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Monitoring screen of the computer piloting the Phenoarch platform. © INRA, SLAGMULDER Christian

Modelling and agrosystems

ComMod, companion modelling as a support tool

Companion modelling is an innovative tool to support complex, environmental decision-making involving multiple stakeholders and can be used as an aid in land-use planning processes.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Daniel McKinnon
Updated on 09/11/2013
Published on 05/30/2013

Grazing a herd of 300 sheep at L’Hom on the Causse Méjean plateau.. © INRA, BOSSENNEC Jean-Marie
Grazing a herd of 300 sheep at L’Hom on the Causse Méjean plateau. © INRA, BOSSENNEC Jean-Marie

In what ways can local stakeholders coordinate to reduce surface runoff erosion in Upper Normandy? How can forester activities and farmer activities work together to control brush encroachment in Cévennes National Park? Natural resource management often must deal with these types of complex problems about soil, biodiversity, and water. The companion modelling approach is an innovative way to support stakeholder collaboration for collective decision-making. First developed in 1996, the approach was further elaborated and refined by a group of researchers and teacher-researchers.

Modelling done collectively

Companion modelling is a tool to help people work together to address complex environmental issues where clear-cut solutions do not exist. The aim is to come to a solution acceptable to all stakeholders.

The companion modelling approach begins with a group of “bearers”, who are a part of the wider group of field actors and stakeholders. Models are produced to represent the system in question and are then shared with all group members. Various system evolution scenarios can thus be simulated by these models. Stakeholders are then able to discuss outcomes in groups or subgroups. The process is an iterative feedback loop designed to change over time: inquiry phase → design phase → simulation phase → feedback phase responding to initial inquiry → new inquiry phase → new loop.

A charter of best practices

Collective work of this nature must be guided by both methodological and ethical principles. These were established though a succession of texts, first published in English (1), and later in French (2), followed by a collective text written by ComMod Association (3) members, which promotes the companion modelling approach and monitors developments in the field.

Guiding principles in the Charter include:

- taking equal account of all identified stakeholder knowledge and viewpoints;

- transparency: each idea must be explicit and submitted for approval by participants (experts and field actors);

- iterative nature: each new element can modify the process;

- evaluation of outcomes, not only in terms of technical outcomes but also in terms of collective learning outcomes, as seen in the evolution of viewpoints and interactions among stakeholders.

The development of new knowledge, the increased sense of own responsibility by stakeholders, the formation of new associations, and other such developments demonstrate the validity of the companion modelling approach.

Using what technology?

Companion modelling focuses on multi-agent systems (MAS). Multi-agent systems seek to identify the major agents involved in managing the system, their degree of autonomy, and the ways they interact with both the environment and with other agents. Multi-agent systems are used in association with geographic information systems or with role-playing games.

Case studies

Companion modelling has already been applied widely. There have been almost 40 applications, more than a dozen in France, and more than 20 overseas in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific.

- Pine encroachment on the Causse Méjean plateau

At the request of Cévennes National Park, a companion modelling approach was set up to address the issue of pine encroachment on the Causse Méjean plateau in Lozère department in southern France. The companion modelling involved INRA researchers, Cévennes National Park staff, the local chamber of agriculture, and a major portion of local livestock farmers and forestry technicians from the Languedoc-Roussillon Regional Centre for Forest Owners (CRPF) and the Lozère Department Agriculture and Forestry Authority (DDAF). Over a number of workshops, role-playing and collective analysis of scenarios put forward by participants led to the development of a collective, local land-use management plan to address the natural process of pine encroachment. The plan resulted in the conclusion of 28 contracts between farmers, the Park, and a number of forest owners.

- Surface runoff erosion in the Pays de Caux

Two companion modelling sessions were held in the Pays de Caux in Seine-Maritime department in Normandy. The aim was to address the problem of erosive runoff on agricultural land and preserve the quality of drinking water. Role-playing games (CauxOpération, 2006–2007 and Ruis’EAU, 2010–2012) allowed stakeholders to explore the effects on small, virtual river basins (700 or 2,500 ha) of various scenarios dealing with agricultural practices, anti-erosion measures, and increased urbanisation. Stakeholders must now choose to turn lessons learned into applied action.

(1) Barreteau, O. et al., 2003. “Our Companion Modelling Approach”, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 6 (1). http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/6/2/1.html

(2) ComMod. 2005. “La modélisation comme outil d’accompagnement”, Natures Sciences Sociétés13(2):165-168.

(3) ComMod Association members are researchers from INRA, CIRAD, CNRS, IRD, and IRSTEA. Other partners are involved on a project and issue basis.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Science for Action and Development
Associated Centre(s):
Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur