Testing the waters: A science-policy simulation in an ice-free Arctic

Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2021

Author: Hubert Brychczyński, Łukasz Jarząbek, Nicole Arbour and Brendan Frank

Content Writer, Centre for Systems Solutions
Senior Game Designer, Centre for Systems Solutions
External Relations Manager, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis 
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Science, Society and Policy

Originally published in PaxSims on April 14, 2021

Let’s 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. 

How to bridge science, policy, and society

The unprecedented rate of climate change calls for adequately unprecedented measures, especially at the intersection of science and policy. The WHO, UNESCO, and the EEAC, among others, all recognize that successful cooperation between the two areas is key for developing globally consistent and robust responses to climate change. Right now, however, the cooperation is far from ideal. There is a gap between science and “science users” (policy makers and practitioners) that prevents optimal use of existing knowledge. For example, scientists in their research activities often don’t take into account what kind of results will actually be useful for science users. On the other hand, policy makers often make their decisions based on information that may not be the best available scientific knowledge. How to bridge these gaps and improve the development of both science and policy? Science-policy simulations can help. They create a safe interface for stakeholders, scientists, and policy makers to effectively work on strategies toward a better future. 

What are science-policy simulations? 

Science-policy simulations are a type of social simulation. 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 are strategy games used for military purposes. In the 20th century, wargaming techniques became more and more often applied to non-military contexts. We can trace the beginnings of this change 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.” It was during 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 gaming methods to non-military contexts, for example to urban and social planning, health care, and economy. As a result, 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 with social learning – “a process of iterative reflection that occurs when we share our experiences, ideas and environments with others.” This process of learning is possible because social simulations involve participants with different experiences, expertise, and worldviews, who impersonate different roles within the simulation – including research, administration, business, and NGOs. Within the confines of the simulation, they can jointly discuss problems, devise strategies, propose solutions, and diffuse tensions through negotiation and debate. 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 the Centre for Systems Solutions, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and the Institute for Science, Society and Policy. It was based upon the Cascading Climate Impacts Simulation that was developed within the CASCADES project. 

Building on the premise of an ice-free Arctic, the simulation explores possible challenges and tensions. 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 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. 

Summary

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. 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. 

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