Reframing social sustainability reporting: towards an engaged approach
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Existing approaches to sustainability assessment are typically characterized as being either “top–down” or “bottom–up.” While top–down approaches are commonly adopted by businesses, bottom–up approaches are more often adopted by civil society organizations and communities. Top–down approaches clearly favor standardization and commensurability between other sustainability assessment efforts, to the potential exclusion of issues that really matter on the ground. Conversely, bottom–up approaches enable sustainability initiatives to speak directly to the concerns and issues of communities, but lack a basis for comparability. While there are clearly contexts in which one approach can be favored over another, it is equally desirable to develop mechanisms that mediate between both. In this paper, we outline a methodology for framing sustainability assessment and developing indicator sets that aim to bridge these two approaches. The methodology incorporates common components of bottom–up assessment: constituency-based engagement processes and opportunity to identify critical issues and indicators. At the same time, it uses the idea of a “knowledge base,” to help with the selection of standardized, top–down indicators. We briefly describe two projects where the aspects of the methodology have been trialed with urban governments and communities, and then present the methodology in full, with an accompanying description of a supporting software system.