On 13 September 2016, the expert workshop "Discussion of an assessment system for civil society initiatives to measure sustainability and transformative potential" took place in Berlin. At the workshop, about 30 participants from science, policy, foundations, and sustainability initiatives discussed the first draft of a criteria catalogue for measuring and presenting the societal benefit of niche sustainability initiatives, especially their sustainability and transformative potential. Stephanie Wunder, Senior Fellow at Ecologic Institute, presented the assessment system.
In the workshop, the application of the criteria catalogue to two case studies was also presented. The criteria for estimating the sustainability potential, the transformative potential, the organizational capacity for action, and the scalability of the initiatives were developed from 13 political and scientific assessment systems and from transition literature.
Civil society initiatives are playing an ever more important role in the development and spread of social innovations and in a societal transition towards more sustainability. Frequently these initiatives and their practices remain confined to "niches".
With appropriate (political) support, many of these initiatives could spread more broadly and find their way out of the niche.
However, a prerequisite for this change is the ability to carry out a differentiated assessment of the sustainability impacts and transformative potential of different initiatives.
A consistent framework for assessment does not yet exist that can account for different types of sustainability initiatives, that exhibits a broad understanding of sustainability, and that allows for a rough estimate of their sustainability impacts and transformation potential.
In addition, many assessment criteria concentrate on one focus area, e.g. measuring environmental impact while ignoring social effects, or focusing only on economic impacts. Integrated approaches that measure a large sprectrum of sustainability aspects are less developed. With the UN member states' agreement on the 17 diverse Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 and the requirement to implement them in Germany, the development of integrated approaches has gained a new political relevance.
The workshop was held as part of the project From niche to mainstream – How to spread sustainable practices. The project on behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) has the goal to develop a method to identify the key environmental impacts and the transformative potential of initiatives and to allow a scientifically based, logical, and practice-oriented assessment. Ecologic Institute is leading the project in cooperation with the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions, Erasmus University of Rotterdam (DRIFT).
Discussed contexts for application for the criteria catalogue for sustainability initiatives
In addition to the application of the criteria catalogue as an argumentation support tool on the federal political level, further contexts for application for federal states, local governments, foundations, and sustainability initiatves themselves were discussed. The group found the following useful:
- Identification of (new) local initiatives relevant to sustainability
- Tool for federal states, cities, and the Sustainability Strategies Regional Networking Points (Regionale Netzstellen Nachhaltigkeitsstrategien, RENN) to measure the implementation of the SDGs through local sustainability initiatives
- Inspiration, evaluation tool, orientation and decision support for federal states, cities and foundations for support and/or improvement of framework conditions
- Analysis for better scientific understanding of niche initiatives and the impacts of their activities
- Consulting support/guidelines to allow for better development of the sustainability and transformation potential of initiatives (e.g. to offer them individualized coaching)
- Self-analysis of the initiatives to identify the strengths and weaknesses as well as argumentation support of their own contributions
- Goal-oriented networking of initiatives that can mutually support each other and grow their transformative potential
Alternative approaches to asses niche initiatives
Short inputs on alternative assessment systems enlivened the discussion. These included presentations by Angelika Schichtel (ANU e.V., "From doing to knowing – environmental centres as change agents in a grassroots transformation"), Christopher Luderitz (University of Waterloo, "Learning through evaluation: an evaluation scheme for transformative sustainability experiments"), and Anne Holsten (Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, "TESS Project – Transition to sustainable, low-carbon societies").
Discussions on the criteria for sustainability and transformation potential
Alongside the workshop participants' basic positive assessment of the presented criteria, the group discussed ideas about an alternative structure for the criteria, the inclusion of new criteria and the specification of the stated goal and assumptions behind them. Especially the criteria and guidelines for transformation potential will become the object of further differentiation in the assessment system.