Exploring the future with models

All humans navigate life using models - most of us just don’t realise. Niriel/Flickr

Planning for our future can be a heated topic, as the many people affected may have competing or conflicting objectives. The tension, frustration and bewilderment that can accompany such an exercise can be alleviated if discussions are based around models. We are a “hands on” species and being able to directly interact with models often elicits options and opinions that are missed if only talking “in theory” or “in principle”.

When you hear the word model what is the first image you get? While scientists have an understanding of what is meant by a model, in reality models of many forms are already embedded in day-to-day living.

All humans navigate through life using models - consciously or unconsciously. These may be intuitive mental models, or they may be more formal models, such as those embedded in government decision making (for example, treasury forecasts).

All models are simplified versions of reality that we use as learning tools when reality is too difficult to handle. Useful models reproduce the key aspects of the world we are interested in so we can ignore complicating factors without being led catastrophically astray.

Mental models – most commonly expressed as philosophies, beliefs, or worldviews – are built intuitively through time, drawing on many sources (such as parents and peers) and guide our participation in society, our decisions and actions. They are not required to be internally consistent. In contrast, scientific models use scientific understanding of real world processes (such as physical laws of mass and energy) to require internal consistency.

The complexity and interconnectedness of the modern world means that now more than ever it is important to use internally consistent models that can evolve with new understanding. Scientific models can be used to spot what is plausible and what is not and to identify futures that are both desirable and possible.

Models have many uses, the most commonly recognised one being to project into the future. The complexity of the world means we can never predict it exactly, but it is possible to get the broad brush strokes correct. We can ask questions like “what if we did not control emissions?” and models can paint an internally consistent picture of what consequences may unfold.

While a lot of effort is being put into using models to do projections - and these often draw the greatest public attention - other uses of models are equally, if not more important.

The fastest way of identifying a hole in understanding is to try and build a model. Uncertainty around a key feature or link in the model helps prioritise where future research is needed. Model-building brings together knowledge from a broad range of sources. For example, sitting with community members and discussing how the world fits together for them, or playing with simple models can lead to a wealth of information that would not be uncovered any other way.

This is particularly true when dealing with human behaviour. Governments do not manage the environment or natural resources, they manage what people do. Portraying people too simply risks missing unintended consequences. The use of models as “flight simulators” for managers – letting them check the consequences of potential decisions in models before risking the real world – has been a key function of models for resource managers.

It is important that people of all walks of life understand the implications of proposed policies, what those policies require of them and what effect their implementation will have on their world. Without such understanding it can be easy to assume people and the system will behave as expected but for reality to play out very differently.

Work has begun on models to support discussions of shared visions of potential futures that are consistent with society’s values and the biophysical reality of the planet. This will not be easy at a national scale, but if it proves as effective as it has on smaller regional scales then it has enormous potential.

Beth Fulton was lead author for a group exploring modelling perspectives as part of the Australian Academy of Science project “Australia 2050: Towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living”.

The Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science has just published Phase 1 Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 which emerged from 35 scientists working together to explore social perspectives, resilience, scenarios and modelling as pathways towards environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living. Phase 2 of this project on creating living scenarios for Australia is underway.