Criteria for Successful Participatory Modeling

Participatory modeling is a relatively new activity and as such the field is just beginning to define itself and the criteria that qualify a project as a good or successful participatory modeling exercise. Below are some of the key criteria identified by lead practitioners of participatory modeling.

1. Representative involvement, openness. Regardless of the method used to solicit stakeholder involvement, every attempt should be made to involve a diverse group of stakeholders that represent a variety of interests regarding the question at hand. While key stakeholders should be carefully identified and invited to the process, there should be also an open invitation to all interested parties to join. This adds to the public acceptance and respect of the results of the analysis. If a process is perceived to be exclusive, model results may be rejected by key members of the stakeholder and decision-making community.

2. Scientific credibility. Although participatory modeling incorporates values, the scientific components of the model must adhere to standard scientific practice and objectivity. This criterion is essential in order for the model to maintain credibility among decision makers, scientists, stakeholders, and the public. Thus, whereas participants may determine the questions that the model should answer and may supply key model parameters, the structure of the model must be scientifically sound.

3. Objectivity. Facilitators of a participatory modeling exercise must be trusted by the stakeholder community as being objective and impartial, and therefore should not themselves be direct stakeholders. In this regard, facilitation by university researchers or outside consultants often reduces the incorporation of stakeholder biases into the scientific components of the model. On the other hand, it is essential that stakeholders trust the facilitators and scientists. Experience in the local area and perhaps even recognition of researchers by the local stakeholders based on past research or involvement can be helpful.

4. Transparency. Key to effective stakeholder engagement in participatory modeling is a model and modeling process that is transparent. Transparency is not only critical to gaining trust among stakeholders and establishing model credibility with decision makers, but is also key to the educational goals often associated with participatory modeling. Giving stakeholders the opportunity to contribute and challenge model assumptions before results are reported also creates a sense of ownership of the process that makes results more difficult to reject in the future.

5. Understanding uncertainty. Many ecological questions, especially those that incorporate socioeconomic processes, require analysis of complex systems. As problem complexity increases, model results become less certain. Understanding scientific uncertainty is critically linked to the expectations of real world results associated with decisions made as a result of the modeling process. This issue is best communicated through direct participation in the modeling process itself.

6. Flexibility. The modeling process should be flexible and adjustable to accommodate new knowledge and understanding that comes from stakeholders. This requires that models be modular, robust, and hierarchical to make sure that changes in components do not crash the whole system. In many cases more useful is a simple model that can be well communicated and explained, than a complex model with narrow applicability, high costs of data, and much uncertainties.

7. Model adaptability. The model developed should be relatively easy to use and up-to-date after the researchers have moved on. This requires excellent documentation and a good user interface. If nonscientists cannot understand or use the model, it will not be applied by local decision makers to solve real problems.

8. Incorporation of stakeholder knowledge. The knowledge, data, and priorities of stakeholders should have a real, not just cursory, impact on model development both in terms of selecting a modeling platform and in setting model assumptions and parameters. The key to success with any participatory approach is that the community participating in the research be consulted from the initiation of the project and helped to set the goals for the project and specific issues to be studied.

9. Influence on decision making. Results from the modeling exercise should have an effect, through some mechanism, on decisions made about the system under study.

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