Research

My research focuses on the interaction of cognitive, institutional, and ecological processes to understand collective action problems. I study these interactions to understand the conditions for sustainable outcomes in various applications in the past, present and future, and from local to global scales.

I am a social scientist with a background in mathematics. I use computational models, such as agent-based models, in combination with laboratory and field experiments, surveys, case study analysis, and stakeholder workshops. To address my research questions.I have worked on quite a number of topics as you can see from my publications, all related to the field of collective action.

The National Science Foundation of the USA funds most of my research since 2004. Prior to that I was funded by the European Union, the Swedish Research Council, and the Resilience Alliance. Currently I work on the following topics:

Modeling the political-economy of coupled infrastructure systems

Water, energy and food systems are increasingly interconnected. To meet sustainability targets transitions in those systems are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide sufficient clean fresh water, and nutritious food. A transition of the physical infrastructure will require changes in behavior, norms and regulations, but the dynamics of the physical infrastructure and human behavior are not synced. We are developing models combining insights from the social science and engineering to explore transition pathways that are socially just and enable robustness of water, energy and food systems in the long term. This work is partly based on my participation in two NSF projects: One on water governance of Mexico city (PI Eakin) and one on resilience of water-energy-road networks (PI Seager) analytical way.

Robustness of small-scale irrigation systems

Small-scale irrigation systems are exemplars of self-governance of social-ecological systems. There are many small-scale irrigation systems that have lasted for a long period. However, those robust systems might be fragile to climate change and globalization. The future of small-scale farms is important for the future. Nearly 90% of farms worldwide are less than 2 hectares and support the majority of world’s poorest people. A large proportion of these rely on irrigation, which consumes an estimated 70% of global developed water supplies and produces 40% of global agricultural commodities.

As part of a large NSF project led by Marty Anderies I perform experiments in the lab and the field (Colombia, Thailand, Nepal, and India)  to understand what attributes of small-scale irrigation systems enables them to better cope with expected changes in their disturbance regimes. Furthermore, I use agent-based models of stylized irrigation systems to address this problem in a more analytical way.

Foraging of hunter-gatherers

How did our ancestors organize themselves to collect food, hunt and derive raw materials for tools? Together with Kim HillCurtis Marean and various others, I am developing an agent-based model of foraging of hominids during various time periods around 100,000 years ago in a reconstructed landscape of Mossel Bay in South Africa. To inform our assumptions of the foraging behavior we develop a model of the Ache of which we have many direct observations.

Does playing games change behavior?

There have been anecdotes that field experiments on commons dilemmas in communities have led to behavioral changes. In a project led by International Food Policy Research Institute we are testing whether performing field experiments on crop choice and groundwater together with a community wide debriefing lead to a measurable change in ground water use. The experiments are done in India and Colombia. The potential outcome is a practical tool for NGOs to stimulate behavioral change.

Building cyber-infrastructure for computational modeling

There is an increase in the use of computational models, such as agent-based models, in the social and life sciences, but typically only results are shared in publications. Model code is not provided with publications, which hinders the cumulative nature of scientific discovery. The website openabm.org is an ongoing attempt to build cyber-infrastructure where scholars can archive their models using best practices. In this way we preserve well documented model code on which other scholars can build on.

Catalyzing collective action

From many experimental studies on social dilemmas we find that most people are conditional cooperators. This means that they are willing to cooperate if others do too. Furthermore, we know that cooperation in small groups can easily be derived if we allow participants to communicate. These studies are helpful to understand cooperation in small communities, but how can we apply these insights to large scale populations. In modern times of a globalizing world most people live in urbanized environments and interact with many strangers. Can we enhance collective action in social networks by the use of new social media? In a project with Hari Sundaram and Allen Lee we are setting up experiments using mobile apps to test different social influence options to the spread of cooperation in social networks. Besides behavioral experiments we also make models to understand how people make decisions on day-to-day activities which might be influenced by information derived about actions of others.