Spatial Feedbacks (Love it or Hate it?)

I was hoping to make my first blog post of the year about the latest paper to come out of my work in Michigan. The paper is entitled, Filling the gap: A compositional gap regeneration model for managed northern hardwood forests and is forthcoming in Ecological Modelling. Unfortunately, despite being accepted for publication by the editors some time before Christmas, the manuscript seems to have got lost in the production system and has been delayed. If all goes to plan the paper will be out in time for February’s blog post. Instead, today I’ll highlight some other recent activities.

Between Christmas and New Year I took a bit of time to finish off a paper I was invited to submit to a special issue of Ecology and Society. The special issue will be entitled, Exploring Feedbacks in Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) and will bring together multiple different approaches for accounting for feedbacks in CHANS modelling and applications. The CHANS research framework emphasizes the importance of reciprocal human-nature interactions and the need for holistic study of humans and nature. Feedback loops can be formed in CHANS when information about one system component produces a change in a second component, which in turn provides information which produces a change in the original component.

Feedbacks loops between human and natural components of coupled systems are a primary reason that humans and nature must be investigated together to properly understand their temporal dynamics. However, as a geographer I’m also interested in the role space plays in system dynamics. It seems that there haven’t been any broad overviews or analyses of spatial feedbacks for CHANS, so I set out to produce one with the goal of improving understanding about the issue.

After a couple of drafts with very useful comments from the editors of the special issue and colleagues George Perry and David O’Sullivan, I arrived at a manuscript entitled, Three types of spatial feedback loop in coupled human and natural systems. As the title suggests, after identifying some of the key characteristics of feedbacks, I conceptualize and describe three types of spatial feedback loop. These three types address the areal growth of system entities, the importance of transport costs across space, and how spatial patterns can create feedback loops with spatial spread processes.

I won’t go into the details of these now as the manuscript is still under peer review (I think it’s a bit of a Marmite manuscript – they’ll either love it or hate it). However, I will highlight some of the simple spatial simulation models I used to help me conceptualize the feedbacks and which should be useful to help readers do the same (along with the real world examples I used). You can play with the simulation models yourself as they are freely available online. Download the models and their source code for use with NetLogo from, or use them online without downloading NetLogo from I think these simple spatial simulations should be far more helpful for understanding spatio-temporal dynamics – inherent to spatial feedbacks – than the figures I present in the paper (like that below). See what you think. We’ll find out whether the  reviewers love it or hate it in a month or two.

Since the New Year, I’ve spent most of my time working on undergraduate modules I’ll be teaching later this term. In particular, I’m developing a new module named Spatial Data and Mapping for the Principles of Geographical Inquiry course. In the module I’ll introduce students to some of the methods, tools and technologies available to collect and present spatial data. These include GPS and remote sensing (e.g., orthophotos) on the collection side and EDINA Digimap and ArcMap on the presentation side of things. Alongside lectures, there will be plenty of opportunity for students to use these tools as they will collect their own data from London’s Southbank which they will then use to create a digital map. It’s the first time running the module so there may be some teething issues, but hopefully the students will find it interesting and useful for their future studies.

I’m also teaching a PhD-level short course for the KISS-DTC entitled, Social Simulation. The course will provide an introduction to the use of computer simulation methods – notably agent-based modelling – for questions germane to social scientists. I won’t go into detail on that now, maybe in future.

Finally, I’ll just highlight some new urlists I’ve been making as resources for myself and students (and maybe you?). Urlist is a collaboration tool to collect, organize and share lists of links which I’ve found quite handy. I’ve started lists on Open Data (freely available for analysis), Spatial Data and Geodata resources and tools, and Valuation of Ecosystem Services. The Open Data list is collaborative so anyone can contribute relevant links – if you know good Open Data sources online that aren’t listed there please feel free to add!

Catching up on 2012

This blog has been seriously neglected over the last six months, so there’s a lot of catching up to do here.

There’s lots of conferences and papers to list, but first I should highlight the slight difference in look of this blog and the entire website. I recently decided I was going to switch to Google sites to host and move this blog from WordPress to Blogger (for multiple reasons I won’t go into here). The website is lacking many of the pages from its previous guise and the NetLogo models have been moved to I’m continuing to add the old (and maybe some new) content to the website but that’s likely to be a slow process (particularly given how long it’s taken me to get to write this post!). The link structure of the blog pages has changed – I think I’ve managed to change most links but there may still be some that are broken (if you find any please let me know). Many of the images are also currently missing – I’ll get to re-inserting those sometime…

I’ve managed to get to quite a few conferences this year in the US, UK and Germany.A particular highlight was getting to see my old PhD advisor George Perry in the US. George was on sabbatical at Harvard Forest and he invited me to the forest to give a seminar. It was also great to attend the 4th USFS FVS conference in Fort Collins, CO and to be one of the only four or so international attendees. There’s a list below of all the conference presentations I gave with links to the conference websites.

I’ve also been working hard to get a few papers published. The paper I’ve been working on with George and David O’Sullivan on the narrative properties of generative simulation models (i.e., agent-based models and the like) has now been accepted and is in press at Geoforum. Two papers I have been working on related to my work in Michigan have also been accepted, subject to corrections, by Ecological Modelling. The papers are closely linked, with one describing the northern hardwood forest gap regeneration model we developed and the second showing how that model can be used in the integrated model to examine trade-offs and synergies in managing for both timber and deer in the forests. The current (provisional) citations for the three papers are below. When all are available online and in print I’ll post again here with the abstracts and links to the full text (and likely tweet the links before I blog!)

I’m still working on lots of other things, including a paper on the school choice modelling I have been doing, and another paper for a special issue in Ecology and Society on feedbacks in Coupled Human and Natural Systems. I’m also preparing some exciting (I hope) new classes for the students at King’s, including a field day at Heartwood Forest and a class on GPS and mapping. More details on that to come in the future too I’m sure!

Millington, J.D.A., O’Sullivan, D., Perry, G.L.W. (in press) Model histories: Narrative explanation in generative simulation modelling Geoforum
[Online] [Geoforum]

Millington, J.D.A., Walters, M.B., Matonis, M.S. and Liu, J. (accepted) Modelling for forest management synergies and trade-offs: Tree regeneration, timber and deer; research manuscript accepted, subject to corrections, by Ecological Modelling
[Ecological Modelling]

Millington, J.D.A., Walters, M.B., Matonis, M.S. and Liu, J. (accepted) Filling the gap: A compositional gap regeneration model for managed northern hardwood forests; research manuscript accepted, subject to corrections, by Ecological Modelling
[Ecological Modelling]

Millington, J.D.A., Walters, M.B., Matonis, M.S., Liu, J. Trade-offs in long-term forest ecosystem management: Timber, birds and deer Presented at: 19th ialeUK conference, Edinburgh, UK, September 2012

Millington, J.D.A. Using social psychology theory for modelling farmer decision-making Presented at: 6th International Congress on Environmental Modelling and Software, Leipzig, Germany, July 2012
[iEMSs 2012]

Millington, J.D.A., O’Sullivan, D., Perry, G.L.W. Narrative explanation of agent decision-making Presented at: 6th International Congress on Environmental Modelling and Software, Leipzig, Germany, July 2012
[iEMSs 2012]

Millington, J.D.A., Walters, M.B., Matonis, M.S., Liu, J. Investigating Combined Long-Term Effects of Variable Tree Regeneration and Timber Management on Forest Wildlife and Timber Production Using FVS Presented at: Fourth Forest Vegetation Simulator (FVS) Conference, Fort Collins, Colorado, April 2012
[FVS 2012]

Millington, J.D.A. Agricultural Landscape Change: Using social psychology theory in agent-based models of land-use change Presented at: US-IALE Symposium, Newport, Rhode Island, April 2012
[US-IALE 2012]

Millington, J.D.A., Walters, M.B., Matonis, M.S., Liu, J. Regeneration for Sustainability: Coordinating Long-term Forest Ecosystem Management for Timber Production and Wildlife Habitat Presented at: US-IALE Symposium, Newport, Rhode Island, April 2012
[US-IALE 2012]

Launching effective interdisciplinary human-environment research

After a while bouncing around various outlets, the paper that emerged from the CHANS Workshop at US-IALE 2009 in Snowbird has been published. Presented as a meeting review in the ESA Bulletin, Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS): Approach, Challenges, and Strategies discusses what the CHANS approach is and what the current challenges and strategies in this field are. For example, we suggest the following are the keys to launching effective CHANS research projects:

Identify the goals and final products of the project

  • Goals and products could include answers to scientific questions, hypothesis testing, a simulation model or decision-support tool, policy or management recommendations, or education.
  • Identify and articulate analysis boundaries and scales of interest: spatially, temporally, and in terms of physical processes.
  • A preliminary conceptual model may help initiate discussion among potential collaborators; the conceptual model need not be correct in what it is illustrating, but rather serve to “break the ice” and generate discussion.

Build a team around the identified goals and products

  • Identify project manager(s) and submanagers, where the submanagers may be discipline specific and responsible for a particular component of the project.
  • It may also be beneficial to assign to one person responsibility for overseeing and maintaining the project timeline. It might be advantageous for this person not to be a manager or submanager to minimize potential conflicts.
  • Once the team is together, reexamine the initial goals and final products.

Methods necessary to accomplish project goals and products should now be developed.

  • It is important to recognize that the final products may change in response to the project team’s vision and analysis. Team members must be prepared to be flexible, to reevaluate the project’s conceptual framework and methods as a partnership matures.
  • Potential challenges of complexity and uncertainty should be discussed at this point; where in the project may they later manifest themselves? How may they be overcome?
  • Each team member should be recognized as “a tool in a toolbox,” each providing a unique contribution that works in tandem with the other tools (e.g., the compass and ruler) to build the entire project.

We conclude; “The CHANS approach is emerging from its infancy, characterized by the use of rudimentary language skills in describing deeply complex systems. With proper support, it stands to contribute to a better understanding of the multifaceted interactions between human and natural systems, and thus inform societal choices in pursuit of sustainability.”

Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

Around the time I wrote this blog about the National Assessment of UK Forestry and Climate Change Steering Group report I was thinking about writing a proposal to the Leverhulme Trust for an Early Career Fellowship. I found out recently that my proposal was successful and so from January 2011 I will be back at King’s College, London!

The Leverhulme Trust makes awards in support of research and education with special emphasis on original and significant research that aims to remove barriers between traditional disciplines. Their Early Career Fellowships are awarded across all disciplines and in 2010 approximately 70 were expected to be awarded to individuals to hold at universities in the UK. Given the emphasis on original, significant and cross-disciplinary research made by the Trust I looked for something that matched my research skills in coupled human and natural systems modelling but that pushed work in that area in a new direction. I thought back to the ideas about model narratives I have previously explored with David O’Sullivan and George Perry (but have not worked on since then) and Bill Cronon’s plenary address at the Royal Geographical Society in 2006 on the need for ‘sustainable narratives’. With that in mind, and given the UK Forestry and Climate change report I had been reading, I decided to make a pitch for a project that would explore how narratives from the use of models could help individuals identify how local actions transcend scales to mitigate global climate change in the context of the anticipated woodland planting that will be ongoing in the UK in future years. It proved to be a successful pitch!

I’m sure I will blog plenty more about the project in the future, so for now I will just leave you with the proposal rationale (below). I’m looking forward to getting to work on this when I get back to London, but before that there’s plenty more things to get done on the Michigan forest landscape ecological-economic modelling.

Model narratives for climate change mitigation
The abstract, vast, and systemic narratives that dominate the issue of global climate change do little to illustrate to individuals and groups how their actions might contribute to mitigate the effects of what is often framed as a global problem (Cronon 2006). Ways to improve the ability of individuals and groups to identify how their local actions transcend scales to mitigate global climate change are needed. In this research I will explore how narratives produced from computer simulation models that represent individuals’ actions can provide people with insights into how their behaviour affects system properties at a larger scale. Although the narrative properties of simulation models have been highlighted (O’Sullivan 2004), the use of models to develop localised narratives of climate change which emphasise individual agency has yet to be explored. Confronting individuals with these narratives will also help researchers reveal important underlying, and possibly implicitly held, assumptions that influence choices and behaviour.

This research will address the following general questions:

  • How can computer simulation models be better used to reveal to individuals how their local actions can contribute to global environmental issues such as Climate Change Mitigation (CCM)?
  • What are the narrative properties of simulation models and how can they be exploited to help individuals find meaning about their actions as they relate to global climate change?
  • By using simulation tools to spur reflection what can we learn about the factors influencing individuals’ choices and behaviour with regards CCM options?

Answering these questions will require a uniquely interdisciplinary research approach that spans the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. Such ground-breaking, boundary-crossing work is necessary if we are to re-connect the physical sciences with the publics they intend to benefit and find solutions to large-scale and pressing environmental problems. For example, one of the key findings from a recent report by the National Assessment of UK Forestry and Climate Change Steering Group (Read et al. 2009) was that “[t]he extent to which the potential for additional [greenhouse gas] emissions abatement through tree planting is realized … will be determined in large part by economic forces and society’s attitudes rather than by scientific and technical issues alone” (p.xvii). The report also argued the need “to better understand and consider the role of different influences affecting choices and behaviour. Without the appropriate emotional, cultural or psychological disposition, information will make no difference.” (p.210). Narratives based on scientific understanding which portray how individuals can make a difference to large-scale, diffuse environmental issues will be important for fostering such a disposition. Simulation models – quantitative representations of reality which provide a means to logically examine how high-level and large-scale patterns are generated by lower-level and smaller-scale processes and events – have the potential to contribute to the construction of these narratives.

Social Network Analysis

As I mentioned in a tweet earlier this week, Prof. Ken Frank was ‘visiting’ CSIS this week. Ken studies organizational change and innovation using, amongst other methods, Social Network Analysis (SNA). SNA examines how the structure of ties between people affects individuals’ behaviour, at how social network structure and composition influences the social norms of a group, and how resources (for example, of information) flow through a social network. This week Ken organised a couple of seminars on the use of SNA to investigate natural resource decision-making (for example, in small-scale fisheries) and I joined a workshop he ran on how we actually go about doing SNA, learning about software like p2 and KliqueFinder. Ken showed us the two main models; the selection model and the influence model. The former addresses network formation and examines individuals’ networks and how they chose it. The latter examines how individuals are influenced by the people in their network and the consequences for their behaviour. As an example of how SNA might be used, take a look at this executive summary [pdf] of the thesis of a recent graduate students from MSU Fisheries and Wildlife.

On Friday, after having been introduced through the week to what SNA is, I got to chat with Ken about how it might relate to the agricultural decision-making modelling I did during my PhD. In my agent-based model I used a spatial neighbourhood rule to represent the influence of social norms (i.e. whether a farmer is ‘traditional’ or ‘commercial’ in my categories). However, the social network of farmers is not solely determined by spatial relationshps – farmers have kinship ties and might meet other individuals at the market or in the local cerveceria. We discussed how I might be able to use SNA to better represent the influences of other farmers on an indiviuals’ decision-making in my model. I don’t have the network data needed to do this right now but it’s something to think about for the future.

If I’d been more aware of SNA previously I may have incorporated some discussion of it into the book chapter I re-wrote recently for Environmental Modelling. In that chapter I focused on the increasing importance of behavioural economics for investigating and modelling the relationships between human activity and the environment. SNA is certainy something to add to the toolbox and seems to be on the rise in natural resources research. Something else I missed whilst working on re-writing that that chapter was the importance of behavioural economics to David Cameron‘s ‘Big Society’ idea. He seems to be aware of the lessons we’ve started learning from things like social network analysis and behavioural economics – now he’s in charge maybe we’ll start seeing some direct application of those lessons to UK public policy.

US-IALE 2010 Preparation

Next week is the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Symposium of the US chapter of the International Association of Landscape Ecology (US-IALE). I’ll be in attendance in Athens, Georgia and am currently working on my presentation, entitled Ecological-economic modeling for sustainable forest management (scheduled for Thursday 8th, 2.20pm in room T/U). In the context of our larger modelling project I’ll present work we’ve published, stuff we’re still working on, and the initial results from putting it all together.

Several symposia have been organised and I plan to be at those that consider landscape ecology and wildfires, bioenergy and land-use change, and climate change and landscape connectivity. Particularly interesting should be Don McKenzie’s presentations on ecosystem energetics and scaling laws in the wildfire symposium and Paul Opdam’s presentations on Natura 2000 and the role of landscape ecology in the climate change symposium. Two of the plenary addresses I’d like to catch are Collapse and Sustainability: Lessons from History (Joseph A Tainter) and Linking Renaissance Ecologists with Citizen Scientists to Advanced Scientific Research and Literacy (Carol Brewer).

As usual CSIS has a strong presence at US-IALE this year with seven presentations, including the insights of Jack Liu and Wu Yang into the challenges and opportunities for landscape ecology and conservation in coupled human natural research, the analysis by Andres Vina and Xiaodong Chen of the potential conservation benefits that might be offset by natural disasters, Mao-Ning Tuanmu’s work on Giant Panda habitat and the work by Pete Esselman and Dana Infante on the National Assessment of the Status of Fish Habitat. The full list of CSIS presentations is below.

It’s shaping up to be a good couple of days! I’ll try to tweet and blog some thoughts as they arise during the conference and maybe reflect on things afterwards also.

CSIS Presentations at US-IALE 2010
6th April
Are conservation benefits offset by natural disasters? — The case of the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. Andrés Viña, Xiaodong Chen, Wei Liu, et al.

Coupling human and natural systems: Challenges and opportunities for landscape ecologists. Jianguo Liu

The spatial framework and results of the initial National Assessment of the Status of Fish Habitat. Peter C Esselman, Dana M Infante, et al.

7th April
Effects of human-environment relationships on the spatiotemporal dynamics of giant panda habitat. Mao-Ning Tuanmu, Wei Liu, Andrés Viña, et al.

8th April
Ecological-economic modeling for sustainable forest management. James D A Millington, Michael B Walters, Megan S Matonis, et al.

Mechanisms for effective conservation in coupled human-natural systems. Wu Yang, Wei Liu, Mao-Ning Tuanmu, et al.

Patterns and drivers of reforestation: A case study in the Qinling Mountains, China. Yu Li, Andrés Viña, Jianguo Liu

The Omnivores’ Trifecta: A feast of ideas

This week I went to a seminar presented by Dr Richard Bawden of the Systemic Development Institute, Australia. This was the first event in MSU’s “conversation about our food future”. It turned out to be much more interesting than I had hoped; Bawden is an engaging and charismatic speaker who presented a thoughtful perspective on what he termed ‘The Omnivores’ Trifecta’: Agriculture, Food and Health and the Systemic Relationships between them. He covered a hearty spread of ideas, so I’ll recap his most interesting points in bite-sized pieces:

i) Bawden suggested that Agriculture, Food and Health (A-F-H) when considered separately are not a system. But by understanding each as a discourse (i.e. as a subject for “formal discussion of debate”) they become viewed in a systemic perspective.

ii) At the intersection of these three subjects are four very important (sub-)discourses which Bawden termed the “engagement discourse subsystem”. These are: business, lay citizens, governance, and experts.

iii) Bawden proposed that it is the profound differences in episteme (worldview) between these discourse ‘subsystems’ that are at the heart of the majority of the conflicts across the A-F-H system and the environment in which it is situated.

iv) These epistemic differences are so profound as to be polemic. Bawden bemoaned this fact and highlighted that “Dialectic yields to Polemic“. He emphasised that dialectics are the only way forward to forge a world in common and that polemics prevent deliberation, debate and kill democracy.

v) To illustrate these points Bawden used the case of Australian agriculture since the mid-20th century. He described this case as being characteristic of many messy, wicked problems and argued that reductionist science alone was insufficient to bring resolution (and hence is why he founded the Systemic Development Institute). During this argument he quoted Beck but questioned whether we have reached second modernity. Bawden argued that the “culture of technical control” still prevails within current modernist society has an episteme that privileges fact over value, analysis over synthesis, individualism over communalism, teaching over learning and productionism over sustainablism.

vi) On these last two dichotomies, Bawden suggested that the question of what is to be sustained (and therefore what sustainability is) is a moral question not a technical one.

vii) He proposed that higher education is about learning differently not learning more; the ability to look the world and make sense of it for oneself (and then take action in response) is what characterises a good education. Awareness of the presence of different worldviews is key to this ability. Furthermore, Bawden argued that the complete learner will be prepared to enter a form of learning that the academy is currently unable to provide because it is too reductionist. This learning would require critical reflection of one’s own worldview, as Jack Mezirow has proposed.

viii) Bawden then presented the diagram that synthesises his message (see below). This diagram describes the “integrated process of the critical learning system” and shows how perceiving, understanding, planning and acting are connected within our rational experience of the world and how they are linked to the intuitive facets of learning.

Quite the feast of ideas eh? I’m still digesting them and might be for a while. But the key message I take away from this is a post-normal one; in learning about human-environment interactions and to solve current wicked problems, inter-epistemic as well as inter-disciplinary work will be needed. Although different scientific disciplines such as ecology, biology, and chemistry have different terminology and conventions, they share a worldview – the one that favours facts over values and aims to subsume empirical observations into universal laws and theories. Other worldviews are available. Inter-epistemic human-environment study would seek to cross the boundaries between worldviews, recognize that reductionist science is only one way to understand the world and is unlikely provide complete answers to wicked problems, and emphasise dialectics over polemics.