Art and participatory modelling

By Hara W. Woltz and Eleanor J. Sterling

1. Hara W. Woltz (biography)
2. Eleanor J. Sterling (biography)

What can art contribute to participatory modelling? Over the past decade, participatory visual and narrative arts have been more frequently and effectively incorporated into scenario planning and visioning workshops.

We use arts-based techniques in three ways:

  1. incorporating arts language into the process of visioning
  2. delineating eco-aesthetic values of the visual and aural landscape in communities
  3. engaging art to articulate challenges and solutions within local communities.

The arts based approaches we use include collage, drawing, visual note taking, map making, storyboarding, photo documentation through shared cameras, mobile story telling, performance in the landscape, drawing as a recording device, and collective mural creation.

They allow us to expand and deepen engagement strategies beyond the scope of traditional dialog tools such as opinion surveys, workshops, and meetings. And, they allow for both individual and collective work, from spending reflective time independently, to rejoining as a group to discuss process and products. They are also particularly effective in bicultural and multicultural settings.

Visual techniques can help foster a different type of discussion than one that is primarily verbal or quantitative because they involve participants in different patterns of thinking, questioning, and interacting. These techniques:

  • encourage participants to express values in a non-verbal language
  • enhance creative perception, idea generation, and experimentation
  • foster discussion
  • aid in communication of ideas and findings during the process of scenario planning
  • contribute to documentation of the ideas generated.

They may stimulate new approaches to familiar subjects, allowing participants to look from alternative, and multiple perspectives. Additionally, they may level background differences among participants and aid in the creation of a common language since teams engage in activities and create products together during workshops. These tools can help integrate disparate groups and engage those who may not engage as well through other methods. They may help generate a shared vision through the continual generating and refining of creative products. They may help to communicate results of a workshop through a tangible end product.

Our work in the Western Pacific provides an illustration. We used visual and verbal prompts to engage community members in considering their current diet and ideal diet through drawing. We provided participants with a folded base of three connected pages. On the front and back of each page, we drew a plate so that each participant received six plates to fill in with drawings. On one side, we asked them to draw what they ate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, and on the other to draw what their ideal daily consumption would look like.


After drawing for thirty minutes, each participant presented her work and all participated in a group discussion about why the differences between ideal meals and actual meals existed. This practice gave participants a chance to think about what they had eaten and what they might want to eat because the time to draw is longer than the time to list what one remembers eating. When we take the time to draw something, our minds may linger longer on the question at hand. Additionally, for people who may not be used to public speaking, holding a drawing as a prop that may be referred to for reference may be emboldening and add to the comfort level with engaging.

Art can also play a role in spatially explicit mapping and modeling. For example, a range of aerial and satellite imagery over time can be used to map land cover and land use change. Community members can be invited to move between looking at images, walking in the landscape, and discussing a vision for the future that is informed by past experiences.

Drawing, writing, and collaging on top of existing visual documents can create a rich mosaic of ideas and visions for the future, and delineate the process through which the ideas are expressed. Results from participatory mapping workshops and exercises can feed into modeling for future scenario development, in turn to facilitate informed decision making on the part of communities.

Over time, and through interactions and experiences with community members, the scope of our arts based evaluation continues to evolve, guided by the desires and engagement of community members and what we discover. What are your experiences using engagement tools? Have you found differences in the way that participants respond to visual versus verbal prompts?

Biography: Hara Woltz is an artist and conservation biologist. She has a studio practice and currently consults as a visiting scientist with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. Utilizing a variety of media, she addresses aspects of the destruction and conservation of ecological systems. Through her work, she reveals patterns, connects disciplines, and examines interactions between humans and the environment. She has worked on a variety of ecological design projects throughout the world. Her art works are included in a number of corporate and private collections.

Biography: Eleanor Sterling PhD is Chief Conservation Scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. Building on her interdisciplinary training and experience, she bridges biological and socio-cultural perspectives and integrates them into management strategies for integrated ecological and human systems. She has over 30 years of field research and community outreach experience in both terrestrial and marine systems around the globe and is considered a world authority on the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascarensis), a nocturnal lemur found only in Madagascar. She focuses her current work on the intersection between biodiversity, culture, and languages and explores the factors influencing resilience from a biocultural approach. She is a member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in February 2016 of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

5 thoughts on “Art and participatory modelling”

  1. The following comment was posted on LinkedIn by Howard B. Esbin, PhD on 9 November 2017:
    Insightful article. Visual thinking and expression open up wide new vistas of perception and understanding for those habitually chained to linear, verbal reasoning and text based communication.

  2. Yes, artistic, non-verbal approaches to engagement can both unlock creativity and encourage a wider range of people to engage and contribute with confidence. Many of the more ‘hard to keep within reach’ often react negatively to traditional forms of engagement, such as meetings and the standard, quite boring, newsletters, etc.

    • We are working on some longer documents that summarize visual arts-based facilitation and will share those here when we complete them!

      • That would be really interesting, I have co-developed a large-group process called Socio-Drama Topography (SDT) which involves using different art and drama forms. In the case of SDT the simulation is embedded in a Social Topography, which becomes a micro-level unit of analysis.

        I have also developed a multi-modal approach to group imagining called Envisioned Scenography, which we took recently from Toronto to Belgium.

        I am currently working on a practice-based PhD, through the Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology, at CCCUniv. in the UK. I am exploring the integration of Social Topography approaches, with multi-level embodied simulation and field configuration approaches. This will help develop long-term bottom-up development projects at ADCID (Aiding Dramatic Change in Development) and also help us to share and scale some of these approaches with other action-oriented team practitioners.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: