Monthly Archives: March 2013

Agent-Based Models in the Real World

thought_process1A recently published News Feature in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Robert Frederick, titled Agents of Influence, discusses the advancing state of agent-based models (ABMs) and their growing use to inform business and policy decisions. Businesses are employing ABMs to find new efficiencies in complex supply chains, and research efforts to create million-agent models of the economy may soon offer insight into the dynamics of our financial systems and broader economy.

What I like most about this article is that it illustrates how ABMs and complexity thinking are beginning to make their way out of academics and into the real world. A recent example is how Southwest Airlines used ABMs to find more efficient cargo shipping routes, saving the airline millions of dollars. ABMs as virtual laboratories are getting attention, too. The article describes how these models enable decision-makers to explore the consequences of particular business or policy decisions though a range of possible scenarios.

The message is clear: representing heterogeneous, distributed decision-making creates more realistic models, and is enabling researchers, businesses, and policy-makers to navigate complex systems like never before.

Importantly, Frederick does not shy away from the limitations of such models. What is gained in realism by using ABMs often comes at the cost of having to make numerous simplifying assumptions about human behavior. After all, an ABM is only as good as its description of human decision-making processes, which are notoriously unpredictable.

A great closing quote: “Ultimately, … none of these [ABMs] will offer iron-clad predictions, because they have to make simplifying assumptions about human behavior. The true test will be whether those assumptions, and the resulting outputs of the models, convince policymakers to act on their advice.”

Linking management decisions and shoreline dynamics


Source: USGS

Shoreline communities along the U.S. Atlantic Coast have a long history of enduring costly and widespread impacts from tropical storms and long-term erosion. Unfortunately, such impacts are likely to worsen with sea-level rise in the future. These impacts are unavoidable – but how we respond to them is up to us. In their new article titled “A coupled physical and economic model of the response of coastal real estate to climate risk,” recently published in Nature Climate Change, Drs. Dylan McNamara and Andrew Keeler address just this aspect of long-term coastline change.

Using coupled agent-based and coastal processes models, they explore the mechanisms underlying shoreline defense decisions in response to long-term sea-level rise and erosion. Those decisions in turn are dependent on property values and individual beliefs of potential impacts. A particularly innovative feature of their model is that collective mitigation actions are determined endogenously through an iterative referendum. Collective action problems become apparent as believers and non-believers of climate risk predictions must decide on community-level adaptation strategies.

The authors find that property owners that disregard predictions of climate change-induced coastal risks tend to be the ones that own property in the riskiest locations, and thus disproportionately receive public disaster assistance funds. In addition, the model is also able to estimate time before abandonment of coastal communities subject to a combination of sea-level rise and erosion.

Many research efforts into climate change adaptation emphasize the physical impacts of climate related hazards. However, this is only one – and arguably the less important – aspect of climate change adaptation. The fate of human-environment systems is largely determined by our decisions of how to respond to changing economic and environmental conditions.

This model gets it right. Explicit consideration of human decision-making, and its underlying motivations, is essential if we are to form realistic expectations of likely future states and formulate successful adaptation strategies.

I look forward to seeing future contributions from these authors!

Human decision-making in climate system models

GLP_reportOn November 28th, 2011, a workshop in Lake Crackenback, Australia was organized by Prof. Mark Rounsevell, CECS, University of Edinburgh, UK and sponsored by the Global Land Project (GLP) and Australia’s CSIRO. The aim of the workshop was to explore theoretical and modeling approaches for incorporating human decision-making into large-scale climate system models. This theme arose from the recognition that the cumulative effects of local land-use change contribute significantly to global environmental change, and land-use is the result of adaptive decision-making of land-users. In order to understand the linkages between climate systems and land-use, we must integrate decision-level, process-based models (for example, agent-based models) with large-scale climate models.

The perspectives, ideas, and contributions of workshop participants have been synthesized and released as a report from the GLP. A collaborative effort between regional and global climate modelers, land change scientists, and agent-based modelers, this report describes methods for up-scaling local land system models for integration with large-scale climate models.

Although there is much room for improvement in both climate system and agent-based modeling, the integration of these approaches is an important next step for creating realistic climate change scenarios that account for the adaptive responses of land-users.