How simulation software can improve the support of environmental management.

Interview with Henk van Hardeveld (Waternet)

In times where digital tools which enable for simulating various urban scenarios are gaining a more prominent role in urban planning processes and public management, it is crucial to investigate how the urban planners and policymakers engage with them and what influence can they have on urban management.  Henk van Hardeveld, a team leader of Hydrology and Ecology at Waternet is a scholar who in his work investigates such issues. In his work, he has gained considerable experience in working with the Tygron Geodesign Platform which has been a case study to his research on how simulation software can improve the support of environmental management. In an interview with Tygron about his research, he shares the insights that he gained during his research on the users’ experience with Tygron’s software.

Workshop session where the participants engage with the Tygron Platform.

The questions for the interview with Henk van Hardeveld were posed in relation to his research on the influence of interactive simulations on environmental management. [1] In his research, he tested ISS (interactive simulation system) with real-world stakeholders in multiple interactive workshop sessions, through questionnaires and video recordings of the sessions. The case used for his research was the collective management of Dutch peatlands for which an ISS was developed on the base of the Tygron Platform. The interview evolved around four key issues.

How to stand the test of critical reflection on the tool and data

The participants that took part in the workshop were experts in the field and because of their domain knowledge they did not take the results shown by the simulation for granted. The outcome that the stakeholders were often sceptical about was the estimation of costs and profits given by the software. According to van Hardeveld, some of the participants were curious about the data, which was used in the simulation. Because of the tight schedule of the session though, there was little time to explore the actual data sets that were loaded into the tool. However, key settings could be easily adjusted at the start of the session, using the input of the participants. Therefore, the tool was perceived by the participants as credible and legitimate. According to the interviewee, it also evoked trust because the ISS was designed by experts on the Dutch peatlands and because of the fact that the tool is fully customisable. 

How to use the tool successfully

In the experience of the interviewee, the way to use the tool successfully depends on the level of expertise of the participants in the interactive sessions. A team of participants which consists of only experts will do just fine. They not only have extensive knowledge in the field but are also able to understand the data and the technicalities of the software in a relatively short period of time. Another fruitful possibility is a team which consists of a person who is skilled at using the tool and a person who focuses on the scenario and negotiating a solution. From the observations of van Hardeveld, such combination results in effective collaboration within the team.  The last type of a team is one that consists of users which are neither familiar with the tool nor experts in the discussed problem. According to the van Hardeveld, the work of such a team is not very fruitful without a proper instruction. Otherwise, the technological aspect of the workshop turns out to be too complicated. In order for the session to be successful, you need to allocate more time to explain the use of the software and the background of the posed problem.

Reactions to the software

The interviewee has observed among the participants both enthusiastic and hopeful attitudes towards the software, as well as strong enthusiasm for solving real-world issues with the help of a ISS. According to the interviewee, the informal and friendly atmosphere of the session and the game-like character of the tool contributed, for the most part, to a better engagement in dialogue and negotiations as well as increased the productivity of the participants. The one thing almost everybody mentioned was that they gained a better understanding of the stakes of their opponents. Some even claimed this would be a big help in designing more successful deals in real-world situations. However, the interviewee also warned that real-world application requires more than just organizing one session. If you will use the tool over a longer period of time in a real-world policy process, you may encounter participants who are more sceptical towards the tool. This may also be related to the fact that it would change the work processes that they are used to. According to the interviewee, they may even fear that the new technologies and calculation models are going to replace humans making decisions. However, he does not regard this as very plausible. Instead, use of interactive simulation systems has been shown to enrich decision making in many cases around the world, enforcing rather than replacing the decision makers. 

The advantages of serious gaming for both experts and citizens

The serious game properties of the ISS are according to the interviewee beneficial to the problem-solving process.  The degree of learning amongst the participants is much deeper because they are actively taking actions in the simulation from the perspective of the stakeholder that they are representing. The users are immersed in the experience and the roles that they have assigned and try to communicate between each other and negotiate in order to broker a deal. The serious game mode deployment of the software can according to the interviewee be also a great tool for civic participation. The combination of data and the three-dimensional interface helps to present the issue to the citizen multidimensionally. It reveals relations between different aspects of the problem such as its causes as well as the impact that it has on the area. The realistic visualisation helps the citizens to identify with the area that is modelled. Moreover, during the interactive sessions with the ISS, the citizens can learn more about the objectives of the other stakeholders engaged in the discussion which helps them understand the complexity of the problem.

RE:PEAT ISS developed by van Hardeveld and his team

Besides the benefits that serious gaming has for citizens in the urban planning processes, van Hardeveld recognises a limitation to such mode of deployment, namely the time. The process of creating an ISS, depending on the complexity of the problem that needs to be visualized is very time consuming and therefore such interactive sessions do not align with the time schedule of many projects. On the bright side, there is at least one notable exception: the ISS that van Hardeveld and his colleagues created is freely available for all users of Tygron software. To underline this feature, they baptized their ISS ‘RE:PEAT’, and invite all stakeholders in peatland processes around the world the repeat their successful application of the Tygron software.

 

[1] van Hardeveld, H. A., P. P. J. Driessen, P. P. Schot, and M. J. Wassen. “How interactive simulations can improve the support of environmental management‒lessons from the Dutch peatlands.” Environmental Modelling & Software 119 (2019): 135-146.