Eight grand challenges in socio-environmental systems modeling

By Sondoss Elsawah and Anthony J. Jakeman

author-sondoss-elsawah
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.

Read moreEight grand challenges in socio-environmental systems modeling

Why model?

By Steven Lade

Steven Lade
Steven Lade (biography)

What do you think about mathematical modelling of ‘wicked’ or complex problems? Formal modelling, such as mathematical modelling or computational modelling, is sometimes seen as reductionist, prescriptive and misleading. Whether it actually is depends on why and how modelling is used.

Here I explore four main reasons for modelling, drawing on the work of Brugnach et al. (2008):

  • Prediction
  • Understanding
  • Exploration
  • Communication.

Read moreWhy model?

Four patterns of thought for effective group decisions

By George P. Richardson and David F. Andersen

George Richardson
George P. Richardson (biography)

What can you do if you are in a group that is trying to deal with problems that are developing over time, where:

  • root causes of the dynamics aren’t clear;
  • different stakeholders have different perceptions;
  • past solutions haven’t worked;
  • solutions must take into account how the system will respond; and,
  • implementing change will require aligning powerful stakeholders around policies that they agree have the highest likelihood of long-term success?

Read moreFour patterns of thought for effective group decisions

Designing scenarios to guide robust decisions

By Bonnie McBain

Bonnie McBain (biography)

What makes scenarios useful to decision makers in effectively planning for the future? Here I discuss three aspects of scenarios:

  • goals;
  • design; and,
  • use and defensibility.

Goals of scenarios

Since predicting the future is not possible, it’s important to know that scenarios are not predictions. Instead, scenarios stimulate thinking and conversations about possible futures.

Read moreDesigning scenarios to guide robust decisions

Agent-based modelling for knowledge synthesis and decision support

By Jen Badham

Jen Badham (biography)

The most familiar models are predictive, such as those used to forecast the weather or plan the economy. However, models have many different uses and different modelling techniques are more or less suitable for specific purposes.

Here I present an example of how a game and a computerised agent-based model have been used for knowledge synthesis and decision support.

The game and model were developed by a team from the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), a French agricultural research organisation with an international development focus. The issue of interest was land use conflict between crop and cattle farming in the Gnith community in Senegal (D’Aquino et al. 2003).

Agent-based modelling is particularly effective where understanding is more important than prediction. This is because agent-based models can represent the real world in a very natural way, making them more accessible than some other types of models.

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Managing uncertainty in decision making: What can we learn from economics?

By Siobhan Bourke and Emily Lancsar

Siobhan Bourke (biography)

How can researchers interested in complex societal and environmental problems best understand and deal with uncertainty, which is an inherent part of the world in which we live? Accidents happen, governments change, technological innovation occurs making some products and services obsolete, markets boom and inevitably go bust. How can uncertainty be managed when all possible outcomes of an action or decision cannot be known? In particular, are there lessons from the discipline of economics which have broader applicability?

Read moreManaging uncertainty in decision making: What can we learn from economics?

Conceptual modelling of complex topics: ConML as an example / Modelado conceptual de temas complejos: ConML como ejemplo

By Cesar Gonzalez-Perez

cesar-gonzalez-perez
Cesar Gonzalez-Perez (biography)

A Spanish version of this post is available

What are conceptual models? How can conceptual modelling effectively represent complex topics and assist communication among people from different backgrounds and disciplines?

This blog post describes ConML, which stands for “Conceptual Modelling Language”. ConML is a specific modelling language that was designed to allow researchers who are not expert in information technologies to create and develop their own conceptual models. It is useful for the humanities, social sciences and experimental sciences.

Read moreConceptual modelling of complex topics: ConML as an example / Modelado conceptual de temas complejos: ConML como ejemplo

A checklist for documenting knowledge synthesis

By Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

How do you write-up the methods section for research synthesizing knowledge from different disciplines and stakeholders to improve understanding about a complex societal or environmental problem?

In research on complex real-world problems, the methods section is often incomplete. An agreed protocol is needed to ensure systematic recording of what was undertaken. Here I use a checklist to provide a first pass at developing such a protocol specifically addressing how knowledge from a range of disciplines and stakeholders is brought together.

KNOWLEDGE SYNTHESIS CHECKLIST

1. What did the synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge aim to achieve, which knowledge was included and how were decisions made?

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

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.

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

Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration

By Jen Badham and Gabriele Bammer

badham
Jen Badham (biography)

What is a mental model? How do mental models influence interdisciplinary collaboration? What processes can help tease out differences in mental models?

Mental models

Let’s start with mental models. What does the word ‘chair’ mean to you? Do you have an image of a chair, perhaps a wooden chair with four legs and a back, an office chair with wheels, or possibly a comfortable lounge chair from which you watch television?

Read moreSharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration

Managing deep uncertainty: Exploratory modeling, adaptive plans and joint sense making

By Jan Kwakkel

jan-kwakkel
Jan Kwakkel (biography)

How can decision making on complex systems come to grips with irreducible, or deep, uncertainty? Such uncertainty has three sources:

  1. Intrinsic limits to predictability in complex systems.
  2. A variety of stakeholders with different perspectives on what the system is and what problem needs to be solved.
  3. Complex systems are generally subject to dynamic change, and can never be completely understood.

Deep uncertainty means that the various parties to a decision do not know or cannot agree on how the system works, how likely various possible future states of the world are, and how important the various outcomes of interest are.

Read moreManaging deep uncertainty: Exploratory modeling, adaptive plans and joint sense making

Good practices in system dynamics modelling

By Sondoss Elsawah and Serena Hamilton

sondoss-elsawah
Sondoss Elsawah (biography)

Too often, lessons about modelling practices are left out of papers, including the ad-hoc decisions, serendipities, and failures incurred through the modelling process. The lack of attention to these details can lead to misperceptions about how the modelling process unfolds.

serena-hamilton
Serena Hamilton (biography)

We are part of a small team that examined five case studies where system dynamics was used to model socio-ecological systems. We had direct and intimate knowledge of the modelling process and outcomes in each case. Based on the lessons from the case studies as well as the collective experience of the team, we compiled the following set of good practices for systems dynamics modelling of complex systems.

Read moreGood practices in system dynamics modelling