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SQM system
The Sustainable Quality Management (SQM) approach is based on a starting definition of Sustainability as “reconciliation between humanity and nature” (see Sustainable Regional Development: An Integrated Approach, EURES discussion paper dp-60, 1997 page 17 and 30 - INSURED project).

Reconciliation requires a profound and significant change in human civilisation, culture and behaviour. A holistic approach is necessary to favour changes that concern patterns of life, production and consumption.

More than provide models and forced prescriptions, the SQM system offers a method of thinking and acting that support evaluations and decisions looking at future generations.

In so doing, the SQM approach works out a creative system that respects the universally accepted definition of sustainable development (Our Common Future, UN, Brundtland Commission, 1987) as:
  • a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs;

  • a process in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony, and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.

The SQM framework to think and act towards sustainable development answers five critical questions while comparing the present situation and the future perspective:
PresentFutureSQM aspects (32)
What is done?What should be done?Orientation (10 components)
Why it is done?Why it should be done?
How it is done?How it should be done?
Who does it?Who should do it?Social Potential (16 key factors)
When it is done?When it should be done?Dynamics (6 levers of transformation)

The 10 components of ORIENTATION concern the development direction.

These components have been defined comparing a wide range of systems and definitions of sustainable development.

Nowadays it is fully recognised that the environmental, economic and social dimensions should be combined for determining paths towards sustainable development. These paths should be conceived combining three transversal principles that allow human beings to live together in peace while maintaining the basic sources of live (natural resources) and respecting the non-human beings:
  • the access by all to resources, rights, goods and services (social and gender equity)
  • the lack of boundaries in environmental, socio-cultural and economics dynamics (inter-regional or inter-local equity)
  • the impact of current development strategies on the future generations (inter-temporal equity, “We didn’t inherit the Earth from our parents; we borrowed it from our children”, Kenyan old proverb)

The above-mentioned dimensions and principles constitute important identities of a system understood as a globally organised unity of interrelationships between diverse elements, actions, individuals, species, etc. A system is complex, since it embraces all its parts (from the Latin meaning of complexity) and nested, in that it is located within other systems and contains elements that are entirely or partially embedded in the relationships within and outside its boundaries. A system co-evolves and self-organises itself at the extent that the relationships allow a common life.
Thus, strategies towards sustainable development have to be implemented combining diversity, subsidiarity, networking and participation.

SQM Orientation aspects
What should be done? The integration of 3 development dimensions
  • Environmental dimension
  • Economic dimension
  • Socio-cultural dimension
  • Why it should be done? To integrate 3 equity dimensions
  • Equity between individuals
  • Equity between communities
  • Equity between generations
  • How it should be done? Through the integration of 4 systemic principles
  • Diversity
  • Subsidiarity
  • Networking and Partnership
  • Participation

  • The 16 key factors of SOCIAL POTENTIAL concern the Governance for sustainable development.

    These key factors have been identified as driving forces in local development initiatives through comparison of good practices in many projects and between different local contexts.
    A general definition of “governance” is adopted by the SQM approach as an overarching process in which interrelationships within and between nested systems (e.g. a territory, a local community and a company) allow human beings to cope with and solve problems innovating styles of life, production and consumption

    The Governance processes are determined by the interactions between Institutional (e.g. governments), Human (e.g. citizens) and Social Capitals (e.g. civil society, organisations and groups of citizens).

    Institutional Capital is constituted by decision-making processes, organisational capacity, support, services and resources, provided by the institutions that operate at whatever level of a social community.

    Human Capital consists of individually possessed knowledge, skills and competencies acquired through learning, experiences, attitudes and values widely shared within a specific local context and transmitted from generation to generation.

    Social Capital is a “relational capital”, a public good produced and shared by individuals and communities through mutual trust and benefit, participation and cooperation, formal and informal networks, norms, and so on.

    SQM Social Potential aspects
    Who should do it? Institutional Capital
  • Distribution of competence for decision making
  • Budget autonomy for decision making
  • Fair interactions
  • Access to information, dialogue and debate
  • Human Capital
  • Variety of development approaches
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Complexity and change management
  • Attainment and fulfilment
  • Self reliance
  • Skills integration for innovation process
  • Social Capital
  • Local knowledge for diversification process
  • Multicultural cohesion
  • Social cohesion
  • Mobilisation of all actors
  • Shared value system
  • Shared visions of development

  • The 6 levers of DYNAMICS push social potential towards the sustainable development orientation.
    These levers have been identified analysing organisational systems and behaviour in a wide range of case studies and scientific literature. Several approaches have been taken into consideration, especially those associated with Total Quality Management (TQM).

    Changes happen continuously in a system, and its property to be “nested” makes it possible that a change in any part affects other parts and the whole, as well as vice versa.

    Change is favoured by shared vision (what the future should look like) and missions (how to reach the vision day by day).

    Shared vision and missions facilitate concreteness, expressed by expected results and flexible goals, which allow plans to be monitored, evaluated and revised when necessary according to achievements and difficulties.

    Visions and missions are the results of mutual influence in negotiation and co-decision processes. These processes are better performed when different interests and points of view are taken into account.

    To this end, individuals and social communities should be carefully considered as actors (client centrality). They should be involved in decision making by enhancing problem understanding and feeding an open collective learning on their multiple identities, needs and capabilities.

    SQM Dynamics aspects
    When it should be done?
  • Problem understanding
  • Open collective learning
  • Negotiation and co-decision
  • Creation of a shared vision
  • Client orientation
  • Result orientation

  • Aspects’ descriptors

    Each of the above-mentioned 32 aspects has a description of the main issues to be taken into account. The “descriptor” assumes a role of a guideline to evaluate a specific local context (present) and to take strategic development decisions (future).

    Originally (1999) a set of general SQM descriptors was defined.

    1999 SQM general descriptors

    Those regarding the Orientation towards sustainable development have a specific reference to the 27 principles of the 1992 Rio Declaration.

    Reference to the principles of the Rio Declaration

    Recently (June 2005), the European Union (EU) Council approved the Declaration on Guiding Principles for Sustainable Development which partly echoes the Earth Charter Principles elaborated in 2000.
    Taking into account these important documents, the SQM Orientation descriptors have been updated to disseminate the EU commitment to sustainable development and to mainstream its basic principles into every project and local case study.
    Furthermore, several SQM-projects have been carried out so far in a wide range of different local contexts. They provide examples of descriptors of a transversal nature (e.g. Local Agenda 21) or concerning specific thematic issues (e.g. tourism, logistics, employment and social inclusion policies).
    Taking into account these experiences, also the SQM descriptors on Social Potential and Dynamics have been progressively updated.

    As a result, a new set of general SQM general descriptors is currently used.

    2006 SQM general descriptors

    The general descriptors allow researchers to have a basic conceptual framework of reference, but a theoretical framework is necessary for each project in order to define always more specific descriptors according to the fields of analysis.


    Indicators are formulated according to the contents that constitute the “descriptor” and data are gathered according to the specific features of a local context.

    Stakeholders’ involvement

    Local stakeholders are involved in a SQM-based project since the early beginning in order to combine different points of views from the grass roots and the research activity.

    Main SQM phases

    Four are the phases suggested by the most recent projects (for example, AWARDS and INNESTO) carried out on the basis of the SQM system:

    Phase Purpose Main criteria
    Stakeholder Analysis To identify local actors representing different interests (environmental, social, cultural, economic, etc.) Local stakeholders are involved in specific working groups to contribute to following analyses and to participate in a final scenario workshop
    Analysis of the specific thematic issue (1) To formulate hypotheses of innovative actions, examining business performance, work organisation, management, etc. Only the 10 SQM Orientation aspects (descriptors and indicators) are utilised to evaluate situations and decide actions
    Local Context Analysis To formulate hypotheses of innovative actions considering main features of the selected local context and key projects. All the 32 SQM aspects (descriptors and indicators) are utilised to evaluate situations and decide actions
    Local Scenario Workshop To revise, reinforce and correlate the hypotheses of innovative actions in a long term perspective (e.g. 15 years) A selected but limited number of the 10 SQM Orientation aspects is utilised according to the results of the previously mentioned analyses
    (1) District Logistics Analysis, Workplace Analysis, Local Tourism Industry, etc.

    The analyses of local context and specific thematic issue, and partly the local scenario workshop, are performed by means of a strategic utilisation of the SQM / SWOT analysis.

    Strategic SQM / SWOT analysis

    SQM / SWOT analysis is a qualitative analysis that:
  • is based on intuition, ability to be concise, to have a comprehensive picture of systems and processes, as well as on creativity and problem solving

  • allows researchers and stakeholders to express their opinions while respecting different points of views facilitates aggregation of identical and similar evaluations

  • allows different perceptions and opinions to converge towards suitable combinations and shared solutions

  • Strengths (S) and Weaknesses (W), Opportunities (O) and Threats (T) refer to different temporal scales and to their actuality or potentiality (what exists and what could exist):
  • actual conditions are listed as Strengths and Weaknesses

  • and predictable future situations are listed as Opportunities and Threats.

  • Combining the perceptions of the future situations (Opportunities and Threats) with those of the actual conditions (Strengths and Weaknesses), both the researchers and the involved stakeholders are stimulated to look at the near / probable future to determine hypotheses that improve the present situations and anticipate favourable changes.

    Basically, the method consists on confronting Strengths and Threats on one hand, and Weaknesses and Opportunities on the other hand.
    Hypotheses for innovative actions derive from considering how the Strengths (S) can overcome Threats (T) to avoid becoming Weaknesses (W).
    Other hypotheses derive from the capacity of utilising identified Opportunities (O) as driving forces to transform Weaknesses (W) into Strengths (S).

    Finally, a comparison is made between the two fields of actions in order to combine those that are similar, to cluster those that have a common end.

    The hypotheses are supported by data necessary to quantify the indicators associated with each SQM descriptor.
    Local Context Analysis is the starting phase to elaborate a comprehensive strategy towards sustainable development.
    All the 32 SQM aspects (descriptors and indicators) are utilised in the Local Context Analysis since it gives the overall picture of:
  • Orientation (What, Why and How) towards sustainable development
  • Social Potential (Who) for a better governance in favour of sustainable development
  • Dynamics (When) that activates social potential towards the sustainable development
  • orientation.

  • Local Context Analysis therefore provides a wide range of hypotheses concerning innovative actions. Appropriate combinations between them should be formulated, as well as useful priorities attributed to all combinations.
    It is suggested to determine 6 leading combinations (one for each transformation lever) that aggregate all the results. It is in fact by moving these levers that intensive courses of actions can be implemented. Appropriate combinations are created by answering the following key question:
  • what transformation levers (Dynamics) could be utilised to better act on the local key factors (Social Potential) in order to promote feasible paths towards sustainable development (Orientation)?

  • Two stages are necessary to answer the above-mentioned question:
  • the connection stage where the trajectories towards SQM are identified looking at the best association between the innovative actions of each Dynamics lever and those regarding one or more Orientation aspects
  • the placement stage where the innovative actions concerning aspects of the Social Potential are positioned along these trajectories

  • As an overall view, the SQM method innovates the conventional SWOT analysis changing its purposes from descriptive to strategic aims. This happens because SQM corresponds to a systematic problem solving approach similar to the iterative cycle of "Plan, Do, Check, Action", the PDCA cycle conceived by W. Edwards Deming within the principles of Total Quality Management.
    This cycle is nourished by the "wheel of learning" designed by Peter Senge in 1984 and anticipated by Charles Handy in 1989. The wheel is based on four interlinked stages, which are the "lubricants of Change":

    Wheel of changeGeneral purposeSQM / SWOT adaptation
    ReflectingThinking, feeling, evaluating problems, dilemmas, challenges, theories Defining descriptors according to theoretical frameworks where concepts are updated and adapted to specific fields of policies, strategies and programmes
    ConnectingCreating ideas and possibilities for action, dis-embedding and re-embedding things and concepts, rearranging them in new formsConnecting hypotheses of innovative actions through trajectories based on the best association between the Dynamics levers and one or more Orientation aspects. Placing courses of action concerning the Social Potential aspects along these trajectories.
    DecidingSettling on a method for action from alternatives and opportunities generated in the connecting stageGiving a scale of priority to the aggregated hypotheses of innovative actions in order to create Action Plans where results from the connecting stage are transformed in strands of intervention specifying time duration, necessary budget, source of financing and agency responsible for managing the envisaged measures
    DoingPerforming a task with as much of an experimental frame of mind as possiblePerforming each strand of intervention reported in the Action Plans and monitor the impacts through indicators associated with the descriptor of each SQM aspect

    Once performed the Local Context Analysis, another phase follows and it consists in examining more in depth a specific thematic issue, for example the characteristics of an economic district, its logistics flows, its tourism fabric, work organisation and management in a series of businesses and so on.
    The SQM / SWOT analysis of the thematic issue is in this case concentrated on the Orientation (What, Why and How) towards sustainable development, while following the four stages of the “wheel of change”.

    Wheel of changeSQM / SWOT adaptation
    ReflectingDefining descriptors according to theoretical frameworks where concepts refers specifically to the thematic issue
    ConnectingFormulating hypotheses of innovative actions that regard the thematic issues and connecting them with those already formulated through the Local Context Analysis
    DecidingPlanning Pilot Projects where the thematic hypotheses of innovative actions are supported by decisions on time duration, necessary budget, source of financing, agency responsible for managing the envisaged measures
    DoingPerforming the Pilot Projects and monitor the impacts through indicators associated with the descriptors of the 10 Orientation aspects

    Further correlation between the results of Local Context Analysis and those stemming from the analysis of the thematic issue is carried out through a Local Scenario Workshop. Its purpose is to involve the local stakeholders in a final debate where a shared vision of development is created looking at a future perspective (e.g. over a span of 15-years). The vision has the role to better connect the overall frame of innovative actions reinforcing both strategic decisions and tasks to be performed along coherent key paths. For this reason, a simplified SQM / SWOT analysis is suggested concentrating the attention only on a limited number of the 10 SQM Orientation aspects.

    On-line (Internet-based) SQM tools

    All the SQM phases are supported by on-line tools through which researchers and local stakeholders are facilitated to evaluate the current situations and to decide innovative actions.

    Several on-line systems are elaborated according to the specific SQM-based projects.
    The general mechanism is constituted by easy manageable questionnaires that allow researchers and stakeholders to participate in a virtual but interactive forum with their points of views and suggestions. Questionnaires are always prepared according to the theoretical framework and the operational tasks of each project. SWOT procedures are considerably simplified while the elaboration of information and data is a task of persons responsible for carrying out research on each local case study areas. The on-line system produces automatically reports that can be utilised to elaborate customised publications.