Moving from Models that Synthesize to Models that Innovate

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Mar 24, 2016
Pete Loucks

Article published in Integration and Implementation Insights. 


When computer technology became available for developing and using graphics interfaces for interactive decision support systems, some of us got excited about the potential of directly involving stakeholders in the modeling and analyses of various water resource systems. Many of us believed that generating pictures that could show the impact of various design and management decisions or assumptions any user might want to make would give them a better understanding of the system being modeled and how they might improve its performance.

We even got fancy with respect performing sensitivity analyses and displaying uncertainty. Our displays were clear, understandable, and colorful. Sometimes we witnessed users even believing what they were seeing. We occasionally had to remind users that our models were, and would continue to be, approximations of reality, at best. It was fun developing and using such tools, and indeed today most models that are used to analyze river basins, groundwater, and coastal zones incorporate interactive, graphics-based, decision support frameworks.

But what we modelers haven’t done yet is to figure out how to make our models suggest planning and management options that we haven’t thought of before. This would be an especially important feature for integrated water resources planning and management. Integrated implies that our models have included all the links to all the other major components of our social, economic and, if applicable, ecological environments.

Right now our models can only inform us about a system we have defined when we developed them. They analyze and synthesize but they don’t innovate. They cannot identify better assumptions regarding our model parameters and their values. They cannot suggest different systems boundaries or components. They cannot suggest different designs or policies based on components that we hadn’t already included in our models.

For a simple example, if we are modeling the design of a water storage tank, and we are using models to identify its least-cost length, width and height, wouldn’t it be nice if the output of such a model could also identify or suggest the possibility of designing a cylindrical, or spherical, tank and display their appropriate dimensions and costs? Similarly, if we are modeling a proposed reservoir, say on the Mekong River, in addition to learning how fast it may fill with sediment under different hydropower production and sediment management policies, wouldn’t it be nice if our model could suggest other sites, other designs and other operating policies that might be preferable to what has been modeled, and show the appropriate tradeoffs regarding hydropower production and sediment and fish passage.

This may be asking too much, but I don’t think so. Waiting for us to use in more creative ways are: massive data, Google search engines and their ability to access all the information available on the Internet, Google Earth, voice recognition (that kids take for granted when asking their cell phones questions), parallel cloud computing, and even three-dimensional virtual reality environments that you can step into (available today in various museums).

I am not at all optimistic about our ability to model and predict human behavior, but with such enhanced decision support systems, stakeholders—including decision makers—can become part of the overall model. We model builders and analysts can then observe what decisions they make before and during simulations of these systems, and more importantly we can observe what questions they ask of the model, and what aspects of water resource systems they may be most concerned about. This is turn can be used to improve future models.

Hopefully this will become more than just a dream.

Biography: Professor Daniel P. Loucks serves on the faculties of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Institute of Public Affairs at Cornell University. His teaching and research interests include the development and application of systems analysis methods integrating economics, ecology, environmental engineering and public policy. He is the principal author of a widely used text in water resources systems engineering. He is a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, and recipient of a Senior U.S. Scientist Research Award from the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is member of the Core Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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