Postdoc: Participatory modelling of wood construction bioeconomy scenarios


ETH Zurich


Saturday, May 6, 2023

Start Date

Saturday, July 1, 2023

In Switzerland and globally, the construction sector accounts for roughly 40% of carbon emissions. Timber engineering and construction concepts have immense potential to reduce these emissions. Building with biomaterials sequesters carbon in productive forests, stores carbon in long-lived buildings, substitutes carbon-intense materials (e.g., concrete, steel), and reduces energy-related emissions in the built environment. Mainstreaming wood construction has cross-sectoral implications, including forest management and timber supply (especially under changing climatic conditions), the development and adoption of new materials and processes, the development of appropriate standards, and new design and retrofitting concepts.

Project background

MainWood Project: In March 2023, ETH Zurich, Empa, WSL, and EPF Lausanne launched MainWood, an interdisciplinary research project to provide the scientific basis for transitioning to a wood-based construction bioeconomy in Switzerland. Drawing on the expertise of the four ETH Domain institutions, the research encompasses forest dynamics and production under climate change, scenarios of material use and flows, new construction materials, development of new design and AI approaches to maximise resource use efficiencies, life cycle assessment evaluating impacts on carbon emissions and biodiversity, and costing models. The project aims to identify key leverage points in the value chain to scale wood construction and to deliver environmentally optimal Swiss wood-use scenarios. We will draw on environmental, economic, technical, societal, and political research to develop an understanding of the wood supply chain through to the built environment, to identify opportunities for, and to understand the implications of, interventions towards a circular bioeconomy.

The project has six work packages:

WP-1. Modelling system transitions: Jaboury Ghazoul (D-USYS, ETH Zurich)

WP-2. Modelling of forest growth and wood production: A. Rigling, F. Krumm, T. Schulz, J. Portier (WSL), V. Griess, H. Bugmann (ETH Zurich)

WP-3. Wood processing spanning forest to building needs. I. Burgert (ETH Zurich and Empa), Y. Weinand (IBOIS, EPFL), G. Habert, A. Frangi (ETH Zurich)

WP-4. Modelling the potential for scaling the construction sector: J. Schweier (WSL) 

WP-5. Global wood supply chain scenarios and impacts: Stefanie Hellweg (ETH Zurich)

WP-6. Policies for a Swiss bio-economy: Eva Lieberherr (ETH Zurich), A. Zabel (University of Bern)

Job description

Modelling System Transitions

The postdoc position will focus on research within WP1, and will necessarily draw on information, concepts and data sourced from each of the other WPs.

System transitions are non-linear and emerge from interactions across environmental, technological, economic, and socio-political processes, shaped by discrepancies in capacity, knowledge, opportunity, and influence. A systems dynamics model (SDM) explores transition processes by mapping causal relationships, and the conditions that enable, accelerate, constrain, or prevent causal processes. Given different scenarios of change, these models help to identify plausible interventions and outcomes, quantify relations between variables, and quantify changes in units of interest (e.g. carbon or biodiversity).

The objective of WP1 is to construct an SDM of the Swiss wood construction sector to identify potential transition pathways and leverage points, barriers, trade-offs, and emergent outcomes (negative and positive), as well as to track all potential elements affecting the carbon balance of the supply chain. The SDM maps system structure and dynamics, allowing for the visualisation of intervention points and evaluation of possible outcomes across the system. A variety of methodological approaches might be adopted, including the use of participatory modelling approaches such as strategy games. These can be used to explore different scenarios of change towards a wood-based circular bioeconomy in the built environment.

You will be expected to:

  • Lead the development of a systems dynamics model by which to explore intervention options (and ramifications) of mainstreaming wood in construction.
  • Work closely with all academic partners across the project, and draw on the outputs from other work packages to inform the systems dynamics model.
  • Engage with practitioners across the value chain in Switzerland, from forest managers to the wood processing industry, architects, the construction sector, and policymakers to better understand opportunities, constraints, and challenges for transitioning to wood construction at all these levels. This might include conducting interviews and participating in, or leading and facilitating, workshops and meetings.
  • Develop participatory models (e.g., strategy games) that capture the key elements of the system and allow for interactive exploration of alternative strategies and scenarios by which a transition to a wood construction bioeconomy might be achieved.
  • Apply and validate the systems dynamics and/or participatory models to case studies in Switzerland and Europe (in collaboration with project and external partners).
  • Deliver academic outputs, which should include peer-reviewed publications of the systems dynamics model and analyses of alternative scenarios of change towards a wood construction bioeconomy.
  • Participate in project meetings and seminars, and outreach events in Swiss and international academic and practitioner conferences.