Agile workshop: Coping with systemic changes in environmental modelling

May 9th 2017

Problem definition

Most environmental modellers are familiar with the concept of regime shifts or critical transitions: abrupt changes in the system state as a result of a change in the system drivers. Less attention has been given to the concept of systemic changes: abrupt changes not (or not only) in the system state, but in the whole structure or behaviour of the system. See also a recent special issue in Environmental Modelling & Software (issue 75, 2016). Whereas critical transitions can, at least in theory, be reproduced by simulation models, systemic changes cannot, because the change in the system behaviour makes the previously valid simulation model structure invalid. The occurrence of systemic changes thereby affects the validity of future projections made with these models.


The objectives of this workshop are:
•             To facilitate a dialogue on the difference between critical transitions and systemic changes. Is a systemic change merely a critical transition of a system that we do not understand well enough to model it properly? In other words, is a systemic change an ‘artifact’ of an incorrect simulation model or is it more?
•             To propose methods to identify past systemic changes using historic data of the system. This is not necessarily easy, as systemic changes may not be directly visible in the system state (and thus in the data).
•             To identify systems in which systemic change is a potential problem requiring additional attention on the research agenda, and to come up with case studies to evaluate this.
•             To explore how environmental modellers can cope with systemic changes. Should they limit the projection horizon based on the past frequency of occurrence of systemic changes, or include the probability of systemic changes in the error propagation routines, or discard the simulation model altogether?

Workshop set-up

This workshop is half a day. Two or three short interactive presentations of (invited) speakers will be alternated with structured plenary and group discussions.


Prof. Dr. Ralf Merz - Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Halle, Germany

Prof. Dr. Alexey Voinov - Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC), Enschede, The Netherlands

Planned outcomes

The expected outcomes of this workshop are:
•             A research or review paper on systemic changes in relation to environmental models written by workshop participants and organizers together.
•             The formation of research community on systemic change with the objective to initiate collaborative research and research proposals.


For questions, please contact the main workshop organizer Judith Verstegen,

Early registration is open until March 27th 2017. For more registration info visit the Agile website at: