Model collaborations: A symposium on interdisciplinary modelling for sustainability

On Wednesday 28th June the 3S Research Group hosted a symposium on the challenges and prospects of interdisciplinary modeling for sustainability. Funded by the EPSRC Realising Transitions Pathwaysproject, an interdisciplinary consortium that is exploring pathways for UK low carbon energy futures and developing novel integrative modeling experiments, the event sought to explore important questions relating to the role of models in addressing complex societal problems such as climate change, energy, biodiversity, water management and natural hazards. In such contexts models have taken on powerful roles in processes of knowledge production and political decision-making. Yet, there is increasing awareness of the limits of models in understanding the inherent complexities of natural systems, indeterminate social processes, and unknown futures – not to mention issues of public trust following recent science controversies. Such challenges raise fundamental questions about possibilities for building more interdisciplinary and collaborative forms of modeling:

·         What are the opportunities for integrating the natural and social sciences, or quantitative and qualitative data, in environmental modelling?

·         What are the challenges posed by such integration?

·         Can we identify good practice and novel approaches?

·         Should modeling be more open, transparent and participatory?

To explore these issues 3S gathered four speakers with experience of interdisciplinarity modelling across a range of different research fields.

Professor Mike Hulme (3S Group, UEA) opened up the symposium with a provocative keynote presentation which raised important questions about the purpose, power and nature of models relating to climate change, arguing that models take many different forms. He also explored the notion of integration, suggesting there are multiple ways of attempting to draw together different knowledges, not all of which require the different epistemologies to be commensurate.

Dr Jenni Barclay (Environmental Sciences, UEA) spoke of her experiences as a natural scientist attempting to find new interdisciplinary approaches for understanding the risks associated with natural hazards where natural phenomena such as volcanoes have multiple social and economic contexts and impacts. She stressed the need for time to allow interdisciplinarity to evolve, and the importance of emergent, collaborative frameworks that allow natural scientists and social scientists to work across disciplinary boundaries.

Dr Evelina Trutnevyte (Energy Institute, UCL) presented research on the modelling of community-based visions for energy in Switzerland. She suggested that we always need to be alert to the question of why we are trying to integrate different knowledges, but in the case of future energy pathways it provides a way of linking (quantitative) questions of technological and economic viability with (qualitative) visions and preferences of communities.

Finally, Dr Alison Browne (Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester) discussed some of her experiences on two interdisciplinary water management projects, particularly the challenges of linking complex social science understandings of water consumption practices with macro datasets, including some exploratory work on how it might be possible to model the domestic practices of households.

A plenary session, chaired by Dr Jason Chilvers (3S Group, UEA), opened up discussion in a number of directions, building on points introduced by the speakers, ranging across methodological issues, interdisciplinary practice, and broader philosophical concerns. Recurrent themes included the enrollment of models as tools of prediction by politicians or policy-makers who have a pressing desire to know and attempt to control the future. Such expectations often make social scientists uneasy but, several participants argued, also conflict with the original intentions of modellers, who often develop computational models as means of exploration or simulation rather than prediction. As might be expected, discussion also ranged around the extent to which different forms of knowledge can and should be bought together, and the practical issues in doing so, highlighting not only the tensions between disciplinary imperatives and interdisciplinary working, but also the multiple forms of politics that are implicated both within models and around any efforts at integration. Bringing together natural, physical and social scientists from across the Norwich Research  Park and widerRealising Transitions Pathways consortium led to a useful sharing of experiences about both the challenges and benefits of interdisciplinary working.