A Stockholm Resilience workshop in Malinga, South Africa.
In the last fifteen years, Participatory Co-modelling has emerged from Systems Science as a way of using scientific modelling to help non-scientists deal with complex systems.
It’s a method of engaging stakeholders in a constructive, factually grounded dialogue, examining and reflecting on complex problems. Rather than focusing on precision in their simulation of real systems, participatory co-models focusing on supporting collective learning and decision-making.
Co-modelling highlights the process rather than the outcome of the model. The aim is to involve the stakeholders who will be affected by the model’s outcomes in the creation of the model.
Co-modelling projects often takes place over two key phases:
1. Creating the model
Scientists will travel to the area being modelled. This may be a river system, a region of farmland mixed with dry forest, a town by a lake, a national park bounded by cattle country, or so on.
The scientists will begin to construct a model of the system. They will gather data themselves, but importantly, they will also undertake repeated consultations with local stakeholders from across the system, bringing in a broad range of specific expertise.
The model is created gradually. Over a number of meetings with different stakeholder groups and organisations, each party gets to contribute their full understanding of how the system works.
The scientists gather their own data, but also take into account all of the contributing perspectives. When they encounter disagreements in the way that different groups perceive the system working – for example, if the farmers and the local parks authorities disagree on how much fertiliser runoff is lethal to native fish – the scientists negotiate with both parties to try to resolve it. Failing that, they ensure that the model includes both contradictory viewpoints.
Accommodating many different perspectives and opinions on the nature of the system in question guarantees that the model will have limited capacity for prediction. However, the advantage of this approach is that the model has been socially validated by a wide spectrum of stakeholders, and consequently can be used as a legitimate platform for decision-making.
2. Bringing stakeholders together
Once the model is built and functioning, and provided it satisfies the minimum standards of each of its contributors, stakeholders from across the spectrum are invited to take part in workshops, discussions or scenario exercises.
At these events, participants engage in role-playing activities and problem-solving exercises facilitated by the systems scientists. The model is used to either generate scenarios or to calculate the consequences of peoples’ decisions.
These events try to fulfill a number of goals:
- For participants to experience the system from other stakeholders’ perspectives and to better understand the motivations behind their behaviour.
- For the community to address potential system-wide crises before they occur in real life, to experiment with different strategies for addressing and managing them.
- To facilitate debate between opposing groups. By creating a ‘fictional’ version of the system, the model lowers the stakes for conflicting parties to engage with one another.
In short, Participatory Co-modelling offers a means to facilitate effective negotiation, decision-making and compromise at the community level.