State of the art in multi-modelling

A Literature Review of Multi-modelling in Sustainability Transition

29 November 2023


The urgency of today’s societal challenges, such as climate change and unsustainable resource consumption, calls for large-scale sustainability transitions. Sustainability transitions are interdisciplinary, often emerging from processes within complex socio-technical systems characterised by continually evolving relationships and interactions between technological and ecological factors, institutions and infrastructure. A successful energy transition, e.g., necessitates public buy-in, careful planning across various levels of government, and cross-cutting coordination across the energy, buildings, transportation, and industrial sectors.

A complex socio-technical system is also multi-scalar in nature, as its elements have properties and processes that change quantitatively and qualitatively with scale. These scales may be spatial, temporal, administrative (e.g., institutional) or object related. A holistic understanding of how the behaviour of these characteristics change and how impacts of proposed policies cascade across domains and scales is essential for decision-making.

The multi-domain and multi-scalar nature of sustainability transitions results in complexity that makes human comprehension of the issues at hand an endeavour that pushes the limits of human cognition. This complexity demands the use of modelling and simulation (M&S) in supporting the analysis of such systems to aid effective decision-making. We take B. P. Zeigler, Muzy, and Kofman (2018)’s definition of a model as a set of instructions, rules, equations, or constraints that represent a real-world system, such that given an initial state setting, a model accepts input trajectories and generates corresponding output trajectories. M&S methods allow one to abstract a real-world system and approximate its behaviour in a controlled environment and within an experimental frame, facilitating a more holistic understanding of the system and thus what is required to answer a question or tackle a challenge.

With that said, single models are often insufficient to represent the full complexity of designing and implementing sustainability transitions. The diverse nature of the interacting components within socio-technical systems can be so unlike each other that they are better abstracted and modelled using different modelling methodologies and at different scales. However, it is challenging to encapsulate this complexity cost-effectively and credibly within a single model. Attempts have been made to develop unified, monolithic models that capture all such aspects in a single model. These often inadvertently result in inefficient and potentially incomprehensible models (Voinov & Shugart, 2013).

One way to avoid the challenges of solely relying on single models is to use multi-models. In this review, we define a multi-model as a composition of multiple (stand-alone) models, each of which may use a modelling methodology and scale most well-suited to capture relevant aspects within the system of interest. These models or sub-models are configured to interact with one another to exchange information that influences one another and the overall multi-model outputs.

The benefits of multi-models are well-established in literature. They can provide the users with deeper insight into the system being studied (Yilmaz & Oren, 2005) while increasing the productivity and quality of the sub-models (Mosterman & Vangheluwe, 2004). Multi-models, complex in their nature, can adequately reflect the corresponding level of real-world complexity (DeRosa, Grisogono, Ryan, & Norman, 2008) and are key to achieving the requisite holistic quality of socio-technical systems modelling (Wu, Fookes, Pitchforth, & Mengersen, 2015).

The urgency of the societal challenges at hand often requires models that can be used as soon as possible. This need is often incongruent with the resource- and time-intensive nature of developing new models. Producing fit-for-purpose models from scratch often takes months or even years. This prohibitively costly nature of the model development process is one barrier that limits the mainstream use of M&S for decision-making. This limitation can be addressed with the reuse of existing models. Aside from the fact that such models can be “ready to go” with potentially minor modifications or fine-tuning, these models are also already embedded with valuable domain knowledge that can immensely benefit problem owners (Kasputis & Ng, 2000).

Reuse of previously established and validated models can additionally increase the authority of multi-model simulations. An example of reusing models in a multi-model configuration can be found within the Dutch energy transition context: To better gather insights on future energy infrastructure needs across sectors, decarbonisation objectives are input into the Energy Transition Model (ETM), which generates energy supply and costs scenarios across different Dutch sectors. These scenarios then inform the constraints of the OPERA model (van Stralen, Dalla Longa, Dani¨els, Smekens, & van der Zwaan, 2021), an energy system optimisation model that then calculates future infrastructure requirements. That these models were previously used by government and industry stakeholders further lends credence to the final multi-model and its outputs. Various similar examples exist, all of which support our motivation to focus this research on reusing existing models, typically independently developed and intended for use as stand-alone models, in multi-model configurations.

Unfortunately, many barriers hinder the mainstream practice of model reuse. A multi- modeler may search for and find multiple models that together appear to represent their system of interest, only to find that the combination of models constitutes various modelling methods, scales, and scopes, all resulting in a lack of interoperability between the models. A reaction from the modeller may be to resort to heuristics in a bid to achieve multi-model interoperability. After cobbling together technical, ad-hoc solutions to make the models communicate with one another, they find that their extensive efforts have resulted in a multi-model that is misaligned in terms of semantics, concepts or contexts (Yilmaz, 2004). As Diallo, Padilla, and Tolk (2010) discuss, “the issue with the consistent application of heuristics to solve interoperability (is that) the resulting process might not be interoperability”.

After multi-model interoperability is established, users are tasked with appropriately managing model uncertainties. Model uncertainties can significantly impact the dynamics of transitions within complex system models. This is because achieving successful transitions within complex systems is often characterised as wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973), given the numerous ways to approach the problem and the involvement of many actors with multiple, often competing, perspectives. Furthermore, complex systems are often characterised by open and uncertain processes (K¨ohler et al., 2018) and unanticipated exogenous events, all of which impact the dynamics of change represented in the model. These aspects show that rigorous uncertainty analysis approaches are required when using multi-models for decision support.

There are various steps that a modeller must take in order to ensure that meaningful output can be extracted from multi-scale and multi-domain models. It is necessary to understand the functions required to make the inputs and outputs of different models sufficiently consistent for information exchange. Subsequently, the modeller must understand how the manufacturing of this interoperability interacts with model uncertainties and impacts model outputs and interpretation. We posit that such solutions will emerge from evaluating multi-model case studies that are purposefully designed to span multiple domains and scales. These case studies, composed of interacting socio-technical system models, will build upon foundational M&S theory and form the backbone of this research.

The societal need for effective, scientific and practicable methods for reusing existing models in multi-model configurations is clear. The isolated manner in which singular models have until now been developed and used to aid decision-making demonstrates not just an inefficient use of resources but also missed opportunities to bridge multi-scale perspectives and multi-disciplinary expertise. Furthermore, the transition challenges of today surpass the scope of existing individual models, precluding the ability for more holistic problem-solving. The need to leverage the potential of multi-modelling as a decision-support tool to stimulate successful sustainability transitions motivates this research proposal. Thus, the following sections of this document present an effort to establish a clear understanding of past work on sustainability transitions, multi-modelling, model reuse.

Sustainability Transitions in Socio-technical Systems

In recent decades, it has become apparent that unsustainable resource consumption and production threaten the balance of our existing ecological, social and technological systems. This has prompted increasing calls for substantive transitions that bring about profound structural shifts towards sustainability in society (Berkhout, Smith, & Stirling, 2004). However, it is understood that relevant strategies cannot be achieved solely through the incremental development of innovative technologies, nor can solutions be purely technical or purely social (Savaget, Geissdoerfer, Kharrazi, & Evans, 2019). There is a need for sustainability transitions within the socio-technical contexts that we live in.

de Haan et al. (2014) describes socio-technical systems as consisting of technologies entrenched within social, political and economic contexts. Socio-technical systems are complex systems made distinct by the non-linear processes, feedback loops, hierarchies, and self-organising characteristics they represent. Transitions within socio-technical systems are affected by path dependencies, multi-scale emergent effects, and pressures by actors and processes within the system to remain bound to the status quo. Therefore, ‘socio-technical’ refers to the characteristics of and interactions between social and technological elements, while ‘transition’ refers to the processes and interactions that stimulate fundamental change in and between these elements.

In our review, we found that a substantial volume of transitions research is based on qualitative frameworks which aim to capture the complexity of sustainability transitions (K¨ohler et al., 2019). Theoretical frameworks such as the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) (Geels, 2002; Rip, Kemp, et al., 1998) and the Technological Innovation System (TIS) approach (Hekkert, Suurs, Negro, Kuhlmann, & Smits, 2007) take a systemic perspective better to understand the tensions between change and stability in society. Beyond these conceptual frameworks, K¨ohler et al. (2018)’s literature review showed that transitions research hosts a growing number of studies that employ computational modelling methods as an analytical tool. For example, the study by Walrave and Raven (2016) presents an integration of the MLP and TIS frameworks into a system dynamics model for analysing transition pathways under various resourcing conditions.

K¨ohler et al. (2018) defines ‘transition models’ as the application of existing formal modelling methodologies to explain the dynamics of transitions. The same authors identify the following types of models used in transitions modelling: complex systems models (e.g., complex network models), evolutionary economics models, energy-economy and integrated assessment models, and socio-ecological systems modelling. Though approached and implemented in different ways, these strands of models demonstrate a common requirement, which is the ability to represent characteristics of complex systems (e.g., non-linear processes, heterogeneity of model elements and processes), normative aspects of change, path dependencies, and the potential effects of open, uncertain processes within a single model.

The need to represent multi-scale dimensions in transition models is also mentioned by K¨ohler et al. (2018). In a separate publication, Savaget et al. (2019) found agreement in the literature that sustainability initiatives should take place at local levels, given the differentiation of requirements and opportunities across regions. Nevertheless, Geels (2004) situates the appropriate analysis at the intermediate ‘meso’ level, bridging between ‘macro’ (e.g., social-ecological-economic interactions) and ‘micro’ (e.g., individual choices and perspectives) contexts. The need for transition models to be able to represent multiple scales thus becomes evident.

From this review, we found that using computational models to study transitions in socio- technical systems can be improved to capture better the characteristics of complex systems (e.g., non-linearities, uncertainties, and multi-scale aspects). This substantiates our understanding that multi-modelling is an appropriate approach to studying transitions in socio-technical systems and can benefit the field of transitions research.

Types of Multi-modelling

As demonstrated above, transition models are intended to reflect complex objects, processes, and interactions across multiple domains and scales in the real world. This requirement makes multi-modelling a promising approach for developing transition models. In earlier decades, research on multi-modelling was advanced significantly in operational research, primarily for military applications. However, our review showed that in recent years, multi-modelling studies have extended to many other fields, such as supply chain management and industrial ecology.

Although Bollinger, Nikoli´c, Davis, and Dijkema (2015)’s publication is situated in the field of industrial ecology, we find that the concept of a multi-model ecology put forth by the authors to be generalisable. A multi-model ecology is defined as an interacting group of models co-evolving with one another in a dynamic socio-technical environment. This ecology can transform over time as knowledge and practices evolve, and it may contain mental, conceptual, and computational models of multiple scales, scopes and perspectives. These exist alongside and interact with actors, data, information, and knowledge. As noted by Bollinger et al. (2015), the resources in a multi-model ecology can be configured and reconfigured to interact with one another in different ways to form a more multi-dimensional representation of the relevant system. However, as will be explained in Section 2.4, the lack of a set of practicable methods for developing multi-models from elements within such an ecology inhibits its further development.

As described by the original authors, the solution procedure is “an analytical equation or numerical algorithm that has been developed for the set of model equations to obtain the desired results”.

We found that multi-models can be broadly categorised as tightly-coupled and loosely- coupled models. Tightly-coupled multi-models can be characterised by the parallel operation of two or more sub-models, with dynamic process interactions between the sub-models during the simulation run that impact the intermediate states of the sub-model and overall multi-model outputs (Antle et al., 2001). This interaction is similar to the Class II hybrid model described by Shanthikumar and Sargent (1983), whereby the sub-models cannot be independently solved (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Classes of hybrid models, adapted from Shanthikumar and Sargent (1983).

A substantial volume of publications on multi-models is based on the United States Department of Defense’s High-level Architecture (HLA) standards, a widely adopted framework for tightly-coupled models. HLA is a well-known and accepted standard (IEEE 1516-2010) to enable interoperability and model component reuse in distributed simulations by a comprehensive specification of attributes and relations between model components (IEEE Std 1516-2010, 2010). It is intended that compliance with HLA standards at the start of the model development process can ensure the interoperability of multiple model components within an integrated simulation environment. However, current practices in M&S reflect that models are typically not developed with the consideration for potential incorporation into a multi-model, which precludes many existing models from being considered for reuse within an HLA framework. Furthermore, the complexity and involvedness of HLA methods limit its accessibility to a broader range of practitioners (Falcone, Garro, Anagnostou, & Taylor, 2017).

On the other hand, in loosely-coupled multi-models, outputs from one sub-model are channelled as inputs into other sub-models (Antle et al., 2001). Such a system comprises two or more stand-alone sub-models that can be run independently without the presence of the other sub- models. This type of multi-model can allow (but does not require) dynamic process interactions in between the sub-models. The variables in such models are distinct, separate and infrequently interact or overlap across sub-models (Orton & Weick, 1990). These characteristics suggest that any existing model can (theoretically) be considered for loose-coupling, thereby reaping the benefits of model reuse described by Kasputis and Ng (2000) and Davis and Anderson (2003). In the classification introduced by Shanthikumar and Sargent (1983), this corresponds to Class I and III/IV hybrid models (Figure 1). The focus of this research will be centred on loosely-coupled models.

In our review, we found many studies on the topic of loosely coupling models: for example, Viana, Brailsford, Harindra, and Harper (2014) and Morgan, Howick, and Belton (2011) present methods for combining Discrete Events Simulations (DES) and System Dynamics (SD) models; Swinerd and McNaught (2012) present three classes of SD/Agent-based modelling (ABM) hybrid models; Borschev (2013) discussed six common architectures to combine SD, DES, and ABM models. There is an abundance of piecemeal studies in various domains that demonstrate methods and theories for coupling models of multiple modelling methodologies. However, we identified a lack of a systematic framework or generalised set of methods to guide the process of loosely coupling models.

Reusing Models

The availability of composable, reusable and interoperable models is an important factor in mainstreaming the practice of multi-modelling. In theory, coupling such models to create multi-models is potentially more feasible, economical, and easily validatable. In our review of these concepts, we observed that many publications on reusing models are also related to model composability and interoperability. We draw definitions of the stated terms from reviewed literature:

  • Model composability refers to the degree to which model components can be selected and assembled in various combinations into simulation systems to satisfy specific user requirements (Petty & Weisel, 2019),

  • Model reusability refers to the degree to which a model is capable of being used again or repeatedly (Balci, Arthur, & Ormsby, 2011),

  • Model interoperability refers to the ability of two or more sub-models to exchange information and meaningfully use the information exchanged (Diallo et al., 2010).

Composability refers to a property of a model made up of a combination of multiple com- ponents parts. These components are designed and developed to be a part of a whole model, rather than used as stand-alone models. This differs from the anticipated scope of this research, which focuses on reusing stand-alone, complete models in a multi-model configuration. However, composable models host qualities which make them conducive for reuse (Kasputis & Ng, 2000). One such quality is related to consistency: the development of composable model parts requires complete descriptors, which eases the understanding of a model’s underlying workings, and thus the selection of models that are consistent with one another.

The model development practices implemented by the original developers significantly im- pact the reusability of a model. Yilmaz (2004) notes that the original context of the model must be explicated and made clear for successful model reuse. Furthermore, there must be a clear separation of factors that influence simulation outcomes, distinguishing contextual factors from other factors and explicating distinct experimental frames. The term experimental frame was first coined by B. Zeigler (1976) to formally describe a model’s context to provide repro- ducible experiment descriptions. It specifies the conditions under which the modelled system is observed and experimented and represents an operational formulation of the objectives that motivate an M&S project. A model’s composability and reusability can be improved by clearly characterising and clarifying the difference between the model context and the experimental frame (Yilmaz, 2004).

Unfortunately, the practice of building highly composable (and therefore potentially reusable) models is challenging to implement. When practitioners develop models, they typically do not set out with composability as an objective, as it is a costly endeavour that scarcely rewards the model developers (Davis & Anderson, 2003). Furthermore, the fitness for purpose or validity of the selected model is challenging to assess when the model is built for one purpose and attempted to be reused for another, or when it is linked to models developed under a misaligned or conflicting set of assumptions (Pidd, 2002). The resulting consequence on the prospects of model composability is aptly noted by Kasputis and Ng (2000): “Unless models are designed to work together, they don’t (at least not easily and cost-effectively).”

A model’s reusability depends not just on its composability but also on the technical ability and knowledge of future model users and the reuse mechanisms available. Table 1 expands upon these reuse strategies, with the left column summarising the technical aspects that must be addressed in effective model reuse strategies as outlined by Pidd (2002), while the right column establishes how these aspects contribute to model reuse.

Table 1: Technical aspects in model reuse strategies,Pidd(2002)

Technical aspects


Abstraction, for the efficient and adequate conveyance of the model’s purpose, nature and behaviour.

To assess the substantive interoperability of different model components.

Selection, as in directory and search services for locating, comparing, and selecting models.

To support model search and selection.

Specialisation, as in features for specialising model components into useable entities.

To support modification of the model components such that they fit within the multi-model configuration.

Integration, refers to a framework (or an agreed architecture) to combine and connect model com- ponents.

To support the linking of model components and facilitating model interoperability.

The abstraction and selection strategies are expanded upon by Isasi, Noguer´on, and Wij- nands (2015), who explain that ontologies and hierarchies rich in syntax, semantics and structure are required to capture model documentation for automation of model search and selection. This documentation should be stored and searchable within a model reference library alongside the models. Furthermore, the model reusers should be skilled in valid and credible methods to facilitate interoperability between the selected models within a coherent workflow and assess the impacts of those methods on model outputs.

Furthermore, we observed that the reuse of models is also rooted in social processes and considerations. Social factors can influence the perception of validity and, hence, the reusability of a model. As an example, the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) and Regional Integrated Climate-Economy (RICE) models quantified the impacts of climate policies on the economy, which was considered a breakthrough at the time of development (Nordhaus, 1992; Nordhaus & Yang, 1996). The author, William Nordhaus, was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. The simplicity of the models can be considered a factor that supports its wide-ranging use but also exacerbates its contention amongst climate economists. Despite heavy criticisms of such models and integrated assessment models in general (Storm, 2017), these models remain widely used in research on climate economics and policies, as well as by authoritative governmental actors such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency.


Figure 2: Relations between the composability, interoperability, and reusability of a model.

Our review found that the distinction between composability, reusability, and interoperability is nuanced. Figure 2 summarises our understanding of the relations between these three properties based on this literature review. In essense, model reusability is dependent on how easily it can be made interoperable with other models, as well as on the availability of verifiable methods for meaningfully using and linking the models as well as the available infrastructure (such as model reference libraries). The reusability of a model also depends on its composability, as a more composable model is more easily made interoperable with other models and is, therefore, more reusable. However, a reused model may not be composable, and a composable model may never be reused.

As demonstrated in this section, we found that the most relevant literature dates back to approximately 10-20 years ago. These foundational publications addressed conceptual requirements for developing methodologies and standards to mitigate the intricacies of developing reusable models. However, in surveying more recent literature, we did not find a concrete realisation of these methodologies or standards. Our review revealed a lack of practical guidelines or methods for systematically approaching the reuse of models, whether as a stand-alone model or within a multi-model configuration.

Challenges in Multi-modelling

Guidelines for systematically approaching model reuse must address the challenges of multi- modelling. These challenges are fundamentally rooted in the varied nature of the modelling methodologies used, which directly influence (individual) model characteristics. The taxonomy by Lynch and Diallo (2015) suggest that there are six key simulation model characteristics: time representation, the basis of value, behaviour, expression, resolution, and execution (Figure 3). These characteristics are described to be mutually exclusive, and the presence of multiple such competing characteristics within one multi-model triggers interoperability challenges.


Figure 3: Taxonomy of model characteristics (Lynch & Diallo, 2015), as adapted by the authors from Sulistio et al. (2004)

Furthermore, uncertainty analysis for multi-models is an essential dimension of this research. While there is a rich repository of knowledge on managing and understanding uncertainties in singular models, it is still unclear how sub-model uncertainties influence overall multi-model outputs. As Davis and Anderson (2003) hinted, these uncertainties may “propagate in trouble- some and non-intuitive ways”. This behaviour is further influenced by the various techniques used to make the sub-models interoperable. Understanding this topic is essential for the interpretability and credibility of the multi-model as a decision-support tool. Thus, we also reviewed and summarised the literature on uncertainty analysis for multi-models.


Multi-models consist of sub-models that are (typically) conceived with different modelling methods and experimental frames, giving rise to interoperability concerns. The operational principles that distinguish these modelling methods relate to the mathematical compatibility of the model components and must be treated accordingly. There are practical issues that impact interoperability when connecting models with different mathematical representations.

There are various frameworks that structure model interoperability in literature. We find the earlier categorisation by Dahmann, Salisbury, Barry, Turrell, and Blemberg (1999) to be most helpful: they identify two categories of simulation interoperability, which are the technical (syntactic) and the substantive (semantic). This categorisation can be seen as a coarser version of Wang, Tolk, and Wang (2009)’s Levels of Conceptual Interoperability Model (LCIM) (Figure 4), whereby technical interoperability corresponds to LCIM levels 1 and 2, and substantive interoperability corresponds to LCIM levels 3 through 7.

The different characteristics of the chosen modelling approaches have immediate consequences for the technical interoperability of the model. The different time representations and bases of value in the models result in different forms of model inputs and outputs. These differences must be reconciled for the sub-models to communicate. For example, a dynamic simulation model may produce time-series outputs that must be transformed into static representations before being communicated to an optimisation model.


Figure 4: The Levels of Conceptual Interoperability Model (Wang et al.,2009)

The technological and social phenomena pertinent to socio-technical systems exhibit behaviours relevant at different scales and resolutions. Naturally, then, different sub-models are conceived at different scales. Various studies often ascribe different definitions to the word ‘scale’ (Bar-Yam, 2004; Febres, 2018). In this review, we define scale as the extent (or dimension) of the aspects of the original system represented in the model. For example, a wind farm model may simulate the wind energy generation from all wind farms in the Netherlands for the next ten years. In this case, we say that the geographical scale of the model is the Netherlands, and the time scale of the model is ten years. Scale is often temporal or spatial, but it is not limited to those. For example, a biological system model may be at a scale of cell, tissue, organ or beyond.

Current literature demonstrates that scale and resolution are important aspects of M&S that affect technical and substantive interoperability. This has been addressed not just in Lynch and Diallo (2015)’s taxonomy of multi-modelling but also in the sheer volume of publications on the meaning, challenges, and solutions related to multi-resolution studies. For elements of different scales and resolutions to communicate, aggregation and disaggregation functions are needed to make the communicated information consistent with one another. Aggregation has been described as a bottom-up approach where elements of a model are grouped and described on a higher level of abstraction (Iwasaki & Simon, 1994), while disaggregation refers to a top-down approach where system elements are broken into a set of smaller elements of subsystems (Alfaris, Siddiqi, Rizk, Weck, & Svetinovic, 2010).

Multi-resolution modelling (MRM), sometimes called variable-resolution modelling, is the practice of building a single model or a family of models to describe the same phenomena at different levels of resolution (Davis & Bigelow, 1998). While this research is not focused on multi-resolution modelling, the concepts driving MRM research apply to multi-modelling research. Namely, a motivation for MRM is that both high- and low-resolution models play important roles in using M&S for decision-support. As discussed by Davis and Bigelow (1998), high-resolution models may be well-suited to understand and demonstrate bottom-up, emergent phenomena and are often perceived to exhibit higher (better) fidelity. They are also increasingly feasible to implement, given the increasing proliferation of detailed and open data. However, high-resolution models are computationally expensive and time-consuming to execute. Such models also typically leave important determinants of higher-level behaviours as implicit (rather than explicit) qualities. On the other hand, low-resolution models provide higher interpretability, require lower computation cost, and explicate important higher-level behaviours. These qualities make low-resolution models important tools for exploratory analysis. Jointly, these models may be used for cross-validation and to extract findings that cannot be provided by a single model alone.

Past research has put forth a set of tools and techniques that can systematically transform a model across multiple levels of resolution. Paul and Hillestad (1993) propose a set of tools for transforming a model across multiple resolutions, namely via Selected Viewing, the use of alternative sub-models (e.g., surrogate models or meta-models), and Integrated Hierarchical Variable Resolution (IHVR) modelling. Davis and Bigelow (1998) proposed using array formal- ism or vectors, a method to simplify the model structure and rewrite the model in terms of array operations, to reveal differing sets of object classes that potentially ease the mapping of objects across scales.

Resolving technical interoperability issues related to diverse modelling methods and scales is but the first challenge of achieving adequate multi-model interoperability. The LCIM model demonstrates four other levels of interoperability (i.e., semantic, pragmatic, dynamic, and conceptual) that are necessary for a multi-model to be entirely correct. However, establishing these types of interoperability between models is a challenge that has been discussed by many authors such as Yilmaz (2004), Davis and Tolk (2007) and Balci et al. (2017). The model development process is such that a sub-model can contain many ‘hidden’ assumptions that will impact the behaviour of other interacting sub-models. Unfortunately, these assumptions are often not explicated and can result in misalignments between sub-models that obstruct full substantive interoperability. We note that the methods found and discussed in existing literature do not adequately guide a user in systematically approaching these interoperability concerns related to model reuse in multi-models.

Uncertainty Analysis

Complex systems models often incorporate relatively high levels of uncertainty (relative to engineering models of physical systems, for example). This is because complex systems models often incorporate non-linear simulation methods and allow for contingencies and uncertainties. While this flexibility may reflect increased realism, it results in high levels of uncertainty in the generated outputs. It is important to understand and adequately manage these model uncertainties as part of the model verification and validation procedure. Model verification entails determining if an implemented model is consistent with its conceptual specification. It answers the question, “did we build the model right?” On the other hand, model validation entails establishing that the behaviors of the model and the real system are sufficiently aligned within the experimental frame. It answers the question, “did we build the right model?”

Uncertainties can originate from data inputs, model structure, or model parameters and affect model behaviour and outputs in unanticipated ways. The dynamics of these uncertainties can affect the interpretation and validity of model outputs, leaving room for misuse of the model (Saltelli et al., 2020). Misuse occurs when, for example, modellers project an undue amount of certainty to model outputs or when politicians make strategic use of uncertainties in model outputs to back a preferred policy. One way to mitigate such misuse is to increase transparency by adequately analysing and communicating the impacts of these uncertainties.

The importance of appropriately managing model uncertainties is heightened when the models are used to support decisions for large-scale socio-technical transitions. This is because such decisions are likely to have far-reaching impacts that cascade into the future. Although many studies linking models to socio-technical transition theories aim to provide decision support, they often fall short of doing so (Hirt, Schell, Sahakian, & Trutnevyte, 2020). Furthermore, transition models attempt to reflect the character of socio-technical transitions, which is that they are affected by open, path-dependent processes that lead to uncertain outcomes (K¨ohler et al., 2018). It is therefore important to account for dynamics of change that can be triggered by uncertain, unknown, or unanticipated endogenous processes and exogenous events.

Numerous studies have attempted to structure or typify these uncertainties in model-based decision-making (Bevan, 2022; Kwakkel, Walker, & Marchau, 2010; Petersen, 2006). In essence, many uncertainties arise when we abstract a real-world system into a model (structural uncertainties) and parameterise this model of the system (parametric uncertainties). The uncertainties may be epistemic (due to diverging perspectives or lack of knowledge) or ontic (as some phenomena simply cannot be neatly captured with numbers or equations) in nature. Pace (2015) further identified three sources of uncertainty in M&S: stochastic variables and processes, a lack of accuracy and precision, and errors. Adequate analysis and management of these uncertainties are important for understanding the dynamics of the system and informing meaningful interpretation of model outputs.

Two ways to analyse uncertainties in M&S models are uncertainty quantification and uncertainty characterisation. Uncertainty quantification refers to the representation of model output uncertainty using probability distributions (Cooke, 1991; Reed et al., 2022), while uncertainty characterisation refers to model evaluation under alternative factor hypotheses to explore their implications for model output uncertainty (Moallemi, Kwakkel, de Haan, & Bryan, 2020; Reed et al., 2022; W. E. Walker et al., 2003). A comprehensive uncertainty analysis endeavour is often computationally expensive as it requires many runs of the model to observe the effects of variations in model inputs and parameters on model outputs. Such an endeavour becomes infeasible when a single run of the model is in itself computationally costly.

The methods used to manage model uncertainties can depend on the level of uncertainty in the system. Pruyt and Kwakkel (2014) describe a range of levels of uncertainty ranging from no uncertainty to total ignorance (Figure 5). Sensitivity analysis can be an effective way to understand the impacts of uncertainties on model outcomes. It is defined by Saltelli, Tarantola, Campolongo, and Ratto (2004) as the study of how uncertainty in the output of a model can be apportioned to different sources of uncertainty in the model input. Uncertainties can further be understood via structured experimental designs that represent a systematic exploration of the uncertainty space and subsequently analysing the results using statistical or data mining methods to understand typical system trajectories and the conditions that facilitate them (Bryant & Lempert, 2010; Halbe et al., 2015). Another method to manage unresolvable uncertainties is exploratory modelling, a framework to explore the implications of varying assumptions and hypotheses by means of a series of computation experiments (Bankes, 1993).

The presence of interactions between the sub-models complicates uncertainty analysis in a multi-model. These interactions occur at the interface of the sub-models, originating in the methods employed to achieve interoperability between the sub-models (Drent, 2020; Nikolic et al., 2019). Furthermore, repeated interactions between the sub-models can result in a cascade of uncertainty resulting from the accumulation of individual sub-model uncertainties and un- certainties resulting from the sub-model interactions; this process is described in further detail by Wilby and Dessai (2010). Drent (2020) further found that the multi-model configuration (whether undirected, with feedbacks across the models or directed with no feedbacks) impacts whether the uncertainties should be analysed for both the whole multi-model as well as the individual sub-models or the whole multi-model only.


Figure 5: Levels of uncertainty as structured byW. Walker, Lempert, and Kwakkel(2013)

Our literature review revealed that previous research on uncertainty analysis in loosely- coupled multi-models is limited. Some studies discussed and applied uncertainty management concepts. For example, DeVolder et al. (2002) and Ye et al. (2021) studied uncertainty quantification for multi-scale models in the discipline of physical sciences. However, these studies do not directly assess how sub-model interactions or multi-model configuration influence the dynamics of uncertainty propagation through a multi- model, nor do they discuss methods for analyzing and interpreting such uncertainties.

Final remarks

Sustainability transitions represent complex challenges that span multiple domains and multiple scales. A promising approach for studies on such complex systems is to use multi-models. The urgency of the sustainability challenges at hand often requires multi-models to be used expeditiously. The model development process is, however, resource- and time-consuming and must be informed by sufficient domain expertise. These factors make the reuse of existing models an appealing option for multi-modelling. This review found that a model’s reusability depends on the following elements:

  1. Composability of the model: the model development process dictates how composable (and therefore how reusable) a model is.

  2. Model reuse mechanisms available: mechanisms that contribute to model reuse include those that enable uniform model abstraction (e.g., for model comparison and selection), model selection (e.g., from a model repository), model specialisation (e.g., to adapt selected models into reusable entities), and model integration (e.g., for combining and connecting model components).

  3. Technical ability and knowledge of future model users: as related to the previously stated model specialisation, facilitating interoperability between two stand-alone models requires technical expertise and domain knowledge from the model users.

  4. Social processes: the perceived authority of the model and the model owners influences whether and how the model is reused.

This review was scoped to focus on the first two points. We found that the practice of reusing models in multi-models can be broadly summarised into two types of challenges. The first is on technical interoperability issues. This task entails ensuring that information can be exchanged between the components of a multi-model, including reconciling different time representations, bases of value, and scales across multiple models. The second challenge is on achieving substantive interoperability, ensuring that the semantics, assumptions and contexts of the models are not in conflict with one another. The process of facilitating interoperability in between multiple models calls for scientific methods to identify key model and data components which should communicate with one another, as well as to modify and combine those components to answer a modelling question.

The task of interpreting multi-model outputs follows addressing the interoperability challenges of multi-modelling. Decisions on large-scale sustainability transitions that result from such models are likely to have far-reaching impacts that cascade into the future. This increases the importance of understanding and adequately managing how uncertainties in model inputs and model structure influence model outputs. Comprehensive uncertainty analysis methods on the multi-model can help meet such a need. Uncertainties in multi-model may emerge from individual sub-model uncertainties as well as from interactions between sub-models. Model uncertainties can originate from structural or parametric uncertainties, which may be epistemic or ontic. An in-depth understanding of how to manage uncertainties in the model is an integral part of the model verification and validation procedure that impacts the interpretation of model outputs. While there are many studies on uncertainty analysis for individual models, addressing uncertainty propagation in multi-models is a topic that warrants further comprehensive research.

This document presented the reviewed literature surrounding model reuse as related to multi-modelling, including motivations and challenges. In summary, we found that the field of transitions research can benefit from methodical guidelines for reusing existing models in multi-model configurations. The practice of reusing existing models is inhibited by the lack of practical and scientifically grounded methods for approaching the challenges embedded in the multi-model development process. We conclude that developing tried-and-tested methods to treat interoperability issues and implement uncertainty analysis in multi-models can advance the practice of multi-modelling and stimulate the growth of multi-model ecologies in various domains. This outcome is beneficial as multi-models can better encapsulate socio-technical challenges’ multi-domain and multi-scale nature, leading to strengthened decision support for socio-technical transitions.


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