Current status, challenges and ways forward in modelling human-environment interactions in land systems

Land systems’ close interactions between humans and nature have been a defining theme of both the Global Land Programme (GLP) and its predecessor, the Land-Use and Land-Cover Change Project (LUCC).  Such interactions are conceptualized through linkages between land use and land management that manifest within the land systems— coupled social-environmental systems (SES). Seen from the early LUCC reports and research conferences, to the research portfolios of GLP members, key overview publications, and multiple GLP OSM presentations over many years, it is clear that modelling the complex interactions and feedbacks within and between the social and the environmental subsystems in land systems continues to form a core research topic for the GLP community.  SES models in land systems science (LSS) have taken pioneering approaches to explore complex systems aspects of land systems, using modelling to explore system-level characteristics such as regime shifts, path dependence, and system resilience that can emerge through human-environment interactions. Modelling SES in LSS has also embraced participatory modelling approaches, becoming an innovation leader in this realm. Together these approaches have great potential, and many examples of success, in informing management and policy to transform land systems towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and address the challenges of global environmental change. 

Key challenges of SES modelling for land systems have been recognized since the early days of the LUCC project, including such issues as representation of actor decision making, representing and modelling cross-scale interactions and feedbacks, and modelling with and for policymakers. Issues related to model coupling have also been central, including appropriate matching of model scales and input data, level of detail of the represented systems, and level of feedback between models. These challenges further exist within the broader challenges of interdisciplinary research, from communication to funding to research production incentives. While progress has been made in many areas, many challenges remain open, and are continually discussed in published literature; however, as we are all now so very much appreciate, there is nothing like an opportunity for open, in-person discussion. We took the opportunity of the GLP OSM as an ideal platform to convene an open, in-person community discussion on the state of the art, open challenges, and ways forward for SES models in LSS. 

The workshop commenced with a short introduction by Zhanli Sun, followed by four short flash talks: an overview and three applied talks. Dawn Parker offered her “brief and subjective history” on the development of SES models through the early 21st century, in LSS and beyond. She identified factors facilitating SES’ exponential growth: technical (GIS, RS, and computational advances such as object-oriented programming and agent-based modelling); policy (global environmental change, ecosystems services and natural capital concepts, and push for improved integrated assessment models); and institutional (Santa Fe Institute and the Resilience Alliance, funding initiatives such as NSF Biocomplexity and Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH), EU ERC and Horizon 2020, and programs such as LUCC/GLP, CHANS, and SESYNC). Together these lead to advances in the representation and research design for SES as complex systems, facilitating the investigation of “wicked problems.” However, she acknowledged that the barriers and deficits that motivated the workshop persist. 

Birgit Müller discussed the integration of actor (agent) decision making into integrated land systems models, focusing in particular on the challenge of scaling data and parameters to align modelling scales across human and natural systems model elements. While scaled-up models can simplify modelling coupling, appropriate scaling protocols have yet to be developed. She suggested that LSS scientists learn from scaling protocols developed in ecology and hydrology, offering a concrete modelling example from tree and leaf photosynthesis.  She proposed to develop standardized visual classification protocols of scaling procedures and techniques and sharing of such representations in model archives such as CoMSES

Christine Fürst presented a “systems-of-systems” approach for SES modelling for management and policy, focused on the integration of qualitative and quantitative knowledge and models to understand processes and interactions through different scales and regions. The work specifically integrates local and indigenous knowledge to parameterize the system and validate the outcomes to recommended improved agricultural strategies in West Africa, through scenario-simulations and impact assessment. She identified key equity-related outstanding challenges, including integration (such that no one loses properties in data, no one risks intellectual property rights); building trust with stakeholders; and diverse model output data needs.

Martha Bakker continued with a discussion of a model of adoption of more sustainable soil management by farmers, focusing on modelling signals from ecological to social systems. Her research explored how people receive signals from ecological systems on issues such as climate change and land degradation. Her group’s research has determined that such signals are mostly indirect, mediated through education, media, and social networks, and that evidence is only registered when the belief system is receptive. Thus, policies must consider not only legislative channels but also changes in social norms and social capital—which are key open modelling challenges. 

Our workshop benefited from a large turnout of about 100 enthusiastic active researchers.  The participants were divided into four break-out groups in order to tackle four salient questions in SES modelling for land systems:

  1. How do you see the state of the art of coupled human-natural systems models?  Illustrate with examples of your own work or other problem domains.
  2. What are the enabling and facilitating factors for SES modelling?
  3. What are the key barriers and challenges for SES modelling?
  4. How can we work together to move forward?

Moderators and recorders were recruited from the audience, and lively and passionate discussions ensued, full of occasional heated but friendly arguments and laughter. Time was shorter than ideas, and discussions were cut short to allow representatives from each group to present their key messages to the full group. 

The discussion generated many interesting points. Data availability and accessibility, lack of common standards and platforms, inadequate interdisciplinary education,  and funding bias against interdisciplinary projects were identified as key barriers and challenges. There are no quick and easy solutions. Mutual learning and dialog platforms between natural and social scientists were regarded as necessary to move forward. While participants did not agree on all points, we agreed on the importance of SES modelling that should remain high on the agenda of the GLP community.  The discussion on this topic shall continue through workshops, future GLP OSM sessions, and the formation of a working group under the GLP.

GLP OSM 360N was organized by

Dr. Zhanli Sun (  Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (IAMO), Germany

PD Dr. Daniel Daniel Müller ( IAMO & Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

Dr. Birgit Müller ( Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Germany

Prof. Dr. Martha M. Bakker ( Wageningen University, Netherlands;

Prof. Dr. Dawn C. Parker (, University of Waterloo, Canada