Participatory processes and participatory modelling: The sustainable procedure framework

By Beatrice Hedelin

Beatrice Hedelin (biography)

How can we resolve debates about participatory processes between proponents and skeptics? What role can participatory modelling play in improving participatory processes?

Proponents argue for the merits of participatory processes, which include learning; co-production of knowledge; development of shared understanding of a problem and shared goals; creation of trust; and local power and ownership of a problem.

Sceptics point to evidence of inefficient, time-consuming, participatory processes that escalate conflict and mistrust. They also highlight democratic problems; lack of transparency; and powerful actors that benefit in relation to weaker ones such as the unorganized, poor, and uneducated.

The challenges of participatory processes are exacerbated by the complexity of the decision-making context. Environmental and risk contexts usually involve multiple administrative and political actors, scales and domains. Within this complex system, nested and overlapping decision-making processes occur, more or less coordinated, and these are based on different incentives, mandates and modes of democracy (representative/hierarchical and participatory/network).

Instead of choosing sides in the academic debate on participation, a more constructive way forward is to acknowledge the potential merits of participation while at the same time integrating the insights pointed to by the sceptics. I have developed a theoretical tool for such an approach – the Sustainable Procedure Framework.

The framework is intended for theory-based assessment and development of participatory processes and can be utilized at national, regional and local levels. It is based on the observations described above, which make clear that participation is a necessary but not a sufficient principle for designing long-term, efficient and democratic participatory processes.

The framework aims to establish an interdisciplinary whole of integrated scientific knowledge. This knowledge is systematized through the concept of sustainable development via the sustainable development principles of participation and integration. The Sustainable Procedure Framework spans a large portion of the vast knowledge needed to understand participatory processes in relation to its governance context. It is summarized in the table below.


How does this relate to participatory modelling? Participatory modelling has the potential to support sustainable transitions by means of sustainable procedures, as defined by the Sustainable Procedure Framework. Because of its strengths in relation to systems thinking; rationality; transparency; communication; knowledge integration; and illustrating and simplifying complexity while still keeping track of it; participatory modelling can actually provide more than the merits of participation described above.

To achieve this, research needs to lay the basis for how participatory modelling can support participatory processes in the complex political and administrative system that they are part of. For example: How can participatory modelling support institutionalization of learning so that the organizations represented by the participants benefit effectively? And how can participatory modelling processes support the establishment of appropriate structures to surround decision-making processes?

To realize participatory modelling’s potential, and to upscale and implement participatory modelling in practice, we need to engage more seriously in studies of participatory modelling in relation to governance.

I welcome your views and feedback.

For a complete description of the Sustainable Procedure Framework see:

Hedelin, B. (2007). Criteria for the assessment of sustainable water management. Environmental Management, 39: 151–163.

Hedelin, B. (2015). Further development of a sustainable procedure framework for strategic natural resources and disaster risk management. Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, 7: 247-266.
Online (DOI): 10.1080/19390459.2015.1015815.

Hedelin, B. (2016). The sustainable procedure framework for disaster risk management: Illustrated by the case of the EU floods directive in Sweden. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 7: 151-162.

Biography: Beatrice Hedelin is a senior lecturer in environmental science and a researcher at the Center for Climate and Safety and in the River Ecology and Management research group at Karlstad University, Sweden. Her research is interdisciplinary and centers on procedural aspects of sustainable development. The main research issue concerns the operationalisation of sustainable development as a collaborative, participatory and integrated planning procedure, with applications in strategic natural resources and disaster risk management, climate adaptation and river basin management. A special interest is planning tools and transdisciplinary research. She is 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 US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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