As an intangible quality, ‘sustainability' is not something you can typically count or carry by the truckload. Yet it is considered vital to policy-making and carefully observed in relation to Europe's regions. EU-funded researchers were convinced they could create a mathematical model and related geo-information tool to crystalise this fluid concept and help planners and policy-makers make meaningful decisions on regional development.
If fuels are taxed, what is the impact on emissions, the economy or citizens? Policy-makers favour one policy over another and budgets are adapted accordingly. The new mathematical model, created by the EU-funded EPSILON project, will give Europe's regional leaders a quantitative idea of the overall impacts on sustainability in their area.
|Models to help planners and policy-makers assess the repercussions of their decisions on regional development.|
“There's been a lot of talk about sustainability in Europe for a number of years, but it's an intangible quality,” comments Marc Bonazountas, who heads the Environmental Systems Unit at Athens University and was technical adviser on the three-year project. EPSILON was one of 36 projects funded within the EPROS (European Plan for Research in Official Statistics) scheme of the IST programme which brought together national statistical institutes, universities, administrations and private companies and was managed by Eurostat – the EU's statistical office.
Being able to predict the impact of a policy decision is a powerful tool. But Bonazountas warns that no model is perfect: “No model can be an absolute reference, but within the same model it is possible to judge the relative merits between two competing policies,” he told IST Results.
For example, the authorities in the Italian region of Calabria tested the model to assess the sustainable management of water resources. Users are given a snapshot of a region's sustainability or they can drill down to examine just one aspect of the model. The authorities were so pleased with the results that they intend to expand their use of it, according to IST Results.
Enter the matrix
At the heart of the model are four pillars – environmental, economic, social and institutional – each subdivided into four themes, the so-called ‘sustainability matrix', for data collection. Under the water theme, for instance, you find fresh water quantity, surface water quality, coastal and ground water.
Very accurate data collected (to the Eurostat-defined NUTS III level) is entered into a mathematical model that estimates sustainability indices for themes and pillars per region. This model is also processed by a Geographical Information System (GIS) which then produces colour-coded maps showing and comparing the sustainability of particular regions under different scenarios.
Using new GeoSpace ‘clustering' techniques, EPSILON also developed alternative ways of displaying the data, where the geometry of the maps is created from the data itself. So-called ‘space models' like this provide real added value over conventional approaches, as they make peculiarities in the data easier to find.
A working version of the team's modelling software is now complete and being made available for testing purposes which will help refine the software and algorithms. But these systems take time to roll out, laments Bonazountas. It could take 20 years before the tool can become a widely accepted and reliable standard for modelling sustainability.
“It takes five years for a model to become well-known and another five for it to be tested. Finally, it takes probably ten years before a model's reputation and reliability are truly established,” he predicts.