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Researchers, managers and educators join to model the coastal zone

Modelling the coastal zone and its uses is an approach which puts together several scientific disciplines but can also be extended to stakeholders within the civil society. Feedback on an experiment of "companion modelling" carried out on Ushant island (Brittany).



The involvement of scientists in the implementation of sustainable development is facing several difficulties. Whereas some of these are specific to them (complexity of processes, lack of suitable methods, scattering of skills and data), others stem from their interaction with the many stakeholders of the civil society: mayors and local representatives, non-profit organizations, users, etc. Furthermore, scientists are themselves actors within the society and are facing questions about their own role in the building of knowledge and about how this knowledge and the tools produced by research are transferred to society.

About fifteen years ago, a group of scientists devised a new way to engage into modelling as a support to collective processes of decision-making pertaining to the management of renewable natural resources. This approach was named "companion modelling" (ComMod); it uses various modelling tools (like multi-agent simulations and role-playing games) to co-construct representations of objects and their relations and dynamics, and an accompaniment of stakeholders aiming to help them to progressively know each other, share their arguments and points of view in order to build a common vision of a given problem and elaborate an accepted solution.

This paper builds on an experience of implementation of this approach to analyze how the various partners (scientists, managers, teachers) made it theirs or on the contrary had difficulties in its appropriation. The project first dealt with scrub extension and was later extended to the sustainable development of coastal zone on the island of Ushant, off Western Brittany. It included the co-construction of a multi-agent model, of scenarios and simulations and the design of a role playing game. The question of identification to and appropriation of the underlying approach of companion modelling was central throughout the project.


A landscape on Ushant (Photo B. Gobert)

The question arose right from its beginning, for the constitution of a group of researchers with common scientific interests but coming from very different disciplines: ecology, economics, ethnology, geography, ornithology. Transition from multi- to inter-disciplinarity occurred progressively throughout the project workshops, but substantive difficulties were encountered during the design of the game because the interaction with non-scientists within a research project was not self-evident for every discipline; this was particularly true for social sciences where it raises epistemological questions such as the possible role of scientists in the diffusion of representations or ideologies.

The group then expanded to include managers and other stakeholders, in a new step consisting to transfer tools (elaboration of scenarios, role playing game) to managers. Whereas some of these new participants integrated themselves to the initial group of scientists and made theirs the approach, some others did it only in part or not at all. Thirteen scenarios were presented to the Parc naturel régional d'Armorique (PNRA, a regional protected area) and to the Ushant municipality, but difficulties were met about appropriation of the approach and co-construction of scenarios. Problems stemmed from the newness of ComMod approach, from the legitimacy of participants to take part into the management of Ushant territory and from their previous involvement into participative processes. Another reason was the history of the partners' participation into the project: whereas PNRA managers already participated to several meetings, this was not the case for those of the municipality. In spite of the wide and diverse attendance, the four role play sessions organized in Ushant showed the difficulty for some stakeholders to stand back from real situations in order to explore scenarios and to overcome the social control of insular societies. Yet the dynamic that occurred between participants did not result in managers making theirs the approach, as the still considered the role playing game as a tool developed and run by scientists only.

The last step took place with the transfer of the role playing game towards the educational sphere, as part of a pedagogical workshop in the Brest aquarium Océanopolis. A new group of actors of various experiences and professions (scientists, animators and teachers) then had to make theirs the bases of companion modelling. Here again, difficulties arose from differences between the classical scientific or educative attitudes and those of the ComMod approach, where the quality of interactions leading the players to decision making is more important than the quality of the decision itself.



Nearly 4,000 high school students participated to the pedagogical workshops based on the role playing game (Photo Océanopolis)

The analysis of these experiences underlines the importance of the precautions taken for companion modelling to be successfully used by scientists unfamiliar to the approach, managers or teachers. In particular, participation to the successive steps of the process seems to be of paramount importance for the subsequent appropriation of the tools and the newly built knowledge.


The paper

F. Chlous-Ducharme et F. Gourmelon, 2012. Modélisation d’accompagnement : appropriation de la démarche par différents partenaires et conséquences. VertigO 11(3), 18 p.

The authors

The two authors of this paper are members of the laboratories Géoarchitecture of UBO/UBS (University of Western Brittany/University of South Brittany) and LETG-Brest Géomer of IUEM.


The journal

The electronic journal VertigO was created in 2000 by the Éditions en environnement VertigO, a non-profit Canadian organization. This interdisciplinary journal of natural and social sciences publishes manuscripts submitted to the usual peer-review process. Its aim is to promote and spread throughout the French-speaking international community scientific researches and analyses about the main contemporary environmental problems. In less than eight years, it became the most important French-speaking electronic journal in its domain.



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