Plenary Session

Common Systems Modeling Tools and Contexts of Application

Steven Gray, Assistant Professor, Community Sustainability, Michigan State University

Miles McNall, Director, Community Evaluation and Research Collaborative, Michigan State University

Laura Schmitt Olabisi, Assistant Professor, Community Sustainability, Michigan State University

Renee Wallace, CEO, Doers Consulting

Moira Zellner, Associate Professor, Urban Planning and Policy Program, University of Illinois at Chicago

The popularity of participatory modeling (PM) has grown considerably in recent years. It is widely acknowledged that the broad inclusion of stakeholders and different scientific perspectives are required to improve our understanding of complex environmental or social problems. Currently, a wide range of stakeholder-centered modeling tools and approaches exist, that all aim to provide decision support and facilitate participatory planning contexts to varying degrees. Although the application of these tools has recently experienced a large increase, some critics have cautioned that diversity of modeling practices does not necessarily indicate diversity in function, and many stakeholder modeling platforms are often prone to duplication of effort. In this presentation, we will review several of the tools available to support participatory modeling, provide illustrative case studies in which these tools have been applied and discuss strengths and weaknesses of different approaches given the different decision-support needs of modelers and stakeholders.


Steven Gray is an assistant professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. His research focuses on understanding how individuals and groups make decisions about complex social-ecological systems and addresses questions about how values, attitudes, beliefs, and local conditions influence human behavior toward the environment. This effort has recently led to a focus on understanding how collaborative modeling software tools help communities, resource managers, and other decision-makers understand, and adapt to, the social impacts of climate and other environmental changes through iterative learning. He is the lead editor on the book, Environmental Modeling with Stakeholders: Methods, Theories and Applications (Springer 2016). His research has been funded domestically by the National Science Foundation, the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), and federal resource management agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Internationally his research has been supported by the Leibniz Institute, the Australian Academy of Sciences, and the Belmont Forum.

Miles McNall is the director of the Community Evaluation and Research Collaborative (CERC) at Michigan State University. Dr. McNall has 19 years of experience with the evaluation of health and human service programs. He coordinated the evaluation of HIV prevention programs for young men at the University of Minnesota Medical College and guided the development of client outcome monitoring systems for agency programs at Catholic Charities of Chicago. At the CORE Center in Chicago, he evaluated HIV/AIDS care and substance abuse treatment programs and coordinated the agency's healthcare quality improvement efforts. Since joining the faculty at MSU, he and his colleagues have conducted evaluations of comprehensive community initiatives, school-based health centers, and intensive home-based treatment services for children with severe emotional disturbances. More recently, he has been involved in the evaluation of systems change initiatives, including efforts to transform early childhood and youth mental health systems in several Michigan communities. He has been a member of the Michigan Association for Evaluation (MAE) since 2006 and joined the MAE board in 2010. He became interested in participatory systems modeling because he believes that it offers methods that enable diverse groups of people to come together to generate a common understanding of the nature and underlying dynamics of complex problems and to test out different strategies for more effectively managing them through simulations.

Laura Schmitt Olabisi is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, jointly appointed in the Environmental Science and Policy Program and the Department of Community Sustainability. She uses system dynamics modeling and scenario visioning to investigate the future of complex socio-ecological systems, often working directly with stakeholders by applying participatory research methods. Dr. Schmitt Olabisi’s past and present research has addressed soil erosion, climate change, water sustainability, energy use, sustainable agriculture, and food security. She has led modeling and scenario exercises with stakeholders in the U.S., the Philippines, Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, and Burkina Faso, and has published her work in Environmental Science and Technology; Ecology and Society; and Society and Natural Resources, among other outlets. Dr. Schmitt Olabisi holds a B.S. in environmental science from Brown University, and a Ph.D. in systems ecology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Renee V. Wallace is a lifelong learner and entrepreneur, serving as executive director of Food Plus Detroit and CEO of Doers Consulting Alliance, both located in Detroit, Michigan. Introduced to participatory modeling in 2015, she served on the ICM conference planning team, helping develop the community track. That experience included engaging over 20 members of Detroit’s urban agriculture and community development organizations to create a systems dynamic model of food security in Detroit. Afterwards she joined an effort to build a Detroit-Flint-MSU modeling team to serve the Detroit and Flint communities. To date Ms. Wallace has partnered with Laura Schmitt Olabisi and Kyle Metta of MSU to develop a systems dynamic model and policy analysis using data from dialogues on urban livestock in Detroit, is a member of the SESYNC Participatory Modeling Synthesis Working Group, and is currently shadowing a team led by Artina Sadler of the Community Foundation, who is using mental modeling to support facilitation of “trusted conversations” with Flint citizens affected by the water crisis. Wallace is working to master participatory practices that complement participatory modeling methods. She envisions using both disciplines to work with visionaries and doers in accelerating implementation of innovative solutions to diverse challenges facing urban communities.

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Moira Zellner joined the Department of Urban Planning and Policy in January of 2006. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Zellner earned her undergraduate degree in ecology at the Centro de Altos Estudios en Ciencias Exactas and pursued graduate studies in urban and regional planning and in complex systems at the University of Michigan. Before coming to the United States, she worked in Argentina as a consultant on environmental issues for local and international environmental engineering firms and for the under secretary of environment in the city of Buenos Aires, in projects related to domestic and hazardous waste management, river remediation, industrial pollution control, and environmental impact assessments. She also participated in interdisciplinary and international research projects on urban air pollution and on the spread of tuberculosis through public transportation. In the United States, her professional work includes greenway development and river restoration projects in Miami Beach and in California, and transportation surveys. In her position at UIC, she has served as primary investigator and co-primary investigator for interdisciplinary projects investigating how specific policy, technological, and behavioral changes can effectively address a range of complex environmental problems, where interaction effects make responsibilities and burdens unclear. Her research also examines the value of complexity-based modeling for participatory policy exploration and social learning with stakeholders. Zellner teaches a variety of workshops on complexity-based modeling of socioecological systems, for training of both scientists and decision-makers.