Moving from models that synthesize to models that innovate

By Pete Loucks

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Pete Loucks (biography)

When computer technology became available for developing and using graphics interfaces for interactive decision support systems, some of us got excited about the potential of directly involving stakeholders in the modeling and analyses of various water resource systems. Many of us believed that generating pictures that could show the impact of various design and management decisions or assumptions any user might want to make would give them a better understanding of the system being modeled and how they might improve its performance.

We even got fancy with respect performing sensitivity analyses and displaying uncertainty. Our displays were clear, understandable, and colorful. Sometimes we witnessed users even believing what they were seeing. We occasionally had to remind users that our models were, and would continue to be, approximations of reality, at best. It was fun developing and using such tools, and indeed today most models that are used to analyze river basins, groundwater, and coastal zones incorporate interactive, graphics-based, decision support frameworks.

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Facilitating participatory modeling

By Rebecca Jordan

Rebecca Jordan (biography)

Facilitate: “To help (something) run more smoothly and effectively” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).

Like many practices in life, there is an art and a science to facilitation.  Certainly, best practices in facilitating processes within participatory modeling mirror many of those practices highlighted in guides to other participatory approaches.  It is of critical importance that the expectations around the word “effective”, as taken from the definition above, are identified and negotiated. How can an individual or team of individuals help the process if expectations are unmatched?

Given that resources exist to encourage facilitation, the question that I struggle with is how is participatory modeling different?  What does the addition of a model (i.e., an abstract representation) mean for facilitating participation?  I argue that the benefits of using a model as a boundary object (i.e., a static representation that is jointly created but differently interpreted) about which stakeholders can discuss, are manifold.

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Modeling as social practice

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Jeremy Trombley (biography)

By Jeremy Trombley

Modeling – the creation of simplified or abstract representations of the world – is something that people do in many different ways and for many different reasons, and is a social practice. This is true even in the case of scientific and computational models that don’t meet the specific criteria of “participatory” or “collaborative.” Scientists and modelers interact with one another, share information, critique and help to refine one another’s work, and much more as they build models.

Furthermore, all of these activities take place within broader social structures – universities, government agencies, non-government organizations, or simply community groups – and involve resources – funding sources, technologies – that also have social factors that are both embedded within and emerging from them. Understanding the relationship between all of these social dimensions as well as those of the problems that modeling is being used to address is an important task, particularly in participatory modeling projects.

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Why participatory models need to include cultural models

By Michael Paolisso

michael-paolisso
Michael Paolisso (biography)

Participatory modeling has at its heart the goal of engaging and involving community stakeholders. It aims to connect academic environments and the communities we want to understand and/or help. Participatory modelling approaches include: use facilitators, provide hands-on experiences, allow open conversation, open up the modeling “black box,” look for areas of consensus, and “engage stakeholders” for their input.

One approach that has not been used to help translate and disseminate participatory models to non-modelers and non-scientists is something psychologists and anthropologists call “cultural models.” Cultural models are presupposed, taken-for-granted understandings of the world that are shared by a group of people.

Cognitive anthropologists, including those who focus on human and environment interactions, developed the theory and method of cultural modeling in order to understand the cultural knowledge and values that individuals use to “make sense,” understand, and evaluate the world around them.

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