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Research Program
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Section: Research Program

Modeling of socio-economic and environmental interactions

Considering the assessment of socio-economic impacts on the environment and ecosystem service analysis, the problems encountered here are intrinsically interdisciplinary: they draw on social sciences, ecology or Earth sciences. The modeling of the considered phenomena must take into account many factors of different nature which interact via various functional relationships. These heterogeneous dynamics are a priori nonlinear and complex: they may have saturation mechanisms, threshold effects, and may be density dependent. The difficulties are compounded by the strong interconnections of the system (presence of important feedback loops) and multi-scale spatial interactions. The spatial processes involve proximity relationships and neighborhoods, like for example, between two adjacent parcels of land. The multi-scale issues are due to the simultaneous consideration in the modeling of actors of different types and that operate at specific scales (spatial and temporal). For example, to properly address biodiversity issues, the scale at which we must consider the evolution of rurality is probably very different from the one at which we model the biological phenomena. The multi-scale approaches can also be justified by the lack of data at the relevant scales. This is for example the case for the material flow analysis at local scales for which complex data disaggregations are required.

At this stage, it is crucial to understand that the scientific fields considered here are far from being mature. For example, the very notions of ecosystem services or local ecological accounting are quite recent and at best partially documented, but advances in those fields are essential, and will be required to identify transition paths to sustainability. Nowadays, the analyses are only qualitative or statistic. The phenomena are little understood. Our goal here is then to do upstream research. It is to anticipate and to help the development of modeling tools that will be used tomorrow in these fields.

Developing flexible integrated systemic models (upgradable, modular, ...) which are efficient, realistic and easy to use (for developers, modelers and end users) is a challenge in itself. What mathematical representations and what computational tools to use; cellular automata, multi-agent models, system dynamics, or large systems of equations describing equilibrium models? Is it necessary to invent other representations? What is the relevant level of modularity? How to get very modular models while keeping them very coherent and easy to calibrate? Is it preferable to use the same modeling tools for the whole system, or can we freely change the representation for each considered subsystem? How to easily and effectively manage different scales? How to get models which automatically adapt to the granularity of the data and which are always numerically stable? How to develop models that can be calibrated with reasonable efforts, consistent with the (human and material) resources of the agencies and consulting firms that use them?

Providing satisfying answers to these questions is a long term goal for STEEP.