Synthesis of knowledge about participatory modeling: How a group’s perceptions changed over time

Community member post by Rebecca Jordan

Rebecca Jordan (biography)

How do a group’s perceptions change over time, when members across a range of institutions are brought together at regular intervals to synthesize ideas? Synthesis centers have been established to catalyze more effective cross-disciplinary research on complex problems, as described in the blog post ‘Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure‘, by Andrew Campbell.

I co-led a group synthesizing ideas about participatory modeling as one of the activities at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). We met in Annapolis, Maryland, USA, four times over three years for 3-4 days per meeting. Our task was to synthesize what is known about participatory modeling tools, processes, and outcomes, especially in environmental and natural resources management contexts.

The group defined participatory modeling as a “purposeful learning process for action that engages the implicit and explicit knowledge of stakeholders to create formalized and shared representation(s) of reality” ( In its idealized form, participatory modeling involves stakeholders in co-formulating the problem and the solution or decision-making outcomes. In some cases, stakeholders also co-generate – with expert modelers – the shared representation or model.

Here, I discuss two representations generated, respectively, at the first and last meetings and shown in the figures below. These representations are the result of combining models generated by the participatory modeling experts present at each meeting. Individuals were given the following prompt: “create a model using pen and paper that reflects the participatory modeling process”. The sheets of paper were then collected and aggregated, following which I created a digitized version.

Representation generated at the first meeting by the participatory modeling group (source: Rebecca Jordan)

Representation generated at the last (fourth) meeting by the participatory modelling group (source: Rebecca Jordan)

Comparing the figures generated at the first and last meetings, it can be seen that both feature models, cycles, multiple scales, inclusion, and exclusion of participants.

But there are four major differences. Compared to the last meeting figure, the first meeting figure:

  1. is process oriented, organized as steps,
  2. features explicit theories,
  3. lacks realistic pictures including people, and
  4. lacks explicit mention of researchers.

My impression is that these differences also framed the changes in group discussion during the meeting processes.

One change was that the participatory modeling experts became more comfortable with each other allowing for a more creative flow of ideas and a more comfortable discourse. They also became more familiar with the ideas being represented in the different disciplines and could talk more freely about these ideas.

If we take the two representations as indicative of the change in the way that participants viewed the participatory modeling process, then I suggest that the group became somewhat humbled by the limitations in the research about (and the institutions that house) participatory processes in general. Not only did we read about, and discuss at length, the processes and tools within multiple cases, but we also confronted the socio-economic and political challenges that people across the globe face. In addition, we recognized the complex layers of uncertainty embedded within natural and social systems. The figure from the final meeting depicts a more reflective and personalized perspective on the participatory process that encompasses a much greater scale.

What stood out to me was the increased appreciation for the multiple layers of the processes by which people gather information and learn. While the group began with discussions about the inherent complexity in governance processes and the extent of varying stakeholder needs, the group ended the series of meetings with greater recognition of neurology, cognition, identity, culture, and the researcher biases that are all part of participatory engagement.

While these are personal reflections, I am interested in what you see in the change across the two figures. For me, better capturing the complexity that arose in our discussions has great potential to improve participatory modeling and the research that uses it. What do you think?

Biography: Rebecca Jordan is Professor and Department Chair of Community Sustainability in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, Michigan, USA. She devotes most of her research effort to investigating public learning of science through citizen science and participatory modeling. She was a co-Principal Investigator of the Participatory Modelling pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post resulted from the Participatory Modeling pursuit which was part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Using Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to set context for transdisciplinary research: A case study

Community member post by Maria Helena Guimarães

Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)

How can Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework help transdisciplinary research? I propose that this framework can provide an understanding of the system in which the transdisciplinary research problem is being co-defined.

Understanding the system is a first step and is necessary for adequate problem framing, engagement of participants, connecting knowledge and structuring the collaboration between researchers and non-academics. It leads to a holistic understanding of the problem or question to be dealt with. It allows the problem framing to start with a fair representation of the issues, values and interests that can influence the research outcomes. It also identifies critical gaps as our case study below illustrates. Continue reading

Tool-swapping in interdisciplinary research – a case study

Community member post by Lindell Bromham

Lindell Bromham’s biography

What can we learn from focussing on examples of interdisciplinary research where ideas or techniques from one field are imported to solve problems in another field? This may be in the context of interdisciplinary teams, or it may simply involve borrowing from one field to another by researchers embedded within a particular field. One of the major benefits of interdisciplinary research is the chance to swap tools between fields, to save having to reinvent the wheel.

The fields of evolutionary biology and language evolution have been swapping ideas and tools for over 150 years, so considering the way that ideas have flowed between these fields might provide an interesting case study. Continue reading

Using the concept of risk for transdisciplinary assessment

Community member post by Greg Schreiner

Greg Schreiner (biography)

Global development aspirations, such as those endorsed within the Sustainable Development Goals, are complex. Sometimes the science is contested, the values are divergent, and the solutions are unclear. How can researchers help stakeholders and policy-makers use credible knowledge for decision-making, which accounts for the full range of trade-off implications?

‘Assessments’ are now commonly used. Following their formal adoption by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in the early 1990s, they have been used at the science-society-policy interface to tackle global questions relating to biodiversity and ecosystems services, human well-being, ozone depletion, water management, agricultural production, and many more. Continue reading

Responsive research – simple, right? The AskFuse case study

Community member post by Rosemary Rushmer

Rosemary Rushmer (biography)

Researchers are constantly being challenged to demonstrate that their research can make a difference and has impact. Practice and policy partners are similarly challenged to demonstrate that their decisions and activity are informed by the evidence base. It sounds like all we need to do is join the two groups together – simple, right?

In Fuse (the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, we wanted to do exactly that. We wanted to supply the evidence that end-users said they wanted (supply and demand), and make it easy for them to access and use research evidence.

Yet, we knew that current approaches to supplying evidence (briefs, guidelines, publications) do not work as well as we once thought they did. It needed a re-think… Continue reading

Scaling up amidst complexity

Community member post by Ann Larson

Ann Larson (biography)

How can new or under-utilized healthcare practices be expanded and institutionalized to achieve audacious and diverse global health outcomes, ranging from eliminating polio to reversing the rise in non-communicable diseases? How can complex adaptive systems with diverse components and actors interacting in multiple ways with each other and the external environment best be dealt with? What makes for an effective scale-up effort?

Four in-depth case studies of scale-up efforts were used to explore if there were different pathways to positively change a complex adaptive system. Continue reading