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Georgia Basin Futures Project


The Georgia Basin Futures Project (GBFP) is a five-year regional participatory integrated assessment whose purpose is to combine public values, preferences. and beliefs with expert knowledge in the production of scenarios for the future of the area in western Canada known as the Georgia Basin (see map) over the next forty years. The key goals are to increase public involvement in the discourse about issues of sustainability, explore pathways to sustainability in the region, and create a database of public preferences, values, and acceptable and unacceptable trade-offs that can be analyzed to provide a picture of how participants feel about sustainability issues and evaluate the relationship between the use of computer-based simulation tools and the beliefs, values, and behaviors of the users of those tools (Tansey, Carmichael et al. 2002).


The GBFP is based on a long tradition of futures studies in the environmental field. From the extensive literature associated with this tradition four concerns have been identified that have influenced the project design significantly. The first is a concern with undertaking research that integrates natural and physical science analyses of environmental systems with social science, health science, and humanities research on the human systems that interact with the environment. The second is a focus on the future and on studying the various ways people can work collectively or individually toward bringing about a more sustainable world.

The third is a growing recognition of the need to involve various interests, or "stakeholders," in the research process. The fourth is a concern with the appropriate temporal and spatial scale of analysis. Although issues such as climate change are inherently global in scope, research that is truly problem-centered, policy-oriented, and connected to users must establish temporal and spatial scales that are relevant for decision makers.

All these strands came together in the development of the conceptual and methodological framework of the Georgia Basin Futures Project, which was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) in early 1999 and is supported by financial and in-kind contributions from governmental, nongovernmental, and industrial partners in the Georgia Basin region.

Project Design

Research in the project is organized into six major components undertaken by a core team of twenty coinvestigators and research collaborators, three research staff members, about thirty graduate students, and several administrative staff members working in conjunction with sixteen nongovernmental organizations, government, and private sector partners in the community.

Using expert analysis of key relationships among the social, ecological, and economic systems in the Georgia Basin and relying on initial consultations with stakeholders, the project has built a number of software tools for engaging stakeholders in sustainability issues. These tools have been used in several interactive processes, including workshops and classroom applications. The effect and effectiveness of this approach to engaging different publics with interactive software tools also are being evaluated.

Model Development: The QUEST Approach

The project's approach to modeling and scenario analysis is based on three key elements:

  • A backcasting approach that involves the exploration of the feasibility and consequences of trying to reach desirable futures rather than the prediction of the most likely outcomes (Robinson 2003)
  • A design approach to modeling that focuses on the physical flows of matter and energy through the economic system, the economic flows of currency through the economic sectors, and the economic benefits and costs incurred as a result of environmental and socioeconomic decisions (Gault 1987)
  • An interactive social science approach to use of the model that requires that the local community be actively involved in both the design and the use of the modeling tool. (Caswill and Shove 2000)

The methodological core of the project is the development and use of the GB-QUEST modeling system (Rothman, Robinson, and Biggs 2002). QUEST is a computer-based system for scenario generation and evaluation that was designed to encourage public participation in thinking about sustainability in a regional context. Through QUEST users explore different scenarios for the future in terms of their social, economic, and environmental characteristics. The goal is to acquaint users with the complex realities of decision making, specifically the uncertainties involved, the necessary trade-offs, and the role of subjective values. For the GB-QUEST modeling system the geographic range encompasses the whole of the Canadian side of the Georgia Basin. The temporal scale is forty years.

Through the adoption of the "feel" and user-friendliness of a computer game, QUEST scenarios actively involve the user in their creation and evaluation. The user-selected scenario choices include choices involving the future patterns of population, economic activity, transportation, the density of urban growth, the style of neighborhoods, agricultural development, forestry practices, and consumption. The consequences of these decisions affect human well-being, environmental quality, economic and social health, and the long-term ability to maintain all these results.

QUEST does not provide a picture of the most likely future and is not intended to reflect a detailed understanding of all the complex systems involved. Instead, it enables users to learn about the linkages between choices and possible consequences and the trade-offs society faces in deciding among available options.

Community Engagement

A critical element of the project relates to the involvement of stakeholders and community partners in the research process. The project builds on the tradition of participatory integrated assessment modeling (Kasemir et al. 2000, van Asselt and Rijkens-Klomp 2002) and has adopted an interactive social science approach that is based on an explicit recognition of the value-laden nature of scientific analysis and modeling and the resultant need to incorporate community-based partners and the interested public directly into the research activities in two ways. First, by working with partner organizations in the community, the project has incorporated public values, preferences, and concerns into the process of model design and implementation. Second, through an elaborate process of community engagement that also involves the partners, the project has included the interested public in the generation of preferred sustainability scenarios using those modeling tools.

The key method for obtaining community engagement is the use of GB-QUEST in various ways, including three regional case studies; expert workshops; classroom use; a large exhibition space at Science World, a local science museum; and Web-based interaction.

The regional case studies involve working with three local municipal or regional governments in the Georgia Basin to use GB-QUEST in workshops with government staff members and stakeholders to explore regional sustainability scenarios, with the goal of contributing to the development of policies for sustainability. These workshops are followed by workshops to explore policy implementation issues, using a conceptual model of policy development that has emerged from the health promotion field. The expert workshops involve working with partner organizations and stakeholder groups to develop desired future scenarios and explore the implementation measures that would be required to realize those scenarios.

A teaching and learning team has tested GB-QUEST in the classroom at the high school level. This group is responsible for creating a set of curriculum guides and resource packages supporting QUEST that focus on sustainability in several classes and at different grade levels.

Since the fall of 2001 a twenty-minute-long video-based version of QUEST has been playing twice per day, five days per week at Science World. Approximately 15,000 people, mostly elementary school students, have played this version of QUEST, using interactive touch pads set into the seat arms of the 200-seat theater at Science World.

Based partly on funding from another project, a Web-based version of GB-QUEST is being developed that will incorporate information visualization and landscape visualization techniques to improve playability and comprehension of the complex contents and results of QUEST scenarios. A prototype was scheduled to be operation in April 2004.

The project also is studying the effect of playing QUEST on the mental models of sustainability, preferences, and behaviors of QUEST users. The GBFP culture and cognition team is holding impact workshops in which QUEST users are interviewed intensively and observed while playing QUEST.


An important focus of the Georgia Basin Futures Project (GBFP) is the policy measures required to implement the scenarios that GB-QUEST generates. Both the case study and the expert workshops involve analysis of implementation requirements. In addition, GBFP is creating a database of all the scenarios developed in the project. That database, though limited in quantity, will present an informative picture of the values, preferences, and preferred options of QUEST users with regard to the future of the basin. The project will analyze those scenarios in terms of their policy and implementation requirements.

Other Tools

In addition to GB-QUEST, several interactive software tools have been developed in the GBFP, including the refinement of a personal Climate Change Calculator and the Sustainability Tools and Resources website for helping community groups and individuals establish themselves and interact with other groups. In addition, the GBFP has combined forces with a research group at Natural Resources Canada to develop a prototype of a Georgia Basin Digital Library (GBDL), a Web-based digital library that will be used to integrate natural and social science information (Geographic Information System maps, images, and text) into a comprehensive and interactive information resource to support sustainability research, community-focused decision making, and public consultation activities in the Georgia Basin.

Some Preliminary Results

While the GBFP is still ongoing, some preliminary findings are beginning to emerge. An immense interested has been demonstrated by participants from the general public and local government agencies in exploring desirable futures. Timeframes of forty years are no barrier to participation but the spatial scale of a region the size of the Georgia Basin (about 5.6 million hectares) is a challenge for participants who tend to want to focus on more local issues. In virtually all cases, however, participants are interested in exploring the nature of the choices and consequences of their future scenarios.

The use of interactive tools such as GB-QUEST was found to contribute to community activities to promote sustainability at the municipal scale in several communities. It has been less successful in contributing to the specific needs of regional government policy development. These findings suggest that a preferred audience for such engagement may be individuals and groups, including politicians, who do not have expert knowledge of specific sustainability issues. Classroom pilots of quest-based curriculum indicated a possible significant role for such techniques in school curricula.

Users of GB-QUEST are strongly disposed to make choices about preferred future conditions that reflect a strong environmental ethic. There is a desire to find scenarios that express those values without compromising other goals, such as economic growth or employment. The discussions that ensue explore issues that are not typically part of public and political debates in the region, suggesting a strong latent and unmet demand for such interactive processes.

Science, Technology, Ethics, and Public Policy

The GBFP exists at the interface of science and society. It is intended to combine expert knowledge and public attitudes, preferences, and values in ways that incorporate the best understanding of complex ecological, social, and economic systems and that will be useful to stakeholder and institutions that are grappling with the practical problems of sustainability.

What distinguishes the GBFP approach is a fundamental commitment to interactivity that recognizes that the role of science in the policy process is inherently value-laden and that stakeholder input into both the development of integrated assessment tools and the development of scenarios is essential for two reasons. First, policy decisions about sustainability are inherently normative. The challenge is to combine those normative considerations with scientific understanding through the use of "boundary objects" such as QUEST and the GBDL. Second, it is clear that a major potential obstacle to achieving sustainability involves public acceptance. Politicians cannot make policy decisions that require significant change without a supportive political constituency. New means of engaging different publics in the complex public policy issues that surround sustainability are essential to build understanding of the policy trade-offs in the public and to learn what trade-offs and choices may be acceptable. In this way a process of community engagement that is appropriately designed may increase the sophistication of discussion about key choices affecting the sustainability of the region and help make explicit the points of conflict between stakeholders in the community that will affected by a decision.

An important question raised by the use of computer-based tools in the GBFP is the degree to which information technology can provide ways to engage large numbers of people in sustainability issues without trivializing the issues or misleading users about the consequences of particular choices. An important danger is the possibility of converting normative questions of deep moral and political significance into technical questions related to the choice of technology or behavior. For this reason the GBFP separates the analysis of the consequences of particular technological and behavioral choices (the realm of the scenario analysis using QUEST) from the discussion of the desirability of those outcomes and the means that may be required to realize them (a discussion that occurs outside the model). In this sense the role of the technology is to provide a basis for stimulating informed discussion of ethical and political questions.

The GBFP is based on the view that science and technology embed normative values that must be made explicit if informed choices are to be made (Jasanoff and Wynne 1998). The project is testing the idea that complex public policy issues can be illuminated by the development and use of scenario analysis tools that allow citizens to express their views about their preferences and point out the consequences of their choices. The key is that these scenarios are created not by experts but by the users. This makes the process more engaging, creates a higher degree of user buy-in to the process and a greater sense of responsibility for the outcomes, can lead to significant learning, and produces results that embody ethical and moral judgments about the desirability and acceptability of alternative future scenarios.


SEE ALSO Models and Modeling; Participation; Science Policy; Stakeholders; Sustainability and Sustainable Development.


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