Participatory simulations for developing scenarios in environmental resource management
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The FIRMA Project is supported by European Union's Framework 5 Programme for Research and Development, and by the European Commission as part of its Key Action on Sustainable Management and Quality of Water programme (contract EVK1-CT1999-00016).

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Participatory simulations for developing scenarios in environmental resource management

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Participatory simulations for developing scenarios in environmental resource management

The FIRMA Project is supported by European Union's Framework 5 Programme for Research and Development, and by the European Commission as part of its Key Action on Sustainable Management and Quality of Water programme (contract EVK1-CT1999-00016)

Participatory simulations for developing scenarios in environmental resource management

Nigel Gilbert,Sarah Maltby

Tasia Asakawa

University of Surrey

Policy and applied research

Policy and applied research

  • Inform

  • Inspire

  • Influence

  • Develop

  • Encourage




Academic social science context

Academic social science context

  • Scepticism about the possibility of prediction

  • Theoretical abstraction important but application difficult

  • Increased demands for relevance and application

A new ish approach

A new(ish) approach

  • Since the 1960s

    • Interactive social science

    • Participatory methods

    • Action research

  • In all these

    • Stakeholders learn from their peers as well as from social scientists

    • Academics are also stakeholders

    • Praxis

      • Tacit as well as formalised knowledge about action and its consequences

Interactive or participatory social science

Interactive or participatory social science

  • Users and beneficiaries in collaboration with academics

  • Participatory methods have been advocated as a way of

    • Empowering the disadvantaged

    • Involving the powerful

    • Reducing the distance between academic and lay discourse



  • Brings different perspectives

  • Brings different kinds of knowledge

    • Lay knowledge

    • Expert knowledge

    • Academic knowledge

  • Identifies crucial problems

  • Stakeholders have some ownership of results



  • Representation of distributed stakeholders

    • E.g. ‘the public’

  • Dealing with conflict between stakeholders

  • Confidentiality and privacy

  • Maintaining the motivation of participants

Agent based social simulation

Agent-based social simulation

  • Stakeholders are represented in the model as agents

  • The agents have the goals, beliefs, and capabilities of the real stakeholders (or some simplified version of these)

  • Then let the model run to see what happens

  • In order to develop scenarios, spot recurrent patterns of action, identify unanticipated consequences…

Participatory simulations for developing scenarios in environmental resource management


  • At best, stakeholders can have a ‘God’s eye view’ of the model, observing its outputs, while what they want is to understand the setting from their own perspective

  • Hence stakeholders either have to do some translation or (perhaps more likely) they just ignore the model because the translation is too difficult.

  • The model doesn’t give them much help with an intuitive understanding of the dynamics

Putting the user in the model

Putting the user in the model

An alternative is to replace some or even all of the agents by real stakeholders (or their representatives)

  • The model becomes a multi-user strategy simulation

  • Analogous to single person vs. multi-player computer games



  • More engaging for the users

  • More realistic

    • Instead of ‘looking down’ on the model, the player participates in a virtual setting

  • Users can treat the simulation like a flight simulator

    • Practice in circumstances that would be dangerous if carried out in real life

    • Scenarios can be established in the simulation as starting points and then users see what happens from there

More advantages

More advantages

  • Conflict between stakeholders can be observed and/or modelled

  • Can provide data for researchers on what people would do

    • Elicits tacit knowledge

    • Not just what they say they would do

    • And on how they react to others’ actions that are in response to their actions (etc.)

Distributed multi user models

Distributed multi-user models

  • Participants can be anywhere, provided that they have internet access

    • E.g. in their office

  • No duration restrictions

    • Can be involved while doing their ordinary work

  • But

    • Less motivation without face-to-face interaction

    • Technical difficulties less easy to solve

    • Requires internet access

Implementation options

Implementation options

  • Client-side

    • Needs to run on many differently configured PCs

    • Java, Javascript

    • Inter-player communication hard to implement and control

  • OR

    • Server side

      • All software runs on a central server

      • Server generates HTML pages dynamically

      • Client only needs a standard web browser

      • Inter-player communication is simple to implement

  • Server side implementation

    Server side implementation

    • Apache web server

      • Standard web server

    • PHP

      • Scripting language

        • All normal programming constructs

        • Basic object orientated features

        • Good interfaces to other software and libraries

    • Relational database

      • PostgreSQL

      • MySQL

    • TCP/IP or other inter-process communication to other models

    • All this is open source, free and available under the GNU licence

    The server

    The server


    Apache Web









    Web page



    Sample php

    PHP: programming language similar to C++

    Sample PHP


    function show_scale($val) {

    /* display a bar to show value of $val */


    if ($val > 10) $val = 10;

    if ($val < 0 ) $val = 0;

    $colour = ($val >= 5 ? 'grn' : 'red');

    echo "<td><img SRC=\"images/bar-$colour-$val.jpg\"


    width=104 height=14></td>\n";



    Embedded HTML

    Interface between php and the database

    Interface between PHP and the database

    $n_msgs = 3;

    /* get the last 3 public messages */

    $query = new query("SELECT id, sender, recipient,

    to_char(timesent, 'HH24:MI on DD Mon')

    as senttime,

    timeread, msg

    FROM msgs

    WHERE (recipient = 'All')

    ORDER BY timesent DESC LIMIT $n_msgs");


    SQL statement sent to database

    The context

    The context

    • Drought in summer 1976 led to shock to Zurich’s water supply system

      • Capacity increased to guarantee a secure supply

      • But over-supply leads to risk of stagnant water

      • Water demand has since fallen as a result of water saving technology and changing business behaviour

    • Water utility regarded as inefficient due to high fixed costs

    • Demand management through pricing would allow parts of the system to be closed

      • But tariffs ultimately controlled by public through referenda

    Playing the game design choices

    Playing the game: design choices

    • Roles

      • Stakeholder representatives play their own roles

        • They bring their own knowledge to game

      • Stakeholders play other roles

        • Not tied to prior positions and strategies

    • Time

      • Real-time

        • Too slow!

      • Game time

        • Player events drive time forwards

      • Simulated Clock time

    Computational agents

    Computational agents

    • The model can include computational agents as well as ‘real players’ (people)

      • When real players are absent (on holiday, away from the office,…)

      • When real players have not or cannot be recruited

      • Test of modelling adequacy: Can they be distinguished by their actions from real players?

    • If all players are agents, game reverts to being a conventional multi-agent simulation

    Evaluating the model

    Evaluating the model

    • Robustness

      • Yields policy advice that applies in a range of scenarios

    • Transparency

      • Model is understandable to stakeholders

    • Evaluating the process

      • Is it used?

      • Is effect lasting?

      • Has learning occurred?



    • Computational models can be used for discovery or for policy

      • And possibly for both at the same time

    • If they are to be used for policy, their use must be carefully designed with an understanding of the policy context

    • That context consists of people with many different pressures, goals, experiences and interests

    • And often situations of deep-rooted conflict and power differences

    Participatory methods and simulation

    Participatory methods and simulation

    • Multi-agent simulations can profitably be used as a component of participatory methods, with some agents being computational and others human

    • The design of the simulation will help to recover and formalise the knowledge of the participants

    • The use of the simulation will help to educate the participants about options and consequences of action

    • The method recognises (as many participatory methods do not) the inherent conflict in many settings

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