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Collaborative Modeling for Decision Support in Water Resources: Principals and Best Practices 2. Definitions

What is Collaborative Modeling for Decision Support? Why do it?

Collaborative modeling is a process that engages stakeholders in the construction of computer models that support decision processes (or other purposes as described in Section I). The engaged parties collaborate in the creation of one or more models and, in the process, become technically informed. The modeler is neutral, similar to a facilitator, and aids in the creation of a shared vision for the future. The group may include stakeholders, decision makers and scientific experts. Models may be used to create a better understanding of existing conditions and potential futures, for management and decision support, as well as for education and outreach.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been using collaborative modeling since the early 1990s in a version referred to as Shared Vision Planning (SVP). The methodology was defined during applications to the National Drought Study. SVP applies collaborative modeling to the context of a traditional water resources planning process, which is well-defined by the Corps of Engineers. Other fields have developed related versions with different names and nuances, including mediated modeling (van den Belt 2004); group model building (Vennix 1996); participatory modeling (Hare and Letcher 2003, Videira 2005, Beall 2007); computer-aided dispute resolution (Stephenson et al. 2007); and computer-aided negotiation (Sheer et al. 1989). Applications vary by context, purpose, size and scope, as well as specific arrangements; however, all share the main feature of involving stakeholders in the development of a computer model to support some form of dialogue.

There are many advantages to this approach over negotiation that is technically unsupported, or over the development of models in the absence of stakeholder involvement. Tidwell and van den Brink (2008; p) summarize the benefits of collaborative modeling as described in the literature:

  • Provides participants with system insight, scoping analyses, and education toward a common understanding of issues.
  • Improves odds that results from the collaborative modeling effort will be implemented in decision making (Palmer et al. 1993; Vennix 1996; Rouwette et al 2002; van den Brink et al 2003; van den Belt 2004).
  • Better defines participant values and preferences, while increasing knowledge and consensus on mitigating approaches (Costanza and Ruth 1998; Rouwette et al. 2002; van den Belt 2004).
  • Enables the group to develop new policy options in deadlocked processes (van Eeten et al. 2002).
  • Provides value by way of structuring group thinking and dialogue, ultimately leading to group learning (van den Belt 2004).

The design intent of collaborative modeling is to produce better solutions using less money and time than traditional approaches. We may never be able to prove the realization of these benefits directly, since we cannot repeat the study with and without collaborative modeling. However, supportive evidence is mounting from those with direct experience in these types of processes.

  • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) data from over twenty cases using the Alternative Licensing Process (now Integrative Licensing Process) that emphasizes early collaboration between the applicant and stakeholders showed significantly reduced delays and conflict and more success in balancing multiple objectives (Shabman and Stephenson 2007).
  • The use of collaborative modeling for the Kanawha River (West Virginia/North Carolina/Virginia) resulted in the implementation of a drought contingency plan in the watershed after efforts without collaborative modeling had failed (Werick and Whipple 1994).
  • The International Joint Commission (IJC) endorsed the use of Shared Vision Planning for a study on the Upper Great Lakes (initiated February 2007) after using it to study and update the operating plans for the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system (2000-2005).

Success of the collaborative modeling effort can be evaluated using three dimensions: Process, Substance, and Relationships (Bingham 2003). A successful process is transparent and fair to all parties, includes a negotiation that seeks joint gains relying on sound science for substance, and/or forms good relationships where all are included and they are valued and respected (Bingham 2003). Additionally, success can be evaluated using outputs or outcomes. Outputs are direct results of the process, such as the structured participation, the objectives and alternatives, the model, or the decision. Outcomes range from immediate (e.g., shared learning), to intermediate (e.g., implementation), to the desirable end outcome of having water resources management that effectively balances interests.

The Task Committee provides the following principles and best practices to help others achieve these benefits when using collaborative modeling. With these benefits, we can find ways to manage our precious water resources in more balanced ways, reducing future conflicts.



revised 18 Feb 2011