SMILE – Shining a spotlight on European sustainability

A new project looking closely at the way we measure sustainability has identified instances where objectives in different policy areas, such as economic and environmental development, can sometimes work against each other, resulting in a compromise having to be made. In light of its findings, the SMILE research project has produced a set of recommendations for how to improve sustainability targets in Europe.

Governments need to have ways to monitor social, economic and environmental change, and to assess whether these changes are sustainable or not, i.e. can be maintained without risking damage to that or any other sector in the long term. ‘Indicators’ are characteristics of a population or environment that can be easily measured and which can give an impression of how successful or sustainable a change is. For example, important social development indicators include household saving rates and the number of people at risk of poverty.

But how much do existing sustainability indicators tell us? Using a range of case studies, the SMILE researchers developed a toolkit to test the range of economic, social and environmental indicators available to policy makers. In doing so, they highlighted where some objectives may be achieved at the expense others, giving a false impression of sustainability.

Main outcomes

  • A new indicator ‘toolkit’ – The SMILE researchers constructed a freely-available framework or ‘instruction manual’ combining several existing approaches for the evaluation of sustainability, based on existing indicators and new ones developed as part of the project. The result was an all-encompassing but flexible toolkit consisting of a number of possible indicators, which can be tailored to suit a specific sustainability issue or stakeholder.
  • Synergy vs. trade offs – The researchers then tested the toolkit on seven case study areas to assess how different aspects of sustainability might interrelate. They found that two factors from different policy areas can amplify each other so that the outcome in terms of sustainability is greater than the sum of their separate effects. For example, rising GDP per capita (economic indicator) between 1997 and 2006 in Italy resulted in a higher average household saving rate (social indicator), both of which had a positive impact on sustainable development. This is described as ‘synergy’. On the other hand, the positive effect of one factor on sustainable development can be diminished by another factor. This is known as a ‘trade-off’ and represents an unsustainable trend. In Romania, for example, an increase in GDP per capita caused the household saving rate to decline and the number of people at risk of poverty to rise. This was attributed to widespread inequality in income distribution.
  • Stakeholder involvement – The research revealed significant overlaps between scientists’ and stakeholders’ attitudes in terms of the need for sustainability. However, miscommunications and lack of a common understanding of a sustainability strategy were also identified, particularly over the relative importance of ecological vs. social systems. This helped the researchers to outline the critical success factors necessary for sustainable development among different stakeholders.

Policy recommendations for Europe

The set of case studies to which the researchers applied the toolkit in their investigation represented a variety of eco-social contexts and geographical scales: a developed economy at the regional level (Catalonia, Spain); a transition economy at the national scale (Romania); a developing economy at the national scale and farming system level (Laos); a developed economy at the forest industry level (Finland); agricultural and agro-industrial sectors at the local, regional and national scale (Italy); an established regional sustainable development strategic plan (Cairngorms National Park, the UK); and developed economies at the national/European level (EU27).

Based on its findings, the SMILE project developed a set of sustainable future scenarios for each case study, which formed a basis for making the following policy recommendations:

  • In general, policies must contain a balance between social, economic and environmental sustainability, i.e. social development should not be ignored in strategic policy development.
  • In Finland, the development of social sustainability policies is particularly important as they are not currently included in the national policy agenda.
  • Romania is in a transition period and needs a strong, comprehensive policy which has social, environmental and economic sustainability as its main goals.
  • For the Italian case study, which addresses historical heritage, physical systems – especially the built environment – must also be considered in sustainability policies.
  • Even in the Cairngorms National Park in the UK, where sustainability objectives are most fully covered, additional policies are required to focus on human capital and social development.

Developing the indicator toolkit was an extension of research already carried out by the FP6-funded DECOIN project1 and within the European Sustainable Development Indicator (SDI) Working Group.


1 DECOIN project (Development and Comparison of Sustainability Indicators). See:

SMILE - Synergies in multi-scale inter-linkages of eco-social systems (duration: 1/1/2008 – 30/6/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 2 “Combining economic, social and environmental objectives in a European perspective”, Research area 2.1 “Socio-economic development trajectories”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Francesca Allievi,