Plenary Speaker

Exploring the Nature of Insight in Participatory System Dynamics Modeling

Krystyna Stave
School of Environmental and Public Affairs
Greenspun College of Urban Affairs
University of Nevada – Las Vegas

Krystyna StaveKrys Stave is professor of environmental studies at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas. She uses a systems perspective in her research and teaching to promote sustainable environmental management, increase community understanding of environmental issues, and engage stakeholders in policy analysis and environmental decision-making. She teaches systems modeling, conducts research on the effectiveness of systems models for environmental decision-making, and works with stakeholder groups to develop models for specific issues. Recent applications of her participatory systems modeling research include projects in water policy, transportation-related air quality management, zero-waste planning, and social-ecological system dynamics. Her current research focuses on developing simulation models for discovery learning about sustainability and using participatory modeling to foster transdisciplinary collaboration on environmental and public problem-solving.

She holds an undergraduate engineering degree in operations research, an M.S. degree in systems analysis and policy design, and a doctorate from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She spent the 2013-2014 year as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar at Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia, working with the Blue Nile Water Institute.


Collaborative modeling has many benefits. For the immediate problem, engaging stakeholders can produce substantively better decisions, greater stakeholder buy-in, and smoother implementation of solutions. Longer-term benefits include the development of social capital—building and strengthening relationships among stakeholders—and human capital—developing participant collaboration and analysis skills. This presentation examines an additional outcome that is often not intended, but can be profound: insightful learning by participants about complex social and environmental problems.

Insight is described as deep intuitive understanding gained after a problem-solving impasse in which the application of a known approach does not work. After some struggle to find a solution, a sudden restructuring of how one sees the problem, sometimes experienced as an “Aha!” moment, makes the solution instantly clear. In collaborative modeling, this kind of tension à impasse à restructuring à insight can take place at multiple points in the process, from problem definition to policy analysis.

A system dynamics approach to problem-solving is based on the fundamental premise that problematic trends are generated by causal relationships in the underlying system. The process of system dynamics modeling reveals the causal structure and makes it possible to identify places to intervene in the structure that can change the problematic behavior. Collaborative system dynamics modeling engages stakeholders in describing and analyzing the structure. Along the way, the process challenges participants to restructure the way they see collaborative problems.

In this presentation, I discuss four categories of insights possible in collaborative system dynamics work: problem-related insights, structural insights, dynamic insights, and paradigmatic insights. Unpacking the diverse nature of insights helps broaden our understanding of what is possible in collaborative modeling and suggests ways to more deliberately facilitate participant insight. 

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