Participatory modeling and democracy

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    Alexey Voinov
    Alexey Voinov

    While traveling in China, I repeatedly ask myself: What would participatory modeling and research mean here? Is it even relevant? Who would be the stakeholders? How do you work with them? How could it be organized?

    Decisions in China are very top-down. The five year plan produced by the Communist Party of China (CPC) is pretty much a must for the development of the country and all further decisions on lower levels of the government are entirely dictated by the framework of the plan. On top of that the CPC defines certain strategies, like the “Rule of Law”, which was reconfirmed at the 2012 CPC congress, and led to arrests in the highest echelons of power. The party decisions are made in consultation with scientists and experts who identify the best solutions based on their research. Science continues to play an important role in the decision making process and scientists are well respected and well funded.

    At the same time people can go to jail for publishing ‘rumors’ on social media (Global Times, 2017). People may not, therefore, be too eager to participate in public hearings and debates. Obviously in this case the stakeholder process will look different from what we are used to in the West, as well as in some non-OECD countries where the governments are not that strong. So should we just wait with our participatory methods for more democracy to emerge in China, assuming that democracy is to come together with maturity of society and as it becomes more open? Or is there a special type of participatory modeling that could work there?

    There is a very telling TED talk, which I find informative to understand how the political system works in China. Eric X.Li ( tells us that the system in China is not a democracy, yet it is not bad, and maybe even better than democracy in some ways.
    The Chinese system, which Li calls ‘meritocracy’, has already produced unprecedented development in the country, and there is hardly any reason to expect it to be phased out and replaced by democracy any time soon.

    Most importantly, he argues that considering and comparing democracy and meritocracy is really not about what is bad or good, what is wrong or right. His main point is that there may be different systems, and not necessarily all that is not democracy immediately means bad and it is only a matter of time and development for it to get replaced. Democracy may not be the very only optimal state of human development. There may actually be several optima.

    Keep in mind that what we mean by democracy, in the meanwhile, is also changing, gradually deteriorating in some cases, morphing into something that would be more properly referred to as plutocracy. Let us also not forget that China’s meritocracy not only managed to build a prospering economy and eliminate hunger in the country, but also stopped exponential population growth in the country, and is currently leading the transition to low-carbon alternative energy, strongly supporting the Paris accord, unlike some of the exemplary democratic countries.

    The history of PM essentially started in the 1960s when Forrester was including managers in building models for business systems. It was boosted in the 1970s by the so-called “Sunshine Laws” adopted by the US federal and state governments, requiring that meetings, decisions and records of the regulatory authorities be made available to the public. It was also at that time that the US Army Corps of Engineers called for the broad participation of stakeholders. At that same time the notion of ‘wicked problems’ emerged (Rittel & Webber, 1973), which recognized that many of the socio-environmental problems do not have solutions in the regular sense because stakeholders cannot agree, judgement is multidimensional, there is no one right solution, only better or worse ones.

    Later on this was reinvented as ‘post-normal science’, which technically speaking is almost about the same: we have to deal with problems that are unsolvable in the usual sense, there is much uncertainty in the decisions we have to make, yet stakes are high and science should extend to engage stakeholders. Funtowicz & Ravetz (1993) observe that “one reaction, as among some leading exponents of post-modernity, is despair”. Apparently by the 1970s we have reached the stage when democracy started to show signs of incompetence and inability to solve some of the urgent problems that society was (and still is) facing. It may seem like participatory research efforts emerged as an attempt to fix democracy and make it functional again. What are our chances of success?

    If we look at the dynamics of per capita GDP and GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator), we see that while GDP continues to grow, GPI levels off in the mid 1970s and even starts to decline after that (Fig.1) (Talbeth et al., 2006). At about the same time income has disconnected with productivity. Before mid 1970s income was constantly growing together with productivity. After that, while productivity continued to grow, income stagnated, while debt started to increase. This time seems to also coincide with when stakeholders started to gain ground in the decision making processes. It almost looks like we are substituting real well being and life quality with more participation, giving people the illusion of involvement while nothing really changes for the better.

    GDP vs GPI graphic

    This is also the time when experts seemed to loose respect in the Western societies. Science is no longer cool. We can’t trust scientists. Climate change is a hoax, scientists have invented it just to get federal funding. The history of climate change denial is an unprecedented crusade against science and scientists, evolving in some of the most democratic and civilized countries, and culminating by the election of the last US president.

    This makes me wonder what PM really is. Is it really how good science should be conducted in the post-normal age, or is it that we are just inventing all sorts of ways to prop up democracy, still being sure that there is nothing better possible? To what extent PM really helps in solving problems? Or is it just a distraction that makes us think that we can move towards a solution of those problems, while already accepting that they are ‘wicked’ and, therefore, unsolvable? Should we, perhaps, instead of waiting for democracy to overtake China, also learn something from the meritocracy there?

    Global Times, 2017. Man detained for online gripes about hospital’s food. Vol.9, No. 2371, Aug.21, p.11. (
    S. Funtowicz & R. Ravetz, “Science for the Post-Normal Age,” Futures, no. September, pp. 739–755, 1993.
    Rittel, H.W.J. & Webber, M.M., 1973. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sci, 4(2), pp.155–169.
    J. Talberth, C. Cobb, and N. Slattery, “The Genuine Progress Indicator 2006,” Redefining Prog., p. 31, 2007.
    Bell, D., 2015. Chinese Democracy Isn’t Inevitable. The Atlantic, May 29, 2015.

    Emily Bondank
    Emily Bondank

    The principles of democracy do seem to be a foundation for participatory modeling (PM). It makes sense that the relevance of PM is put into question in a society where democracy is not the underlying dynamic of decision making. There seem to be at least two options for us PM practitioners in this situation.

    1) Do we stand by our perceived moral goodness of democracy and go ahead with PM in this environment with the aim of embedding these principles in the decision making?

    An argument for this is that perhaps we should be a voice for democracy in these places to improve their capacity to be successful in the long-term. Throughout history, non-democracies have often failed due to famine, revolution, and/or overthrow stemming from the fact that they did not consider the perspectives of their citizens whether regarding matters of science and/or social issues. (This is my sweeping summary of what happened in places like the Soviet Union, Cambodia under the rule of Khmer Rouge, Maoist China, and all the places who have revolted against imperial colonization)

    An additional argument for the support of democratic principles is found in resilience literature, which shows that there is an underlying risk in fully depending on a hierarchical command and control form of decision making at all times, in more contexts than just government. This type of decision making lessens the adaptive capacity of the organization in the long-term because knowledge sources and options are limited. Participatory modeling is a direct way to gain knowledge from diverse sources. This helps to truly understand the dynamics involved in the situation which allows the identification of more optimal options.

    2) Do we recognize a different value system around democracy as valid and not practice PM in these environments?

    An argument for this is that we should always design the process around the values of the stakeholders whether us as organizers agree with them or not. Perhaps PM is therefore meant for deepening democracy in places only where stakeholders value democracy.

    I’m interested in seeing others’ arguments for or against each of these options! Are there other options?

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