Five core competency areas for participatory modeling

By Sondoss Elsawah, Elena Bakhanova, Raimo P. Hämäläinen and Alexey Voinov

1. Sondoss Elsawah (biography)
2. Elena Bakhanova (biography)
3. Raimo P. Hämäläinen (biography)
4. Alexey Voinov (biography)

What knowledge and skills do individuals and teams need to be effective at participatory modeling?

We suggest that five core competency areas are essential for participatory modeling:

  1. systems thinking
  2. modeling
  3. group facilitation
  4. project management and leadership
  5. operating in the virtual space.

These are illustrated in the figure below.

These competency areas have naturally overlapping elements and should therefore be seen as a holistic and interdependent set. Further, while certain competencies such as modeling skills can be addressed by individual members of a participatory modeling team, the entire process is a team effort and it is necessary to also consider the competencies as a group skill.

Systems thinking

The systems thinking competency area covers three interrelated competencies:

  • transdisciplinary approach
    This is a form of inquiry that aims to transcend the scope of disciplines by systematically creating and integrating knowledge into a new knowledge base, going beyond the approaches of individual disciplines, while engaging stakeholders in this process.
  • approaching problems from a systemic perspective
    This requires the ability to identify different perspectives, consider wholes and parts, recognize systems and boundaries, identify and characterize relationships, including feedback interactions, as well as identify and use intervention points and relevant interdependent drivers and factors to produce effects.
  • systems intelligence
    This refers to intelligent behavior of stakeholders (including scientists conducting research) in the context of complex systems, involving interactions and feedback. In problem solving a person with systems intelligence sees the overall system and perceives herself as being a part of the systemic socio-emotional whole of problem solving and understands the influence of the whole on herself and her influence on the whole. The focus is on intelligent action and engagement rather than only describing the system from outside. In participatory modeling the entire process creates a social system which needs to be understood and managed as it has an essential impact on the behavior of the participants and the group dynamics.


Key modeling competencies are:

  • problem structuring and formalization, taking into account the purpose of modeling, the limitations, uncertainties, omissions, and subjective choices that will be made
  • awareness of a wide arsenal of tools and methods, including qualitative, semi-quantitative, and quantitative approaches, and flexibility for choosing the most appropriate ones
  • managing the process of model building, going through several iterative cycles of system conceptualization, formalization, computation and analysis (sensitivity analysis, calibration, verification, and validation)
  • presenting the model output in ways that can be communicated to other stakeholders within the team and beyond.

Group Facilitation

Group facilitation requires a broad set of skills, some of which are generic and applicable to any group communication, while others are specific to particular participatory modeling contexts (for example, workshops that include model development or co-design of a product). Competencies include:

  • developing relationships with relevant participants and modeling clients before the workshop; planning the process of the workshop, including stakeholder selection; sustaining the involvement of the participants during the workshop; and guiding the group to conclusions
  • ‘interpersonal communication’ skills such as an ability to actively listen to the group, summarize ideas, ask guiding questions, and employ clear verbal and non-verbal forms of expression
  • personal characteristics such as friendliness, sense of humor, tact and self-confidence.

Project management and leadership

Four groups of competencies for project management are:

  • behavioral (social skills of a project manager)
  • technical/specific (specific competencies based on the activities that a project manager performs)
  • management (ability to apply tools, techniques to run the project)
  • contextual (specific competencies based on the relevant field requiring project management).

Key leadership competencies in participatory modeling include ability to:

  • identify the risks and impacts of behavioral phenomena in modeling and stakeholder engagement
  • understand the big picture
  • know the stakeholders and empower them.

Additional issues are discussed in another i2Insights contribution on leadership in participatory modeling.

Operating in the virtual space

As was recently prioritized by the COVID-19 pandemic, some new competencies emerged as essential, including:

  • harnessing the potential of social media, e-negotiation systems, virtual tools for group decision support, artificial intelligence and gamification approaches
  • the ability to run online group model building processes
  • online facilitation and communication.
Five core competency areas for participatory modeling (Source: Elsawah et al., 2023)


The main goal of identifying the core competencies in participatory modeling is to improve the practice. While modeling skills are generally recognised as central, they need to be supplemented by the other competencies. Yet, in general, opportunities for training in these skills seem to be missing. Also lacking are training materials, which could draw on existing competency frameworks that are re-synthesized and organized for participatory modeling.

Do the five competency areas we have identified resonate with your experience? Are there areas that are missing? Are you aware of training courses and materials that would be useful?

To find out more:

Elsawah, S., Bakhanova, E., Hämäläinen, R. P. and Voinov, A. (2023). A Competency Framework for Participatory Modeling. Group Decision and Negotiation, 1-33. (Online – Open Access) (DOI):

Biography: Sondoss Elsawah PhD is an Associate Professor and Director of the Capability Systems Centre, University of New South Wales Canberra, Australia. Her research focuses on the design and application of multi-method approaches to support decision making in complex socio-ecological-technical decision problems. Application areas include natural resource management and asset planning. She is a passionate educator who loves to stretch the mental models of her students to think in systems and about systems.

Biography: Elena Bakhanova PhD is a communities and social performance consultant at WSP Australia, based in Canberra. Her interests include participatory approaches, social learning, and energy transitions.

Biography: Raimo P. Hämäläinen PhD is a professor emeritus in the Systems Analysis Laboratory, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland. He is an honorary visiting professor at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia and at Loughborough University, UK. He has published extensively on decision and game theory, environmental decision making, as well as developed widely used decision support software. His current interests include behavioral issues in modelling and systems intelligence in social interaction.

Biography: Alexey Voinov PhD is professor of Persuasive Systems Modeling for Sustainability Science at the Faculty of Engineering Technology, University of Twente, Netherlands. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales. His interests are in socio-environmental simulation modeling, with applications in water, energy and agriculture. He is a keen advocate of stakeholder involvement in modeling and decision making.

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