The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Hubert Brychczyński, Łukasz Jarząbek, Nicole Arbour, and Brendan James Frank.
Let us travel to 2035. According to scientists, the Arctic is going to become ice-free by the end of the decade. Vessels will soon start rushing there, enticed by the promise of year-round sailing opportunities. An international organization, called the Arctic League, safeguards the region’s future development while balancing economic, societal, and environmental considerations… This is the premise to the Arctic Future simulation, which was presented during the Canadian Science Policy Conference in 2020. Coincidentally, 2020 was also the second hottest year in recorded history. With global ice reserves melting at a record rate of 1.2 trillion tons per year, we can see how the trends that inspired the simulation play out before our eyes.
Science-policy simulations are a type of social simulations. The easiest way of thinking about the social simulation is to picture it as an interactive, multiplayer role-playing game. Run either offline or online, it recreates – or simulates – the dynamics of a complex, real-world system by using game elements, such as problem cards, pictures, tokens, boards, etc. Social simulations focus on the social aspect – the freedom of each individual to make their own decisions and explore possible options in interaction with other players and within the simulated reality.
Social simulations belong to a broader category of tools that use mechanisms known from games for purposes other than entertainment. The oldest kind of such tools are strategy games used for military purposes. In the 20th century, wargaming techniques became more and more often applied to non-military contexts. The beginnings of this change can be traced back to World War II, when the approach to wargaming shifted from “rehearsing for war” to “simulation gaming as a (…) method for military policy and planning” (Mayer, 2009, p. 827). It was in that time that applied mathematics and engineering started to inform military strategy development more prominently. This led to the establishment of operations research, a discipline used for military planning in the US, which laid the foundation for the emergence of systems analysis and policy analysis. Called “decision sciences”, the two disciplines started to apply various kinds of gaming methods to non-military contexts, for example to urban and social planning, health care, economy, and more. As a result, such methods as policy gaming, simulation games, planning games, policy exercises, serious games and others were developed to address challenges in different fields.
Social simulation approach was heavily influenced by the abovementioned traditions, combining them with a strong role-playing and performative aspect. It puts emphasis on combining learning through direct experience (Kolb, 2015) with social learning – “a process of iterative reflection that occurs when we share our experiences, ideas and environments with others” (Keen et al., 2005, p. 9). This process of learning is possible because social simulations involve participants with different experiences, types of expertise, and worldviews, who impersonate different roles within the simulation – for example ones in research, administration, business, and NGOs. Within the safe confines of the simulation, they can jointly discuss problems, devise strategies, propose solutions, and diffuse tensions through negotiating and debating. They can also implement the potential solutions and see them play out right away in the condensed environment of the simulation.
Science-policy simulations build on social simulation approach, adding to it an extended narrative layer. The participants take on the roles of different policy makers, scientists, activists, and business people. They face a series of dramatic events. While this storyline unfolds, the participants work in different thematic groups to respond to the changing situation. The storyline is presented using a series of professionally-made videos, news articles, social media accounts, and other materials, such as maps or infographics. The storyline is always created based on available scientific data on the subject matter and consulted with experts from the field. Such crafted simulation allows the participants to gaze into the future and explore how to use the available scientific knowledge to craft better policies to address upcoming problems – and how to conduct research to produce results that will be actionable to support such policies.
The Arctic Future Policy Simulation
The Arctic Future Simulation was prepared for the Canadian Science Policy Conference 2020 in collaboration between Centre for Systems Solutions, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa. It was created based upon the Cascading Climate Impacts simulation that was developed within the CASCADES project.
Building on the premise of a future ice-free Arctic, the simulation explores possible challenges and tensions anticipated to arise in the region with regards to international trade routes and security. Participants, assuming the roles of high officials from Arctic countries, negotiate and vote on a treaty that regulates economic, social, and environmental issues in the region. The debate, revolving around trade routes, extra fees, and marine environment, is interrupted by a series of unexpected, narrative interludes – like news about the blockade of Suez and Panama canal.
The design process of such simulation requires close collaboration between a core team of game designers, researchers, writers, filmmakers, and graphic designers, and external subject matter experts. The first step is to prepare a plausible scenario of chains of events based on available literature and expert knowledge. After a few iterations and consultations, we turned it then into a draft storyline. In parallel, we selected the organizations to be included in the simulation (national ministries, business organizations, Indigenous People’s organizations, NGOs, citizen initiatives) – and then created a detailed matrix of negotiation positions for each role, with an emphasis on conflicting values and interests. Iterating the whole process allowed us to reach the desired interplay between the gameplay and narrative layer.
Striking the right balance between the exploratory function and narrative immersion was the biggest challenge in making the simulation. After all, the purpose of social simulations is to imitate a system as closely as possible and offer the participants a testing ground for problem-solving. On the other hand, the storyline had to be attractive and well-paced to keep the participants curious about what will happen next. This meant that we had to make the narrative as dramatic as possible while staying true to the scientific background it was based upon. We found this tension between the need for representing real-world systems plausibly and for incorporating fictional elements both challenging and fascinating.
Ultimately, the simulation was successful. In after-game surveys, the participants not only reported the representation of reality as plausible but the experience as immersive and engaging thanks to the surprising narrative elements. What’s more, they felt like actual diplomats, learning about difficult diplomacy concepts in the heat of the moment.
In our increasingly interconnected world, the need for close collaboration between science, policy, and society is only expected to grow. Science-policy simulations are a promising tool for mediating this collaboration. They offer stakeholders a safe and life-like testing ground for exploring difficult issues before facing them in reality. Moreover, such simulations are highly adaptable and applicable in many diverse contexts and environments, both offline and online. So far, the Arctic Future simulation alone has been successfully deployed two times already. Cascading Climate Impacts – the simulation it was based upon – was also used two times, with more workshops to come in 2021. Needless to say, we plan to continue delivering such narrative science-policy simulations in the future.
Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. FT press.
Keen, M., Brown, V. A., & Dyball, R. (Eds.). (2005). Social learning in environmental management: towards a sustainable future. Routledge.
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About the Authors
Hubert Brychczyński is a Content Writer at the Centre for Systems Solutions. By night, he doubles as an English teacher and translator – the latter with a focus on visual arts, such as graphic novels and films. A graduate of The School of English at Adam Mickiewicz University, he loves the written word, storytelling, and science communication.
Łukasz Jarząbek is a Senior Game Designer at the Centre for Systems Solutions. He worked on social simulations and serious games in different fields, including disaster risk management, resilience, cultural and natural heritage, climate change, cultural theory, and business sustainability. He is interested in using experiential methods such as games and simulations to aid co-production of knowledge and bridging scientists and stakeholders.
Dr. Nicole Arbour is the External Relations Manager at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), where she plays an active role in building and maintaining relationships with IIASAs national member organisations (NMOs). She is passionate about the science-to-policy interface, evidence-based decision making, and science diplomacy. She holds a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Ottawa.
Brendan Frank is a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) at the University of Ottawa, currently serving as Interim Research Director. He hosts the ISSP’s new podcast, Disruption Discovered. His training is in science (Bachelor’s in Environmental Science, Queen’s University) and public policy (Master’s in Public Policy, University of Calgary), and he possesses strong research and knowledge mobilisation experience in the public, private and civic sectors