Participatory modeling is a general term used to describe a number of specific methodologies and processes implemented to integrate ecological systems modeling and participation from stakeholders. This modeling is incorporated as one component of participatory research and management, and may therefore take on different methodologies and levels of engagement depending upon the goals and funding limitations of a project, the feasibility of integrating existing data sets into a computer model, and the level of interest in participation in the decision-making community and among stakeholders. Variations of participatory modeling include Shared Vision Planning, Mediated Modeling, Participatory Action Research (PAR), Participatory Integrated Assessment (PIA), and Participatory Integrated Planning (PIP). These variations are distinguished by who initiates the process, how stakeholders are enlisted and engaged in the process, the breadth of research questions addressed, and the mechanism by which modeling results are incorporated into decision making.
Participatory modeling may be initiated by local decision makers, governmental bodies, citizen activists, or scientific researchers. In the United States, most participatory modeling activities are initiated by governmental bodies. In many cases, public participation in environmental decision making is mandated by law, such as in projects covered by the National Environmental Policy Act, although this process does not mandate participatory modeling. The PIA approach is differentiated from PAR in that it is typically initiated by scientific researchers in conjunction with local decision makers, making it still a relatively top-down approach to decision making and management. PAR is a bottom-up, community- and stakeholder-driven investigation, which is usually initiated by community activists to solve particular local problems.
In some projects stakeholders are sought out for their known 'stake' in a problem or decision and invited to join a working group. In other cases involvement in the working group may be open to any member of the public. It is generally recognized that a more diverse stakeholder group improves education about the issues and acceptance of decisions made as a result of the process.
Depending upon the type of participatory modeling and the goals and time restrictions of the project, stakeholders may be enlisted to participate in a variety of ways and may engage in the process at different stages and levels of involvement. Generally, acceptance of the process and the resulting models is higher when participation is solicited throughout the modeling process. Mediated modeling assumes an intensive course of stakeholder involvement in both model building and model use, with several days of workshops and many hours committed to the effort, usually possible only if there is an established group of stakeholders that is clearly interested in the problem. Some applications of PIA utilize the stakeholder group as an advisory board with limited meetings over an extended period of time. PIA also typically covers more scales and hierarchy of problems than other participatory modeling approaches, which may be more targeted or limited to specific problems. The PIA approach typically will attempt to model not only the ecology of a system but the socioeconomic dynamics of the same system incorporating historical patterns to try to predict future impacts of proposed actions. This requires a transdisciplinary approach to achieve a truly integrated assessment of a system. PIP is an approach that focuses on developing a step-by-step methodology such that there is consistency across projects as to how stakeholders are enlisted and engaged.
In some cases, such as the NEPA process in the United States, the mechanism by which public participation and model results are incorporated into decisions is well defined by legislation, whereas in other cases a specific set of policies or scenarios is tested at the request of a particular agency to identify the most effective set of policies. In yet other projects the connection between decision-making and participatory modeling exercises may be less well defined with the goal of reaching a general consensus within a diverse stakeholder group but without any commitment upfront by stakeholders to use the results of the process to make specific decisions.
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