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).

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Jack Park (biography)

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Kirsten Kainz (biography)

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Community member post by Graeme Nicholas

Graeme Nicholas (biography)

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