed in order to supply these services is, however, increasingly regarded as unsustainable.
“Existing urban water systems furthermore have a limited capacity to recycle nutrients, as would be desirable from a resource perspective, and to handle the pressures posed by climate change and by increasing amounts of chemicals in society”, says Ulrika Palme.
The use of SDIs is frequently recommended as a tool in guiding development towards more sustainable trajectories, also within organizations.
The thesis takes underlying conceptions of sustainable development as a departure point, and is informed by a close-up of SDIs in terms of information content, applications, processes, and key factors influencing whether and how they are used – all in the urban water system context.
The empirical basis of the thesis is a number of case and field studies, including more than 60 interviews with Swedish and German practitioners in the water sector. The thesis reports on the practice of sustainable development and SDIs in the sector, and compares these results to the recommendations of concerned academics.
The results show that there are divergent views of sustainable development as well as of whether and how SDIs are useful, among the key actors in the urban water sector. The professional personnel generally had a deeper and more nuanced view of sustainable development than had most politicians. The professional personnel also looked more positively on the use of SDIs.
In the organizations studied there were already numerous indicators in use, particularly in monitoring and mandatory reporting – indicators that were not termed SDIs, but which captured certain sustainability issues. Examples of such indicators were “kWh per nitrogen removed from wastewater”, “total cost for the production of one m3 of drinking water” and “amount of cadmium in sewage sludge”.
Ulrika Palme concludes that before SDIs can be further developed, the potential SDI users need to settle on one common or a number of non-excluding visions of sustainable development. If there is no such vision the effect of applying any SDIs will be very limited. If the potential users manage to agree on what sustainable development means to them, they subsequently need to agree on whether or not they consider the application of SDIs a useful tool, and if so what purpose the SDIs should fill.
In order to make SDIs useful it is important to be very clear on what content they should carry and what function they should fill. These aspects need to be considered in each relationship between sender and receiver of information.
The title of Ulrika Palme’s thesis is “The role of indicators in developing sustainable urban water systems”.