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Collaborative Modeling Lab Collaborative Modeling for Decision Support in Water Resources: Principles and Best Practices

Collaborative Modeling for Decision Support in Water Resources: Principles and Best Practices.

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Written for facilitators and modelers, scientists and planners, this monograph fills a gap in the literature at the intersection of technical computer modeling and conflict management disciplines as applied to water resource management.

The complex nature of water resource management demands collaborative stakeholder processes that integrate science, policy and social values. Facilitators and modelers adopted the practice of collaborative modeling to aid discussion, help translate science, build and test hypotheses, and generate better solutions. Collaborative modeling combines technical analysis and modeling with collaboration and traditional planning principles. This combination assists with complex decision processes, helps manage conflict, promotes learning and understanding, and builds relationships among stakeholders. The participatory modeling process enhances model transparency and credibility, engages stakeholders effectively, and grounds decision-making in the best available science, all of which can improve the decision making process and lead to better decisions.

Collaborative modeling participants help design and test models of the system under study. The process allows participants to test their own understanding of the system, values, and assumptions while facilitating holistic scientific exploration. Designing and testing of models offers the unique opportunity to bridge gaps between individual perceptions and science to explore a variety of potential management scenarios over time. In collaborative modeling, this exploration of “what ifs” promotes group learning and innovative adaptive management protocols and policies.

The authors view collaborative modeling processes beginning ideally in the initial stages of a planning process and culminating with an adaptive management plan. The principles are written with this in mind. However, collaborative modeling can also be incorporated into on-going planning processes. Collaborative modeling is most useful when difficult decisions must be made, when scientific information must be integrated with social and economic concerns, and when a shared vision of action is needed among participants.

Practitioners in the relatively new field of collaborative modeling typically use a unique mix of technical modeling and process facilitation skills. The ability of a practitioner or team of practitioners to seamlessly apply these skills often determines success. While there are mature literatures on both conflict resolution and computer modeling, there is less published guidance on the intersection of these two fields. Regardless, the authors have witnessed personally how the blending of these fields can foster shared understanding and shared visions for the future, resulting in better solutions in the field of water resources.
See more on published guidance from TU Delft.

We crafted the following principles and associated best practices specifically for two groups: conflict resolution and planning professionals who have limited expertise in computer modeling, and modelers and technical experts with limited experience in collaborative processes. Our goals are two-fold. We want to build a community of practitioners, and we want to better integrate facilitation techniques and modeling tools, expanding the versatility and impact that each can have. Ultimately, we want collaborative modeling practitioners to become more adept at building relationships and trust, and at fostering both shared understanding and shared vision. We want processes and tools that aid participants in expanding the array of alternatives because it increases the chances of finding a solution that is both feasible and mutually acceptable. Although this text focuses on water resources applications, collaborative modeling and the skills described in the following pages can be used to collaboratively manage any type of resource.

The introduction (Section I) sets the stage with a discussion of current challenges in the water resource management field, and then describes a range of project contexts for which collaborative modeling may be applied. Section II defines collaborative modeling and its advantages. Section III presents eight Principles for collaborative modeling and associated Best Practices to help a practitioner maximize their chances for success. The practices are illustrated with notes from actual case studies. The document concludes with a summary along with notes on current initiatives to advance the field, a table of best practices, a glossary of key terms and references for additional information.


IWR logoOfficers for the EWRI Task Committee:EWRI logo

Chair: Stacy Langsdale, Institute for Water Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, (703) 428-7245,

Vice Chair:  Tim Feather, CDM

Secretary:  Elizabeth Bourget, Institute for Water Resources, US Army Corps of Engineers

Lead Authors:

Allyson Beall King, Washington State University

Elizabeth Bourget, Institute for Water Resources

Erik Hagen, Potomoi, LLC

Scott Kudlas, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality

Stacy Langsdale, Institute for Water Resources

Rick Palmer, University of Massachusetts

Diane Tate

Bill Werick, Werick Creative Solutions, Inc.


Warren Walker, Delft University of Technology

Hal Cardwell, Institute for Water Resources

Supported in part by the Environmental and Water Resources Institute, American Society of Civil Engineers and the Institute for Water Resource, US Army Corps of Engineers.