Playing with uncertainty : participatory modelling to facilitate social and technical investment negotiations for resilience planning.

Type of content
Theses / Dissertations
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Thesis discipline
Civil Engineering
Degree name
Doctor of Philosophy
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Avendano Uribe, Bryann Esteban

BACKGROUND: Resilience has become a fundamental paradigm for communities to deal with disaster planning, particularly in the face of increasing climate change impacts. While formal methods are employed to prioritise and decide about investments for resilience planning, developing strategies to negotiate that go beyond formal modelling is essential. Participatory Modelling (PM) has emerged as an effective approach in facilitating data-driven decision-making, enabling stakeholders to create, adjust, and learn from interactive models and to use this experience to inform their decisions.

THE PROBLEM: When making decisions related to disaster planning, experts, managers, and policymakers face challenges in recognising interdependence within and between social and technical systems. Therefore, a socio-technical systems approach is crucial to understand the challenge of integrating social and technical assets in resilience planning, their interactions, and interdependencies to make informed decisions. Thus, there is a need for an integrated set of investments that increase social resilience and, at the same time, improve critical infrastructure before natural hazard-caused or human-caused disasters.

THE AIM: This PhD thesis aims to develop and trial a Participatory Modelling methodology that engages participants in the process of deciding where or whether to invest in technical and social resilience. The objective of this work is to simulate the decision-making process and understand the trade-offs when negotiating between technical/infrastructure and social resilience investments. The study focused on creating a collaborative process that ensures that the diverse interests and concerns of stakeholders are represented and integrated into the planning process.

THE APPROACH: To achieve these objectives, the study developed a tailored methodology called Playing with Uncertainty, which includes role-playing simulations and game elements to enhance participant engagement. The methodology involved several steps, including a workshop to identify the interests and concerns of key stakeholder groups, a survey to capture participants' perceptions of the importance of different resilience factors, a simulation exercise to explore different flood management strategies and a debriefing session to discuss the results and lessons learned. The participation model considered the challenge of investment planning for a small coastal community at risk of sea level rise.

A total of Five workshops were conducted between 2020 and 2022. Workshops were held at the Human-Interface Technology Lab HITLab NZ at the University of Canterbury. Each tailored session involved three categories of role-played stakeholders: community leaders or locals, policymakers, and resilience experts. Participants included students from the University of Canterbury, resilience experts, industry professionals and planners, and policymakers from the local government in New Zealand. This research was conducted under human ethics permission HEC-2020/88. Triangulation between three data collection methods was used: 1) Role-playing negotiations, 2) Investment decisions, and 3) Prospective Structural Analysis (PSA). In addition, observations from the facilitator and comments from participants during debriefing sessions in the workshops were used to refine the methodology.

KEY FINDINGS: This exploratory research found why and how the Participatory Modelling methodology developed: Playing with Uncertainty engaged participants in the decision-making process for the problem tackled in this thesis. Three key findings can be summarised as follows:

  1. The use of various methods adapted aimed at enhancing engagement and eliciting knowledge from participants indicates that Playing with Uncertainty could facilitate negotiations among participants on the inherent dilemma of Socio-Technical Systems (STS). The evidence presented on the implementation of game elements and the triangulation of methods: role- playing negotiations, PSA, and investment decisions; suggests why PM has the potential to enhance STS trade-off analysis.
  2. It is crucial to determine the level of detail in the information provided to participants when facilitating trade-off negotiations in STS. Drawing on observations and participants’ comments during the trials of Playing with Uncertainty, striking a balance of information in PM could benefit stakeholders’ engagement, and the need to understand how much detailed and realistic information is provided could improve the practice of PM in the field. Hence, implementing better practices of PM could bridge the gap between scientific, local and policymakers expertise when conducting decision-making.
  3. Implementation and use of game elements could be synergistically integrated into the methodology development base on its refinement process. Methodological considerations for developing and trialling Playing with Uncertainty suggest the need for refinement. Participatory modellers should prioritise refinement as an ongoing process to inform their creative "polishing approach" when engaging with multiple stakeholders. A framework is proposed for PM in STS.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: This study contributes to the growing literature on Participatory Modelling as an attempt to approach community resilience planning. Before this research, little research had been conducted on STS in New Zealand, and an international research gap in this area inspired the endeavour to challenge the civil systems engineering community to produce participatory methods to desirable enhance community cohesion while also building resilience in a holistic manner. This work provides a framework for joint investment analysis in STS. The proposed framework and lessons presented in this thesis, along with the importance of refining the methodology, have broader applications and can guide scholars in implementing participatory approaches that foster interdisciplinary collaboration and encourage creative problem-solving. However, limitations on the use of PM in STS remain, and a debate over the need for a consensus on standards and guidelines in PM persists with no clear resolution in sight.

FUTURE RESEARCH: It is recommended to conduct additional trials involving a broader range of participants to provide a more comprehensive perspective within the STS context. It is recommended to polish the use of methods to identify specific challenges and opportunities within PM methodologies. Moreover, it is crucial to refine the limitations when integrating game elements and explore immersive technologies in PM to help visualise aspects that enhance a holistic understanding of STS by creating engaging and interactive experiences. This approach could attract PM practitioners from diverse engineering fields and foster collaboration and innovation for community-driven engineering solutions in resilience planning.

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