4.1. The role of information in sustainability

Probably, the most widely known definition of sustainability corresponds to the World Commission on Environment and Development which emphasises the importance of ensuring the satisfaction of present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own ones. Another interpretation, which is based on the concept of ecosystems and has the advantage that it does not have to answer the tricky question of what needs are really needed, was stated in the Second World Conservation Strategy. It specifies that a society is sustainable when: a) it preserves the essential ecological processes that maintain life and biodiversity; b) it guarantees the sustainable use of renewable resources and minimises the use of non-renewable ones; c) remains within its carrying ecological capacity. In systemic terms, sustainability can also be understood as a hypothetical state in which three subsystems, the social, the economic, and the biological maximise their own unique set of human-ascribed goals and functions. This systemic approach emphasises the interacting character of the different facets of human development and how the failure or omission of one function can negatively affect the whole system. Finally, in addition to these three well-known definitions of sustainability there is one of particular interest for the present work. It directly stresses the unique role of information to achieve sustainability. It comes from ecology and it is based on a simplified model about the growth of all life forms. From single-cell organisms to animal forms, life can be thought to depend on the consumption of external resources and on the information that this organism needs to obtain those resources. Development, then, can be thought to be a function of only two variables, energy and information. Applying this model to social development would mean that a move towards sustainability would entail minimising the use of energy and resources by maximising the use of information and knowledge.

In the following section, we will centre our argument in a combination of the last two of the four aforementioned definitions, which seem to be the most adequate in understanding the role of mass media in the social endeavour of advancing towards more sustainable futures. Improvements in economic, institutional and ecological information are indispensable to advance towards sustainability via strategies that allow the reduction in the need for energy and resources by transforming information into powerful knowledge, that is to say, going from information for consumption to information for use.

Therefore, adequate, fast, and accessible communication networks are essential for the improvement of the environment and sustainability standards. A decisive way to link information to action is by indicating the means by which markets can improve their performance simultaneously in relation to their economic, social and ecological goals. Too often, corporate profits result from the worsening of labour conditions and environmental standards. Sustainability, however, entails the understanding that the three types of advances are indivisible, interrelated, and necessary. However, most of the social actions with permanent incidence in the quality of the environment primarily depend on the information contained in the monetary price of resources, wastes and pollution. Under present conditions, natural resources are relatively cheap, many waste products s have a market value close to zero, and most pollution is unpriced. So cognitive dissonance appears when media messages and environmental groups denounce pollution or the depletion of certain resources but at the same time more intensive technologies or new transport developments allow the relative reduction of prices in this pollution or resources. The prevalence of short-term market evaluations and priorities on social and environmental goals impedes integrated sustainable economic decisions.

It is a basic neo-classical economics theory assumption that negative environmental externalities and costs can be internalised by market functioning, whenever the interacting parties have enough information about the side effects and costs of their activities. (However, it is no surprise that many of the assumptions of this impeccable model are not fulfilled in practice). Whether we believe in this proposition or not, there are good reasons to think that better information should allow economic agents located in different places to produce their outputs with a more environmentally sound use of natural resources, to improve their access to more efficient technologies, and to implement the latest standards of environmental quality. Thus sharing new information technologies that would work within companies, consumer organisations, or trade union could help to spread knowledge about procedures and regulations on eco-labeling, environmental auditing, or eco-accounting. In some cases, new information technologies could also diminish the need for daily commuting and by enabling people to work at home might also reduce pollution. Economic environmental information could also show how to design projects in which unemployed or disadvantaged sectors could contribute to reduce economic pressures on the environment and simultaneously create new jobs or new social integration opportunities. In general, economic environmental information could be oriented towards showing practical ways in which individuals and corporations can increase the economic value of their activities -valued in GNP terms - while being socially beneficial and environmentally sound.

However, it is one thing to acquire a possible set options and another to choose between them and act on them. Better market information needs to be complemented with other kinds of information about how people can improve or participate in existing economic corporations, political institutions, and civic networks, as well as creating new ones. An integrated approach to environmental information means that corporations would work with citizens to achieve common sustainability goals while citizens would be allowed to enter into corporate decisions for the same reason. Much of the information related to large-scale risk and potential environmental catastrophes is held under close corporate control. The lack of channels for local citizens and stakeholders to participate in decisions on the benefits and costs and on the adequate safety measures for local communities when they enter into potentially dangerous situations, increases the potential of catastrophe. Being able to participate in the existing political and economic corporations means understanding the values, interests or ideologies which people working in these institutions respond to. Appropriate information -which also promotes motivation in civic participation - is fundamental in this respect. Public understanding and intervention in corporate risky decisions is essential to avoid the worst of the outcomes of large-scale potential accidents. Public debate and accountability should be understood as a basis for the improvement of safety and sustainability and not as a threat to corporate power.

Institutional and legal environmental information constitutes then, a type of information as important as the economic one. Most international, national and regional environmental legislation is little publicised or understood. Without this information, citizens then, are indirectly deprived of the right to participate in the improvement of the environment. Many claims of voluntary organisations to improve sustainability and environmental quality standards need the legal arguments and support to be properly defended against those who want to impose private interests. In the same guise, environmental agreements between the public and private companies also need ample publicity, if they are to extend the potential for broader citizen intervention and accountability. Better public knowledge of legal liabilities and the means to denounce environmental damage are also essential to prevent or compensate many current environmental degradation processes.

In sum, mass sustainability and environmental information should not only attempt to provide ecological descriptions about how the natural systems work but also most important, about how the economic, social and political institutions affect these ecosystems. Sustainability defined in strict economic terms falls short in describing what levels of environmental quality and what level of economic growth are socially desirable in distinct locations and who will benefit most by choosing a particular set of strategies. Showing and sharing information about the actions of a given industry, the performance of a political party, or how the average household contributes to the worsening of the environment can be crucial in realising remedial options and increasing public awareness of the social causes and responsibilities in a given social context. The possibilities for society to advance to more sustainable futures depend on its ability to modify its current energy-intensive, unsustainable, and environmentally harmful social routines and to create new social structures by developing new forms of integrated actions across the economic, political and cultural spheres. While information plays a prime role, it is not sufficient per se to advance towards sustainability. Sustainability and environmental information can become a powerful source of change only when it can be broadly incorporated into the social contexts and policy processes and, in this way, influence substantial decisions on the use of natural resources and the quality of the environment. Given that change is dependent upon the understanding of available options, once alternatives have been discovered and considered as feasible, new decisions can be made. New information opens the way to potential change, but only to the extent that new possible courses of actions are known to be available now or in the near future. Being aware of the options for present actions is the first stage for change.

4.2. Key elements of mass environmental information

Mass communication on environmental and sustainability issues face problems of both quantity and quality. In relation to quantity, it is often said that the demand and the supply are small, and in respect to quality that time constraints and other structural conditions affect both the production and the reception of this type of information. In order to define a new and different paradigm of environmental communication, these problems have to be analysed and alternatives need to be identified and experimented. The following items put forward some of the keys to a change in the traditional model of environmental communication.

Quality of environmental information

All attempts to define "good" quality of environmental information tend to select few characteristics which are understood as the most important by the producer, the receiver or the analyst of the information. However, different social groups focus on diverse traits and differing indicators. Contrasts in the perception of quality of media information about environmental problems arise between reporters, industrial groups, administrators, scientists and advocacy groups. Official and public sources tend to find that being precise and reassuring is often a distinctive feature of good quality while "being alarmist" constitutes a trait of bad quality; journalists commonly claim that being impartial or well balanced, "serving the public", aiming for objectivity, or being independent by not taking part in any specific vested interests, are usual standards of good practice. Nevertheless, most of these characteristics are ambiguous, interrelated, and dependent upon the definitions of the terms. Objectivity, for example, can be simply understood as "what scientists say", instead of "what different sources say, including scientists", a trait that could also be called impartiality. In the first case, objectivity would be measured by the number of scientists consulted or the prestige of the institutions where they work. In the second one, the emphasis would be placed on the deconstruction or opposition of scientists’ arguments by other groups such as NGOs. The notion of objectivity therefore depends on the assumptions about the production of knowledge and the beliefs and meanings attached to it by the institutions and the professionals who work in it. Therefore, apart from academic circles and vested interest groups, the majority of citizens do not generally have enough time or resources to check the scientific "objectivity" or "truth" of most environmental information.

Faced daily with an infinite and overwhelming flow of information, people have little choice but to select and interpret the part of the news which has any relevant meaning to the personal interests and values. Then, they will believe it or not accordingly. At the level of mass communication, the objectivity of environmental information cannot be fully verified. At most, the objective content of it can only be validated by the interaction of different and visible "truth sources" with their attendant audiences. Each audience and context claims its own legitimate sources of truth and expresses in a particular language of motives.

Indeed, the adequacy of environmental information can be evaluated by the degree to which it integrates the diverse points of view at stake, in each social context by an open procedure. This however entails that previous decisions about what kind of procedure to adopt for integration are necessary. Environmental communicators, to incorporate the demands of their audiences, need to be close enough to the public as to take people's feedback on meanings and information back to the sources. How close and personal the contact is to the audiences will greatly determine the possibility of understanding and quality of environmental information.

Not only must communicators be close to their audiences but also to their sources and, most important, to the news. Some of the important limitations of the current model of environmental communication relate to space and time distances between journalists and the news; these time and space constrictions finally result in partial and fragmented conclusions. To assure quality of environmental information, journalists need to be close to the event and close to decision-making. This is not always the case and, in many occasions, journalists have to interpret the facts or the data through the reports of other actors close to the event.

An alternative model of environmental information exchange needs to eliminate time and space barriers between suppliers and demanders of information, that is, between communicators, sources and audiences.

Quantity of environmental information

The environmental problem does not rely on the lack of environmental information but on the need for channelling it through the appropriate means and methodologies. In relation to quantity, we should take into account that an increase of environmental news does not necessarily mean an increase of environmental information. More space or air time does not mean better or more information or knowledge (although having more room available for printing, showing, or transmitting news about environmental issues, does improve the chance for audiences to receive the messages). Therefore, concerning sustainability and environmental issues, it seems appropriate to think that people should have sufficient information, supplied through appropriate methodologies, until they feel that they can provide an opinion and decide about concrete actions on distant issues such as the level of national co-operation or the willingness to accept personal costs in global change policies.

Thus, a state of environmental information deficit could be described in two ways, either in relation to the demands of the actors of a given social context or in relation to the information, which is lacking for the resolution of a given environmental problem. In the first case, a deficit appears when the actual demand of environmental information by social actors is greater that its supply, whatever the reason this information is asked for. In the second, it means that there exists an unmet need for information to deal with a specific problem or set of problems. In this case, however, one should take into account that information is only one of the many elements that are necessary to manage a problem and that many other social, political, and economic factors intervene in environmental management. In particular, the amount of information to deal with a given environmental problem might be sufficient, but the human resources and social structures necessary to understand and transform this information into practical knowledge and action might not be enough.

Therefore, systems need to be developed in order to ensure that the necessary amount of environmental information is effectively channelled, eliminating through the use of hyper-textual and hyper-medial languages, the space, time and variability constraints imposed upon information by traditional communication models.

Interactivity and multiplicity

In traditional media practices, the journalist selects "what is important" from the different pieces of news that he or she handles. Journalism sustained in "objective news" is based on vertical transmission - and without discussion on the interpretative key issues of the news - on the part of only one of the social agents that can react to it, namely the journalists. Audiences remain passive and defenceless in front of this one-linear communication model, with the journalist, the single protagonist of the news. This type of journalism is excluding multiplicity as one of the intrinsic characteristics of the communication model.

Designing a new communication model from telecommunication networks would entail modifying the function of journalists, by also empowering the rest of the social agents to participate in the generation and transmission of the news. Through an interactive process, audiences, sources and information professionals can meet and react to an event, processing and interpreting reality from their different perspectives.

From consumption to use of environmental information

There is a very important temporal dimension that affects the distinction between environmental knowledge and environmental information. Time is needed to transform information into knowledge. Understanding, the basis of knowledge, needs time. Much of this time is devoted to the actual act of communication, but time is also needed to reason. Thinking about new ideas and experimenting with them in meaningful ways is a time consuming activity. New information needs to be verified, understood and discussed before it can become part of the body of practical knowledge. For environmental information to become environmental knowledge, individuals or groups have to be able to integrate and use the former in meaningful ways whenever and wherever they consider it convenient. In this sense, to enhance the production of social knowledge on environmental issues and sustainable development, participatory environmental information procedures should be put in practice.

The next step is that environmental knowledge can become environmental action. However, for information and knowledge to promote concrete actions, people need to select them. The selection from the general flow of information and stock of knowledge might be carried out more efficiently when the purposes of that information or knowledge, as well as the actors who need it or want it, can be specified. Obviously, the purposes of knowledge and the reasons for its production and dissemination cannot be imposed unilaterally upon a plurality of actors and contexts. On the contrary, participatory procedures need to be developed to improve the definition of the needs, aims and sources of information and knowledge about sustainability and environmental issues. Access inequalities and exclusion in the selection of environmental information can also result in knowledge inequalities, and in turn, this might create wider external negative effects that affect large populations.

Converting information of consumption into information of use, and so, of knowledge and action, means developing participatory models of environmental information exchange.

4.3. The alternative model

The alternative model must be oriented towards social innovation, that is to say, towards creation of new systems and platforms that produce information of real value, leading to discussion and actions. Environmental information has to be supplied so that it can be used. Advancing towards this model means linking information to options, and contexts to action, as well as involving all the social agents (communicators, public, and decision-makers) in the generation and transmission processes of environmental information. These assumptions have led us to define an alternative model of environmental information exchange as the integration of three basic practices:

  • use of the new technological supports;
  • a new and different representation of knowledge; and
  • a review of the topics put forward for society’s consumption.

 Use of the new technological supports

The emergence of new data and image transference systems in immediately usable forms, through user friendly digital supports of low cost, has led to a gigantic increase in the volume of information, communication and transference of knowledge that was formerly offered only by traditional media.

New technological innovations open still poorly evaluated but highly potential possibilities to environmental communication. The jump of traditional media to the Internet in the form of web sites that project a digital but otherwise faithful version of their content without elements of innovation, proves that there is still a need to experiment in other forms of communication that optimise the differential characteristics of the telematic networks in the benefice of environmental communication.

A new communication model must be conceived and developed through the use of electronic platforms and systems, and telecommunication networks. Only through their use can communication adopt the capacities of interactivity, hyper-textuality, multiplicity and participation of all the social actors, and innovation in the way information is presented (with the use of all the multimedia and hyper-medial elements that confer to information the attractiveness required to catch the audiences), that are indispensable to replace the traditional model that has proven inefficient to change social behaviours towards sustainability.

Designing a new communication model through the use of telecommunication networks means rethinking information (its contents), and also information professionals. Journalists see their functions changed when found in an environment which is totally different to the passive, one-linear environment of traditional media. This new professional is not the protagonist of the news anymore. He or she must mediate a dialogue between the real generators and transmitters of the news: the different social actors involved that participate in the news from their own and personal identities and interpretations of reality.

In the new model, communication is found in the form of virtual communities, newsgroups, electronic information platforms, telematic networks or digital systems where all the actors of environmental information meet, interact and participate to generate and transmit information that responds to their needs and induces action-taking.

A new and different representation of knowledge

In traditional communication practices, lack of integration has led to misuse of information to generate action and induce decision-making from the part of society. Those practices failed to represent knowledge so that it could be used for action-taking towards sustainability. A new sort of environmental communication could attempt to integrate strategies, efforts, and campaigns, which are now carried out in an unintegrated manner.

For instance, many present environmental campaigns publicise that individual actions are crucial to alleviate environmental problems. This strategy, followed also by public agencies, has been aimed at strengthening the feeling of individual political competence in environmental matters. It has been assumed that "environmental empowerment" can be stimulated by public agencies by raising awareness of personal capacities to have an impact on social outcomes. This has been particularly noticeable in some areas such as recycling, green consumerism, and urban transport. However, media campaigns searching for citizens’ co-operation in public and private initiatives to abate environmental problems have often not fulfilled original expectations or have even ended with the opposite results. Many campaigns have been launched before the necessary institutional and technological arrangements have been sufficiently set up. Information strategies have not been understood as part of a broader "environmental policy mix" where different interrelated goals, strategies and measures should be integrated. Inconsistencies and contradictions between what public corporations demand from citizens and what they provide to ensure that people's participation is efficiently channelled are much too frequent. On many occasions, this has led to public disappointment and distrust and as a consequence, future opportunities for positive environmental involvement have not been taken advantage of.

Therefore, an alternative communication model should seek to integrate different strategies from different institutions through interactive, open, interpersonal, and democratic procedures between producers and consumers of information. These could help individuals and social groups define and express more closely what sustainability and environmental information means to them in their own personal contexts. And given that abstract issues such as "sustainability" would acquire a deeper meaning in personal experiences, new ideas in relation to remedial and preventive societal actions might also be more likely to arise.

Low levels of general education and low levels of environmental education in particular, make environmental issues appear to be distant, complex, or secondary problems to the interests and wants of the mainly urban populations. The current environmental illiteracy of large sectors of society keeps the readerships and audiences of environmental information small and fragmented. In turn, civic participation in environmental problems remains very low, especially when the intensity and the scale of the problems at stake is taken into account.

Increasing levels of education could stimulate the demand for information and a proper diffusion of mass information could result in improvements in education. Current formal education, however, does not lead automatically to environmental awareness. Many other cultural and personal factors affect individual interests and the search for environmental information. Personal experiences and positions in the market structure influence the attitudes and the cognitive frames in which both the selection and interpretation of information is carried out.

Besides, even though increasing levels of information can provide a greater knowledge of new options for action, there is no guarantee that more diffusion of environmental information will result in more preventative and individual corrective measures. Quite the opposite can occur. More information can augment one's capability to escape individually and result in more opportunities "to flee rather than fight". Efforts must not be oriented towards increasing levels of information, but towards social innovation, that is, towards development of systems and platforms that display options for action and demonstrate the existence of opportunities for substantial change and engagement. It is only through hope and meaning that decisive transformation can be brought about by large sectors of the population. Raising awareness of the current global and local environmental situation, indicating possible options and their attendant benefits and costs, as well as showing the new roles that citizens and scientists can adopt in the quest for sustainability, constitutes a vast but slow process of environmental social learning in which integrated communication is crucial.

Therefore environmental messages ought to be transmitted to the majority of population through easy, accessible and widespread means of communication. The development of new information technologies confronts this dilemma. There is no doubt that new information technologies allow an exponential growth in the flow of transmitted messages world-wide and have an important role in the quest for sustainability.

Citizens will also need to have adequate indicators to learn about social and environmental change. However, and most important, there is also the need for participation of citizens in the selection and definition of the most appropriate indicators to assess sustainability and the quality of the environment. Indicators proposed by experts might say little to the public and not integrate their views or possibilities for action. People, by participating more actively in the shaping of sustainability indicators, might also be more actively engaged in trying to direct them towards democratically selected goals, which are closer to sustainable paths. Integrators should aim to involve people in the production, demand and understanding of this kind of information. By making the public active in the process of production of the content and the format of indicators, information could be converted into real communication, made practical knowledge, and be more easily linked to decision and action. Hence participatory sustainability and environmental information should begin first by opening debates about what the problems that mostly affect local populations are, defined in their own terms. Then, it would be a task for integrators to try to link these local definitions and priorities to global and long-term environmental problems and trends. By doing so, they could bring the environmental debate on global issues, future generations, and rights of non-human beings into deliberation at the local and present contexts of action. Fairness in the selection and effects of environmental information could be improved then if:

(a) the different stages in the process of production, sorting out, and transmission of information were easily accessible for examination and redefinition by the community;

(b) people were able to participate in the decisions relating to what the key issues to be disseminated in each social context should be; and

(c) they could intervene in the procedures which are used to validate the information provided about the processes of environmental change and the benefits and costs of the possible courses of action.

In conclusion, a new type of environmental communication platform could be specifically devoted to gathering, making intelligible, and spreading timely mass media environmental products in a manner that can transform information and knowledge about the environment and sustainable development into information and knowledge for the environment and sustainable development. The move from the cognitive capacity to improve sustainability to the actual willingness to do so entails not only informative, but also educational, strategies.

New communication systems should aim to fuse expert and lay knowledge in different contexts and to understand the assumptions, languages, and the logical frames of a plurality of social groups and institutions. They ought to integrate the plurality ideas and expressive strategies of different publics and sources by a cross-incorporation of formal and non-formal, telematic and open networks. It is only by a context-oriented social selection and interpretation of environmental information that knowledge and understanding about these kinds of issues could be shared adequately among large sectors of society, instead of being relegated to only a technical elite of environmental specialists and corporations. This would bring sea changes in the way in which current mass environmental communication is taking place.

A review of the contents offered to society

Integration between environmental information and action will require that current media products be brought adequately into particular social contexts. By creating different procedures and conditions based on new assumptions that determine media information production and consumption, it might also be possible to produce new contents, relations, and effects on social structures and institutions.

The traditional division of labour and institutions within the information and educational fields face serious limitations in confronting the current environmental challenge. Although during the last two decades there has been a notable further professionalisation of journalists dealing with environmental issues, they rarely have gone beyond traditional reporting practices and assumptions. Improving the quality of environmental information entails changes not only of practices but also, above all, of assumptions. If the process of integration of environmental information into the social contexts of action is to be pursued, this should bring about radical changes not only in the current communication theories, but also mostly in the existing mass communication practices and institutions. Despite a long and still continuing debate on whether the media can function as mass educators or not, there is little doubt that on the one hand, present media cannot act as environmental educators, and on the other, current educators encounter enormous difficulties in informing adequately large sectors of the adult population about sustainability and environmental issues. New occupations based on new assumptions and aims are needed. Those reporters who do not believe that the environment is worsening and that the sustainability of our societies is increasingly facing serious threats will very likely still be working with old standards. These old kind of reporters, of course, will not disappear and might even be very successful in their careers. But their task will make little contribution to the integration of environmental information with action and to socioecological adaptation. If the public is to understand and be sensitive to environmental change, it is the task of the appropriate communicators to do so in the first place.

In short, one of the most important ways the integration of environmental information could take place could be through the development of new professions and institutions that would perform - in different ways but at the same time - the task of journalists, public educators and others in 'environmental social work'. They should make possible the translation of complex information into intelligible, discussible, and attractive issues and provide the time and the human and technical resources, which guarantee a rich evaluative and participatory feedback from the audiences to each of the original information sources. By proceeding in this way, mass environmental information might increase its chances of becoming practical knowledge for the environment and sustainability.

If this translation is achieved, environmental information should not appear more complex or uncertain than other kinds of information. Complexity and uncertainty partly depend on individual and social meanings, and in particular, on the extent in which this information can relate to personal experiences. Among the main functions of the new environmental workers would be the development of methodologies to spread environmental information, by combining interpersonal and informal means of communication with new developments in information technologies. These methodologies and techniques should aim at the integration of the plurality of environmental information, understanding, and knowledge in a way, which would be easily accessible and comprehensible to large sectors of society, and especially to the adult population.

4.4. Some initiatives testing the new communication model

Several initiatives have emerged that are testing the potentialities of the new environmental communication model as it has been described in this report. It is hard for the purposes of this study to choose among the experiences developed at different levels (and from which we have enough knowledge), but we will describe and analyse three that seem to fit particularly the expectations and ideas expressed so far.

First, we will describe the Global City Platform, an information model developed at local level. Second, we will present the basic features of APC (Association for the Progress of Communications), and mainly its characteristics at national and regional levels (Ipanex, Pangea). Finally, we will have a look at a world initiative of environmental communication, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin of IISD (International Institute of Sustainable Development)

 4.4.1. Global City Platform

The Global City Platform (GCP) is an interactive information system that gathers together data of the reality and the functioning of a municipality in the environmental, urban, social, economic and agricultural/natural areas, displays them in a territorial basis, and allows its analysis. GCP is developed by means of a two-year project that the Centre of Environmental Information Studies carries out with the support of the LIFE Programme of the European union. The pilot trial and first implementation of this platform is carried out in the municipality of Manlleu (Osona, Barcelona).

The GCP is based on the latest information technologies (Geographic Information Systems and Internet) as the support to display information in a suggestive and innovative way; to facilitate its access, query and analysis; and to stimulate the participation of different social actors in its elaboration, interpretation and transmission.

This system seeks to fit organisation and presentation of environmental information in a new communication model, which is derived in part from the emergence and use of the electronic networks and the Internet. In this respect, two versions of the GCP have been developed: an "integral version", which allows access to all the information available in the system and which was conceived to give solutions to the needs of municipal managers; and an "Internet version", which is more oriented to the general public and citizens.

Tool’s structure and functionality

Integration and organisation of information

The platform feeds from different sources of information: the Town Council, Public Administration at regional and national levels, private entities, research centres, social groups, etc. Once the different types of municipal data are selected as relevant and formats have been homogenised, information is classified in different areas of knowledge and activity:

  • natural milieu;
  • urban milieu;
  • social reality;
  • economic reality;
  • environmental variables; and
  • the region (contextual information)


The Platform allows simultaneous visualisation and query of several information levels. In the case of geographic information, this means that we can superimpose different layers of information related to economic, social, environmental, urban and agricultural aspects of the city, allowing its combined analysis. This displays a global overview of the municipality, and can even disclose unshown causality.

It is important to emphasise that, in some cases, original information coming from the source is in non-graphic formatting (databases, photographs, etc.) related to the territory. The Platform uses this information –previously unexploited - to display information as a map, making it more understandable and digestible by the user.

Queries to the GCP can be graphic or alpha-numeric. Some analysis, specially relevant according to sustainable development criteria, have been previously defined and incorporated to the system as pre-elaborated and directly accessible information. Equally, the GCP also includes information about legal limits, recommended threshold levels, etc. that may be used for the diagnosis of the state of the municipality with regard to certain environmental variables.

Apart from the functions of visualisation, query and analysis of information, the GCP incorporates several "assistance" functions such as information updating or search tools.


(A) Tool for planning and urban management

  • Political agents, decision-making actors, and municipal technical personnel have a system that displays the performance of the city through statistics and cartography on the economy, the social situation, and the urban and natural environment. It is a very useful tool for their daily management work, and for the long-term planing.
  • Public information system. A new source of information
  • Civil society, the media, or experts on the urban system have access to updated and detailed information for their work and study; this allows them to evaluate and draw conclusions about the performance of the municipality, and about possible improvements to be implemented. The system covers different access levels depending on the type of user (associations, schools, citizens, professionals, etc.) through friendly interfaces.

(B) A new communication bridge between citizens and local Administration

The platform enables interchange of information and opinions between the citizens, the media and the local Administration. It can be used to disseminate proposals and outcomes of local policies and strategies for the improvement of life quality among citizens and the interested collectives. On the other hand, the platform will allow for the collection and channelling of the opinions and proposals of the citizens and their presentation to policy makers.

(C) Tool for sustainability

  • The municipality as an urban system: Approaching urban issues in a partial way, without taking into account the system as a whole and the side-effects of a decision on related variables, induces partial and incomplete solutions that can worsen the problem or even generate new ones. The Platform allows an eco-systemical approach to the municipality, pooling in one single analysis tool all of all the interrelated variables that can contribute to a certain urban problem.
  • Identification of trends towards sustainability: Incorporation in the platform of pre-defined analysis of sustainability, adapted to the reality of the municipality and to the available data, will allow monitoring the evolution of the urban system towards or against sustainability objectives.

(D) The right to information

The platform, accessible through the Internet, seeks to promote citizen participation in decision-making processes. Wider social knowledge about the reality of the municipality will facilitate behavioural and cultural changes towards sustainability.

Communicative aspects. The new model

Representation of information

Traditional information sources elaborate and disseminate large amounts of data, reports, studies, etc. that represent "bits" of reality and, although they may be exhaustive, they are often partial. Some characteristics of the information and its sources may hinder the "information process" of a journalist or a citizen: the extensive amount of information available, difficulty or slowness in accessing some sources, the use of languages or expressions hard to understand, etc.

The GCP intends to give solutions to this problem through an effort in the way information is treated and represented, by revising, selecting and homogenising data in order to assure its quality and facilitate its access and interpretation. As a consequence of the homogenisation of formats, the platform can display simultaneously different types of information in a single support, providing a context for data and concrete queries (see Figure 18).

FIGURE 18: Setting information in context. The GCP versus the traditional model

 fig18.tif (15210 bytes)

Use of new technological supports

The GCP is based on new technologies: electronic networks, Geographic Information Systems, multimedia resources, etc. It uses new technologies not only as support for information, but also as new communication tools endowing the Platform with qualities such as:

  • High impact of the information, mainly due to the use of audio-visual formats.
  • Better comprehensibility of the information. Original information from the sources, often hard to read and understand, is represented - thanks to the Geographic Information Systems and computer tools - as maps, graphics, etc., which are more attractive and understandable.
  • Integration of information of different nature (in format - text, images, sounds - as well as in content) in a single database, allowing simultaneous displaying, offering global visions and setting information in context.
  • Interactivity of the Platform. A mainstay of the communicative function of the Platform. It offers interactive tools to participate and to express opinions therefore enriching the information and facilitating decision-making and behavioural change towards sustainability. These tools (electronic mail, mailing lists, forums, chats, etc) also allow social actors to provide different interpretations of reality thus enriching the communicative process.

Information for use

As it has previously been said, the PCG is designed to facilitate comprehension of the information offered and, therefore, its assimilation by the users.

This comprehension of the reality is the first step for awareness raising and behavioural change from the part of citizens towards sustainability.

The PGC also offers, together with data of the state of the municipality and its environment, information about legal limits, recommended threshold levels, etc. that facilitate and stimulate comparison, analysis and design of concrete actions (Figure 19).

FIGURE 19: The PGC as a complex source of information
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4.4.2. Association for the Progress of Communications: Ipanex, Pangea

The Association for the Progress of Communications (APC) is a global network, constituted by more than 20 international network members. Its mission is to provide support to organisations, social and individual initiatives in the use of the information and communication technologies to achieve sustainable societies.

Between 1982 and 1987, several national independent and non profit-making computerised networks, appeared as viable information and communication resources. In 1987, GreenNet (UK) began to collaborate with the Institute for Global Communications (IGC) that operates with PeaceNet, EcoNet, ConflictNet and LaborNet (United States). These two networks started sharing their material on electronic conferences, thus demonstrating that transnational electronic communications can serve communities, both national and international, in their work towards issues related to the environment, peace and the human rights.

The process of information exchange succeeded between the IGC and GreenNet led five networks from different points of the planet to exchange information in 1989. One year later, at the beginning of 1990, these seven networks created the Association for the Progress of Communications (APC), with the objective of co-ordinating the operation and development of this global network. From 1997, APC is constituted by 25 network members and exchanges electronic mail and conference services with 40 associated networks at world level.

This network of computerised global communications for the environment, the human rights, development and peace, offers communication links to more than 50.000 non-governmental organisations, activists, educating actors, policy-actors and community leaders of 133 countries. APC has as principal purpose to develop and to maintain an information system that allows groups that work in favour of social and environmental changes, and that are geographically scattered, to co-ordinate activities on-line at a lower cost in comparison to traditional communication methods such as fax, telephone or commercial computerised networks. NGOs and activists at world level use the APC for their internal communication as well as for their efforts of public organisation.

APC uses several network tools such as the World Wide Web, electronic mail (e-mail), electronic conferences (both private and public), databases, fax and telex, navigation tools (Internet, Gopher, Telnet, FTP, WAIS), news and information services, directories or international users. To take advantage of its capacity as a global net of networks, APC has established four principal functional programs:

  • Support to electronic networks. This program is directed to strengthen the capacity of existing and emerging electronic networks, as well as to build strategic communities.
  • Promotion of strategic uses of computerised communication and information technologies. This program intends to empower communities to take advantage of computerised communication and information technologies to get their objectives.
  • Development of information and communication contents and tools. The objective of this functional program is to develop new products, informative resources and applications to support the development of strategic communities.
  • Defence and promotion. Its function is to assure the development of the political environment to guarantee that computerised communication technologies are open and equitable, and that access to information is assured on the part of the civil society, and particularly of strategic communities linked to the objective of social change.

The organisation of APC is represented in Figure 20.

FIGURE 20: Organisation of the Association for the Progress of Communications

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Ipanex is the APC network federation in Spain. This network integrates four nodes: Pangea (Catalonia), Nodo50 (Madrid), Eusnet (Navarra) and Xarxanet@ (Valencia).

Pangea "Communication for Co-operation" groups NGOs whose scope of activity is preferably Catalonia, though they can develop part of their action in other communities of Spain and other countries of the world. Its objective is to promote the use of telecommunications and data processing between persons and organisations that work for health, education, peace, co-operation, development and the environment.

Pangea deals mainly with education, women and BCNet, all areas linked to the use of the Internet. The net is centred in private and public conferences of Pangea, Ipanex and APC. These conferences are classified by issues such as the environment, economy, women, human rights, peace, Latin America or Africa. Furthermore, it offers information on its campaigns and activities, provides different agendas (of education in Catalonia, peace, development and interculturality), as well as projects and congresses. Pangea includes also a directory of links to organisations and associations of the network.

Pangea edits an electronic magazine, "Més enllà", that intends be a discussion platform on present topics to mobilise NGOs and alternative groups of the country. Some spaces are strictly devoted to current issues and others are reserved to the analysis and reflection on social, political and environmental topics that affect the planet. There is also a place for the different agendas that are offered from Pangea, a corner reserved to the groups and NGOs, that can be used as a loudspeaker for their proposals.

A good example of use of the APC global net is the Conference of Knowledge, that took place in Toronto from June 22 to June 25, 1997. This conference allowed developing countries and other states to participate in the world economy linked to knowledge, raising a dialogue at the planetary level and creating a vast participant echo between the public and the private sectors.

The organisers wanted to assure that the dialogue and the echos that were created were available not only for those attending the conference, but also for the countless persons from all around the world that could take good advantage of their efforts. With this objective, organisers worked co-operatively with an important number of entities, public as well as private, to organise a conference in real time in the Internet, parallel to the one that was taking place in Toronto, as well as different virtual meetings presided by the conference participants and other individuals during the twelve following months.

One object of these activities, among others, was to encourage regional discussions on the Internet and to develop the potential of the Internet as a means of dialogue, of diffusion, and of development of virtual communities.

4.4.3. The Earth Negotiations Bulletin

Another practical case that has been considered of interest for the purposes of the study is that of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) (and other actions related to it) produced by the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD), as it represents a world wide service of environmental information that uses new technologies and participatory procedures to spread data about the planet’s state of the environment.

The ENB is an independent information service that provides daily coverage of the negotiations and development undertaken in the environmental arena at United Nations level.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin began as the joint initiative of three individuals from the NGO community, who were participating in the preparations for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. The three founders created the Earth Summit Bulletin in March 1992. After publishing daily issues during the five weeks of the Fourth Preparatory Committee meeting for UNCED, the three raised funds to publish at the Conference in Rio. Following the conclusion of UNCED, the International Institute for Sustainable Development approached the three founders with an offer to continue publishing the Earth Summit Bulletin at follow-up negotiations to the Earth Summit. In November 1992, the Earth Summit Bulletin was renamed the Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

The ENB provides clear and informative balanced and objective summaries of the negotiations that take place on environment and development. This service contributes to the transparency of the international negotiations and supplies real time information on decision-making related to the environment and development, through the use of the new and emerging information technologies. It also shows associative actions between governments and non-governmental organisations, thus facilitating negotiations, while it disseminates information on governmental, non-governmental and UN activities at international meetings.

The ENB provides useful information for policy-makers and for all those interested in contributing to the process of policy-development. Furthermore, it maintains a constant information flow on policy development in other parallel negotiation processes.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin maintains excellent relationships with the various Secretariats and United Nations agencies responsible for organisation and planning of the 1998 events to be covered by the bulletin.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin does not participate in meetings as a Non-Governmental Organisation or as media. At all sessions where they provide coverage, they are accredited to participate as Staff or Affiliates of the Secretariat. This ensures that their team of writers and editors will have unrestricted access to meetings and delegates. This access is essential to ensure that the information they provide is "first hand" and unbiased by hearsay. This status is a precondition for the participation of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin at any negotiation.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin maintains supportive and collaborative relationships with the Non-Governmental Community (NGO). NGOs regularly use the Earth Negotiations Bulletin as a source of information in planning lobbying strategies and monitoring the statements of governments during UN negotiations. Developing and developed country NGOs regularly use portions of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin in their own publications and the Earth Negotiations Bulletin is placed in the NGO computer networks.

Three different formats are used to publish the ENB:

  • a hard copy version, that is distributed in the negotiations and sent to readers in more than 95 countries;
  • an electronic issue, that is included in the international computer networks and that arrives instantly to millions of users of thousands of computer networks; and
  • a hypertextual issue, which is incorporated in the World Wide Web Site of the IISD, named Linkages.

The Linkages is designed to be an electronic clearing-house for information on past and upcoming international meetings related to environment and development policy. The Linkages WWW project is a unique experiment in international co-operation through the magic of the Internet. Although physically located in Canada, the United States, France, Tunisia and, recently, Kenya and Egypt, the Linkages team members, using various flavours of e-mail, FTP, and late-night IRC chats work together to create, in the site, a truly virtual and collaborative work environment.

The mission of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IIDS) is to promote sustainable development in decision-making at international level. It contributes with new knowledge, concepts and policy analysis. Furthermore, it identifies information on the best practices on sustainable development, demonstrates how to measure their progress, and establishes associations to widen these messages. The public and the clients of the IIDS are the companies, the governments, the communities and the individuals interested in sustainable development.

By means of Internet communications, working groups and the activities developed, the IIDS establishes networks to link the concept of sustainable development to practice. This is done through several tools and methodologies among which are:

  • the ENB, that offers daily information on the most important international negotiations on environment and development;
  • the IISDNET, that provides general information on sustainable development; and
  • the IISD Products Catalogue, which includes more than 50 books, monographs, disks and conference documents.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development has a new reporting service - Sustainable Developments. It expands the services provided by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin to other meetings, such as conferences, workshops, symposia or regional meetings that would not be covered by the Bulletin. Sustainable Developments provides a timely, professional, high-quality reporting service for these meetings and disseminates the information extensively via the Internet. These initiatives are growing in scope and number and are providing increasingly important inputs into the policy-making process, and the outcomes of these important initiatives should be highlighted and made widely available to all interested parties.

Lately, the ENB has been present at the II Meeting of the Intergovernmental Forum of Forests (IFF-2) that took place between 24 of August and 4 of September of 1998 in Geneva. For two weeks, ENB representatives present at the meeting offered daily coverage of all discussions. Previously, background information had been prepared and made available. At closure of the meeting, summaries and conclusions were also prepared and transmitted. By doing so, the ENB agents act both as suppliers and demanders of environmental information: they participate, evaluate, integrate, and transmit environmental information. The ENB minimises the space and time gap between information generation and information transmission. 

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