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

Community member post by Jan Kwakkel

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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. This implies that, under deep uncertainty, it is possible to enumerate possible representations of the system, plausible futures, and relevant outcomes of interest, without being able to rank order them in terms of likelihood or importance.

There is an emerging consensus that effort needs to be devoted to making any decision regarding a complex system robust with respect to such uncertainties. A plan is robust if its expected performance is only weakly affected by deep uncertainty. Alternatively, a plan can be understood as being robust if no matter how the future turns out, there is little cause for regret (the so-called “no regrets” approach to decision making).

Over the last decade a new paradigm, known as ‘decision-making under deep uncertainty’, has emerged to support the development of robust plans. This paradigm rests on three key ideas: (i) exploratory modeling; (ii) adaptive planning; and, (iii) joint sense-making.

Exploratory modelling

Exploratory modeling allows examination of the consequences of the various irreducible uncertainties for decision-making. Typically, in the case of complex systems this involves the use of computational scenario approaches (see also the blog post by Laura Schmitt-Olabisi on Dealing with deep uncertainty: Scenarios).

A set of models that is plausible or interesting in a given context is generated by the uncertainties associated with the problem of interest, and is constrained by available data and knowledge. A single model drawn from the set is not a prediction. Rather, it is a computational ‘what-if’ experiment that reveals how the real world system would behave if the various assumptions this particular model makes about the various uncertainties were correct.

A single ‘what-if’ experiment is typically not that informative, other than suggesting the plausibility of its outcomes. Instead, exploratory modeling aims to support reasoning and decision-making on the basis of the set of models. Thus exploratory modeling involves searching through the set of models using (many-objective) optimization algorithms, and sampling over the set of models using computational design of experiments and global sensitivity analysis techniques. By searching through the set of models, one can identify which (combination of) uncertainties negatively affects the outcomes of interest. In light of this, actions can be iteratively refined to be robust with respect to these uncertainties.

Adaptive planning

Adaptive planning means that plans are designed from the outset to be altered over time in response to how the future actually unfolds. In this way, modifications are planned for, rather than taking place in an ad hoc manner. The flexibility of adaptive plans is a key means of achieving decision robustness.

This means that a wide variety of futures has to be explored. Insight is needed into which actions are best suited to which futures, as well as what signals from the unfolding future can be monitored in order to ensure the timely implementation of the appropriate actions. Adaptive planning thus involves a paradigm shift from planning in time, to planning conditional on observed developments.

Joint sense-making

Decision making on uncertain complex systems generally involves multiple actors who have to come to agreement. In such a situation, planning and decision-making require an iterative approach that facilitates learning across alternative framings of the problem, and learning about stakeholder preferences and trade-offs, in pursuit of a collaborative process of discovering what is possible.

Various decision analytic techniques can be used to enable a constructive learning process amongst the stakeholders and analysts. Decision analysis in this conceptualization must shift away from the a priori agreement on (or imposition of assumptions on) the probability of alternative states of the world and the way in which competing objectives are to be aggregated, with the aim of producing a preference ranking of decision alternatives. Instead decision analysis must shift to an a posteriori exploration of trade-offs amongst objectives and their robustness across possible futures. Decision analysis should move away from trying to dictate the right choice, and instead aim at enabling deliberation and joint sense-making amongst the various parties to decision. (For more on sense-making, see Bethany Laursen’s blog post on Making sense of wicked problems).

Closing remarks

Exploratory modeling, adaptive planning, and joint sense-making are the three key ideas that underpin the emerging paradigm of decision making under deep uncertainty. Various specific approaches that exemplify these ideas include (many-objective) robust decision-making, dynamic adaptive policy pathways, decision scaling, info-gap decision theory, adaptive policy making and assumption based planning. Notwithstanding the many technical differences that exist between these approaches, there is an increasing emphasis on what is shared. In practice also, increasingly people are adopting aspects from multiple approaches in order to offer context-specific support for making decisions under deep uncertainty.

What has your experience been with decision making under deep uncertainty? What methods have you found to be useful?

Further reading:
Bankes, S. C. (1993). Exploratory Modeling for Policy Analysis. Operations Research, 4, 3: 435-449.

Haasnoot, M., Kwakkel, J. H., Walker, W. E. and ter Maat, J. (2013). Dynamic adaptive policy pathways: A method for crafting robust decisions for a deeply uncertain world. Global Environmental Change, 23: 485-498. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.12.006

Herman, J. D., Reed, P. M., Zeff, H. B. and Characklis, G. W. (2015). How should robustness be defined for water systems planning under change. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, 141, 10. Online (DOI): 10.1061/(ASCE)WR.1943-5452.0000509

Kwakkel, J. H., Walker, W. E. and Haasnoot, M. (2016). Coping with the Wickedness of Public Policy Problems: Approaches for Decision Making under Deep Uncertainty. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management. Online (DOI): 10.1061/(ASCE)WR.1943-5452.0000626

Lempert, R. J., Groves, D. G., Popper, S. W. and Bankes, S. C. (2006). A General, Analytic Method for Generating Robust Strategies and Narrative Scenarios. Management Science, 52: 514-528. Online (DOI): 10.1287/mnsc.1050.0472

Walker, W. E., Haasnoot, M. and Kwakkel, J. H. (2013). Adapt or Perish: A Review of Planning Approaches for Adaptation under Deep Uncertainty. Sustainability, 5: 955-979. Online (DOI): 10.3390/su5030955

Biography: Jan Kwakkel is an associate professor at Delft University of Technology in the faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. He has a background in systems engineering and policy analysis for transport systems. His current research focuses on supporting decision making under deep uncertainty. This involves the development of taxonomies and frameworks for uncertainty analysis and adaptive planning, as well as research on model-based scenario approaches for designing adaptive plans. He has applied his research in various domains, including transportation, energy systems, and health. His primary application domain is climate adaptation in the water sector. A secondary research interest is in text mining of science and patent databases. His research is currently funded for four years through a personal development grant of the Dutch National Science Foundation.

Toolkits for transdisciplinary research

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

If you want to undertake transdisciplinary research, where can you find relevant concepts and methods? Are there compilations or toolkits that are helpful?

I’ve identified eight relevant toolkits, which are described briefly below and in more detail in the journal GAIA’s Toolkits for Transdisciplinarity series.

One toolkit provides concepts and methods relevant to the full range of transdisciplinary research, while the others cover four key aspects: (i) collaboration, (ii) synthesis of knowledge from relevant disciplines and stakeholders, (iii) thinking systemically, and (iv) making change happen. Continue reading

Scoping: Lessons from environmental impact assessment

Community member post by Peter R. Mulvihill

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Peter R. Mulvihill (biography)

What can we learn about the role and importance of scoping in the context of environmental impact assessment?

“Closed” versus “open” scoping

I am intrigued by the highly variable approaches to scoping practice in environmental impact assessment and the considerable range between “closed” approaches and more ambitious and open exercises. Closed approaches to scoping tend to narrow the range of questions, possibilities and alternatives that may be considered in environmental impact assessment, while limiting or precluding meaningful public input. Of course, the possibility of more open scoping is sometimes precluded beforehand by narrow terms of reference determined by regulators.

When scoping is not done well, it inevitably compromises subsequent steps in the process. Continue reading

Models as ‘interested amateurs’

Community member post by Pete Barbrook-Johnson

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Pete Barbrook-Johnson (biography)

How can we improve the often poor interaction and lack of genuine discussions between policy makers, experts, and those affected by policy?

As a social scientist who makes and uses models, an idea from Daniel Dennett’s (2013) book ‘Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking’ struck a chord with me. Dennett introduces the idea of using lay audiences to aid and improve understanding between experts. Dennett suggests that including lay audiences (which he calls ‘curious nonexperts’) in discussions can entice experts to err on the side of over-explaining their thoughts and positions. When experts are talking only to other experts, Dennett suggests they under-explain, not wanting to insult others or look stupid by going over basic assumptions. This means they can fail to identify areas of disagreement, or to reach consensus, understanding, or conclusions that may be constructive.

For Dennett, the ‘curious nonexperts’ are undergraduate philosophy students, to be included in debates between professors. For me, the book sparked the idea that models could be ‘curious nonexperts’ in policy debates and processes. I prefer and use the term ‘interested amateurs’ over ‘curious nonexperts’, simply because the word ‘amateur’ seems slightly more insulting towards models! Continue reading

Taboo triangles

Community member post by Charles M. Lines

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Charles M. Lines (biography)

Occasionally, asking your collaborators about other people and organisations to involve in the joint work may make you aware of ‘taboo triangles’. These occur when currently collaborating people or organisations feel uncomfortable with or even unable to countenance a certain person, group or organisation being invited into their existing relationships.

It is worth exploring the reasons for and stories behind these warning signs or taboos. Are they valid? Are they erected by traditions that have become unquestioned rules? Are they in reality a barrier which seeks to restrict access to some form of power, influence or sought after resource? Are they based upon assumptions and preconceptions rather than reality?

Above all, are they worth taking the risk of challenging or even ignoring? Continue reading

Dealing with deep uncertainty: Scenarios

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Laura Schmitt Olabisi (biography)

Community member post by Laura Schmitt Olabisi

What is deep uncertainty? And how can scenarios help deal with it?

Deep uncertainty refers to ‘unknown unknowns’, which simulation models are fundamentally unsuited to address. Any model is a representation of a system, based on what we know about that system. We can’t model something that nobody knows about—so the capabilities of any model (even a participatory model) are bounded by our collective knowledge.

One of the ways we handle unknown unknowns is by using scenarios. Scenarios are stories about the future, meant to guide our decision-making in the present. Continue reading