Eight grand challenges in socio-environmental systems modeling

By Sondoss Elsawah and Anthony J. Jakeman

Sondoss Elsawah (biography)

As we enter a new decade with numerous looming social and environmental issues, what are the challenges and opportunities facing the scientific community to unlock the potential of socio-environmental systems modeling?

What is socio-environmental systems modelling?

Socio-environmental systems modelling:

  1. involves developing and/or applying models to investigate complex problems arising from interactions among human (ie. social, economic) and natural (ie. biophysical, ecological, environmental) systems.
  2. can be used to support multiple goals, such as informing decision making and actionable science, promoting learning, education and communication.
  3. is based on a diverse set of computational modeling approaches, including system dynamics, Bayesian networks, agent-based models, dynamic stochastic equilibrium models, statistical microsimulation models and hybrid approaches.

Eight grand challenges

Anthony Jakeman (biography)

With the advent of new techniques, data sources, and computational power, the expectation is that socio-environmental systems modeling should be more widely used to inform decision making at multiple scales. Nevertheless, this is not a straightforward endeavour, and both theoretical and methodological challenges abound.

It is therefore timely to identify and formulate current grand challenges in socio-environmental systems modeling, in order to propose clear directions for future generations of models and modeling, to both their developers and users.

We have identified eight areas of challenges, which are also illustrated in the figure below:

  1. Bridging epistemologies across disciplines
  2. Integrated treatment of modeling uncertainty
  3. Combining qualitative and quantitative methods and data sources
  4. Dealing with scales and scaling
  5. Capturing systemic changes in socio-environmental systems
  6. Integrating the human dimension
  7. Elevating the adoption of socio-environmental systems models and impacts on policy
  8. Leveraging new data types and sources.

For each challenge, we briefly highlight the nature of the challenge and key steps in the way forward. For more detail see Elsawah and colleagues (2020).

1: Bridging epistemologies across disciplines

Nature of the challenge:

  • Disciplinary training which limits the ability to develop interdisciplinary approaches
  • Ambiguity about what constitutes data resulting from differences in epistemologies
  • Institutional gate-keeping practices by disciplinary experts who reject novel interdisciplinary methodological approaches and theoretical frameworks
  • Lack of standard collaboration norms.

The way forward:

  • Training in multiple disciplines
  • Effective communication and trust in interdisciplinary collaborations
  • Advancing multi-method approaches
  • Acknowledging the multiple purposes of modeling
  • Diverse reward schemes.

2: Integrated treatment of modeling uncertainty

Nature of the challenge:

  • Limited adoption of integrated uncertainty assessment in practice
  • Limited communication of uncertainty to decision makers.

The way forward:

  • More attention to the qualitative aspects of uncertainty
  • More attention to methods that identify and integrate model structure sources of uncertainty
  • Moving beyond traditional quantitative methods
  • More attention to deep uncertainty and exploratory methods
  • More attention to surrogate modeling methods
  • Better utilization of statistical data analysis techniques to inform uncertainty analysis
  • Strengthening the communication process among model developers and the audience.

3: Combining qualitative and quantitative methods and data sources

Nature of the challenge:

  • Determining the right balance between quantitative and qualitative aspects of data collection and model building
  • Implementing mixed-methods in practice
  • Disciplinary perceptions of methods and data.

The way forward:

  • Reflective and comparative studies to examine the effect of alternative designs
  • Development of methods to support semantics mediation
  • Focusing on qualitative outputs of models.

4: Dealing with scales and scaling

Nature of the challenge:

  • Representing and matching scales in socio-environmental systems models
  • Different levels of knowledge and data about the social and environmental subsystems at various scales
  • Modeling phenomena across multiple scales.

The way forward:

  • Evaluation and comparison of different methodological choices related to scale
  • Developing accessible resources on scaling method
  • Using social models at different scales to represent the vertical interactions within the social subsystem and cross-scale processes in socio-environmental systems.

5: Capturing systemic changes in socio-environmental systems

Nature of the challenge:

  • Lack of knowledge and data on the fundamental processes that drive systemic shifts in social systems
  • Limited methods for modeling systemic changes.

The way forward:

  • Improving knowledge and data for social systems
  • New methods for reasoning about and modeling systemic change
  • Dealing with uncertainty issues as they relate to systemic change.

6: Integrating the human dimension

Nature of the challenge:

  • Limited funding for social science
  • Inherent difficulties in gathering data and representing the process of actual decision-making in models.

The way forward:

  • Better alignment between theory and data that inform social decision rules
  • Going beyond ad hoc assumptions or stylized theories underpinning human behaviour
  • Converging on a set of generic modules to represent iconic socio-economic decisions in the environmental context.

7: Elevating the adoption of socio-environmental systems models and impacts on policy

Nature of the challenge:

  • Measuring the impact of socio-environmental systems modeling on decision making
  • Lack of understanding of the inevitable uncertainty that is part of modeling complex socio-environmental systems
  • Scaling up of outcomes from participatory modeling across multiple scales.

The way forward:

  • In-depth understanding of participatory modeling aspects
  • Better understanding of the political process underpinning decision making
  • More effective visualization.

8: Leveraging new data types and sources

Nature of the challenge:

  • Dealing with emerging ethical issues
  • Methodological issues around data collection and use.

The way forward:

  • Incorporating ethics and equity considerations
  • Addressing biases and uncertainty.

A vision for the future

We also synthesize a vision for the future of socio-environmental systems modeling, which is organized around harnessing the following opportunities:

  1. education and training to prepare the future generations of socio-environmental systems modelers;
  2. consolidating methodological knowledge through multiple and comparative studies;
  3. shifting from piecemeal and ad-hoc uncertainty assessment practices to integrated uncertainty management.

If these issues can be surmounted, then we can ensure that decision makers have tools that can better address their needs.

We are keen to hear your views about the challenges and opportunities ahead of the socio-environmental systems modeling community. Do our eight challenges resonate with your experience? Are there other challenges that you would add? Which challenge will you be most interested to tackle, and why? Can you suggest other priority areas to focus on?

Eight grand challenges for socio-environmental systems modeling and their underpinning issues (source: Elsawah et al., 2020)

To find out more:
Elsawah, S., Filatova, T., Jakeman, A. J., Kettner, A. J., Zellner, M. L., Athanasiadis, I. N., Hamilton, S. H., Axtell, R. L., Brown, D. G., Gilligan, J. M., Janssen, M. A., Robinson, D. T., Rozenberg, J., Ullah, I. I. T., Lade, S. J. Eight grand challenges in socio-environmental systems modeling. Socio-Environmental Systems Modeling, 2: 16226. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.18174/sesmo.2020a16226

Biography: Sondoss Elsawah PhD is an Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Capability Systems Centre, University of New South Wales Canberra, Australia. Her research focuses on the development and use of multi-method approaches to support learning and decision making in complex socio-ecological and socio-technical decision problems. Application areas include natural resource management and defence capability management. She was the chief investigator of the workshop on Use of socio-environmental systems modeling in actionable science: State-of-the-art, open challenges and opportunities, funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Biography: Tony Jakeman PhD is Professor and Director of the Integrated Catchment Assessment and Management (iCAM) Centre, at Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. His research interests include system identification, integrated assessment methods and decision support systems for water and associated land resource problems. He is leader of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training Program on Integrating Socioeconomics, Policy and Decision Support. He was a member of the workshop on Use of socio-environmental systems modeling in actionable science: State-of-the-art, open challenges and opportunities, funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Effectively including online participants in onsite meetings

By Participants in the SESYNC Theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science”

Author details

With increasing interest in online participation in workshops, meetings and classes, are there useful protocols to ensure that online participation is effective? Mixed onsite-online meetings are probably the hardest to manage well. How can you effectively include online participants, so that they don’t feel marginalized and ignored? How can you ensure that everyone has a chance to share their expertise and perspectives, and benefits fully from the meeting?

We draw on our experiences in four different interdisciplinary academic teams which held three-day meetings across wide time zones. We provide a protocol for effectively managing meetings rather than the necessary technical requirements, and welcome comments on the latter. Different technological set-ups will have different strengths and weaknesses, so some of our lessons will require modification depending on the exact circumstances. Many of our suggestions are also relevant to online only meetings.


  • Ensure that the technology is up to the tasks required, especially that there is excellent audio and preferably also video.
  • Ensure that a technical expert is on hand to check that everything is working properly onsite, and to help online participants handle any glitches that arise.
  • Have a practice run beforehand!
  • Make it easy for everyone to identify everyone else – if you don’t already know each other, consider providing:
    • a list of photos and names
    • large nameplates that can be read by online participants and visible name identifiers for online participants.
  • Decide if any ancillary technology (eg., Google docs) will be used ahead of the meeting and make sure everyone has access to it.
  • Plan small group work ahead of time and think through what’s necessary for online participants to be full members. For example, will you divide the online participants and have them join different small groups, or will they form their own small group? How will the technology work in each of those situations? Bear in mind that while two onsite small groups can work in the same room, this often does not work well when there are also online participants (see notes on soundscape below).

Tips for onsite set-up

  • Ensure that the screen showing the online participants includes them in the meeting eg., don’t have onsite participants sitting with their backs to the screen.
  • Delegate someone to manage what the online participants see and to use the technology to its full capacity, eg., if online participants can only see part of the meeting room, make sure the camera moves to take in where the discussion is occurring and if there is a zoom capacity, zoom in on the person speaking.
    • If possible, delegate this task to a someone who is not a meeting participant, so that they can focus on it fully.
    • If this task is undertaken by meeting participants, rotate it amongst the participants.

Tips for online set-up

  • Ensure that your computer audio is up to the task. If it is not, invest in a microphone.
  • Use headphones to enhance your ability to hear; make sure they are comfortable, especially for long meetings.
  • Review how you appear on-screen. Cameras built into computers often show you at a poor angle; consider investing in a separate camera that you can look into directly. Adjust the camera distance and angle so that your face is well-centred on the screen and a good size (not too small or too large). Be aware of what viewers will see behind you



  • It is harder to build relationships when you are not interacting face-to-face.
  • There is often a time lag, especially when online participants speak.

Tips for onsite participants

  • Make space for the online participants to contribute.
  • Make eye contact with online participants as well as those onsite.
  • Monitor how the online participants are going. This can be done by:
    • regular check-ins, including monitoring the chat (commenting or messaging) system
    • a buddy system pairing online and onsite participants, who connect during breaks and also via chat or e-mail during the meeting.
  • Record shared ideas in a way that is accessible to everyone:
    • use an inclusive technology eg., have someone record ideas on their computer, which is both projected into the room and screen-shared with online participants
    • note that online participants generally cannot read what is written on a whiteboard or flip chart
    • if you must use a white board or flip chart, delegate someone to take photos and to share them with the online participants.
  • Organize a process for filling-in online participants on important onsite conversation outside the meeting eg., over dinner or lunch.
  • Be mindful of the soundscape and your contribution to it. Microphones do not filter sound in the same way that your ears do. Online participants can hear everything that is happening in the room, including the side-conversations. If there are too many side conversations, clatter from cups or plates, paper shuffling, or there is background noise (machinery, for example) this is much more disruptive for online than onsite participants.

Tips for online participants

  • Treat the meeting in the same way you would if you were present onsite:
    • if there is a time difference, adjust your body clock and meal times
    • allocate time to the meeting appropriately eg., do not try to do your day job as well as participating in the meeting
    • if you cannot be present the whole time, let the chair or facilitator know.
  • Become adept at muting your microphone when you are not speaking and turning it on before you do.
  • Participate! Recognise that it is harder than being in the room and push yourself a little more to have your say.
  • If you miss something, ask for it to be repeated.
  • Liaise with the other online participants and speak up if something is not working with either the technology or the way the meeting is being run:
    • the chat function is useful for checking in with other online participants.
  • Be mindful of what the onsite participants can hear and see:
    • if you are wearing headphones you will not hear background noise at your end and the noise may be disruptive for onsite participants
    • if you eat during the meeting, mute your microphone and turn off the video.

Tips for chairs and facilitators

  • Ensure that the tips above are implemented.
  • Ensure that the times listed on the agenda reflect all the times zones across which the meetings is held.
  • Be clear about how you want to manage the flow of conversation and turn-taking. Make sure it works for the online participants eg., if you want people to raise their hands, make sure you can see when online participants have their hands raised.
  • Do not try to do everything yourself, eg., get others onsite and online to monitor when people want to speak and how the meeting is going.
  • Alternate between online and onsite participants when calling on people to speak.
  • Invite everyone to reflect on the process at the end of the meeting to build additional learnings.

What has your experience been with mixed onsite and online meetings? Do you have additional tips to share? Do you have examples of when things have worked well and when they have gone badly, along with lessons learnt?

Authors: We are a subgroup of the members of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. For all but one of us, clicking on our names in the author list below will provide links to other blog posts we have written for this blog, along with our biographical details. An additional biography and two updated affiliations are also provided.

The combined image of all the authors can also be opened via the this link (PDF 192KB).

Top row (left to right): Gabriele Bammer, Sondoss Elsawah, Pierre Glynn, Joseph Guillaume
Second row (left to right): David Hawthorne, Antonie Jetter, Rebecca Jordan
Third row (left to right): Kirsten Kainz, Bethany Laursen, Allison MetzGraeme Nicholas
Second last row (left to right): Michael Paolisso, Katrin Prager, Laura Schmitt-Olabisi
Last row (left to right): Val Snow, Eleanor Sterling, Cristina Zurbriggen

Additional biography: Pierre Glynn PhD heads the Hydro-Ecological Interactions Branch in the Water Mission Area at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). He also serves as the Water Mission Area representative to the USGS Science and Decisions Center.

Updated affiliations:
Graeme Nicholas is now a consultant.
Katrin Prager is now in the Geography & Environment Department, University of Aberdeen, UK.

Fifteen characteristics of complex social systems

By Hamilton Carvalho

Author - Hamilton Carvalho
Hamilton Carvalho (biography)

What is it about complex social systems that keeps reproducing old problems, as well as adding new ones? How can public policy move away from what I call the Mencken Syndrome (in reference to a quotation from American journalist Henry Mencken) – that is, continually proposing clear and simple solutions to complex social problems – that are also wrong!

With this goal in mind, I have compiled a list of fifteen major characteristics of complex social systems based on the system dynamics and complexity sciences literatures, as well as my own research. Continue reading

How can expertise in research integration and implementation help tackle complex problems?

By Gabriele Bammer

author - gabriele bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What is expertise in research integration and implementation? What is its role in helping tackle complex societal and environmental problems, especially those dimensions that define complexity?

Expertise in research integration and implementation

Addressing complex societal and environmental problems requires specific expertise over and above that contributed by existing disciplines, but there is little formal recognition of what that expertise is or reward for contributing it to a research team’s efforts. In brief, such expertise includes the ability to:

  • identify relevant disciplinary and stakeholder inputs
  • effectively integrate them for a more comprehensive understanding of the problem
  • support more effective actions to ameliorate the problem.

Continue reading

A framework to evaluate the impacts of research on policy and practice

By Laura Meagher and David Edwards

Laura Meagher (biography)

What is meant by impact generation and how can it be facilitated, captured and shared? How can researchers be empowered to think beyond ‘instrumental’ impact and identify other changes generated by their work? How can the cloud of complexity be dispersed so that numerous factors affecting development of impacts can be seen? How can a way be opened for researchers to step back and reflect critically on what happened and what could be improved in the future? How can research teams and stakeholders translate isolated examples of impact and causes of impact into narratives for both learning and dissemination? Continue reading

Theory U: A promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns

By Vanesa Weyrauch

Vanesa Weyrauch (biography)

How can we best live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world? How can we shift from a worldview that looks to predict and control what is to be done through plans and strategies to being present and flexible in order to respond effectively as unexpected changes take place? How can we be open to not knowing what will emerge and embrace uncertainty as the opportunity to co-create and learn?

One powerful and promising way forward is Theory U, a change methodology developed by Otto Scharmer and illustrated below. Scharmer introduced the concept of “presencing”—learning from the emerging future. The concept of “presencing” blends “sensing” (feeling the future possibility) and “presence” (the state of being in the present moment). It acknowledges that we don’t know the answers. Staying at the bottom of the U until the best potential future starts emerging requires embracing uncertainty as fertile soil. Continue reading