Decision making in complex socio-ecological systems: from cognitive maps to agent-based models

ICTAM is a step-wise method for bringing qualitative mental models into formal quantitative simulation models. The ICTAM acronym stands for the key methods used throughout the process: Interviews, Cognitive mapping, Time-sequence Unified Modelling Language (UML), All-encompassing framework, and numerical agent-based Models.

The process starts by conducting semi-structured interviews with stakeholders. The purpose is to collect data about how people think, interpret information, and make judgements, with minimal intrusion from the researcher.

In the second step, the researcher develops cognitive maps for individuals based on the data collected through interviews. The structure and content of cognitive maps are validated by sharing them with interviewees and seeking their feedback.

Using results from mapping structure and content analysis techniques, the researcher merges individual cognitive maps into a collective map as a unifying view that encompasses individual views. This is step 3.

In step 4, the collective map is used to develop a sequence of conceptual decision models. The conceptual models are transition objects between conceptual and numerical modelling. They provide more formal implementation-based descriptions of the decision making process. This step includes three activities: (1) using UML time sequence diagramming technique to abstract all functions required to represent decisions identified in the collective map, (2) identifying possible models and data required to implement decision functions, and (3) developing pseudo-code representation of those parts of the conceptual model to be implemented.

In the final step, the researcher uses the conceptual decision making models to create a detailed agent-based model that can be executed. The pseudo-code is translated into an actual code implementation. For the inner working of the model, this step involves using additional quantitative data (eg., from literature reviews) to specify thresholds and functional forms of certain functions used by ‘agents’ in the agent-based model.

Reference: Elsawah, S., Guillaume, J. H. A., Filatova, T., Rook, J., and Jakeman, A. J. (2015). A methodology for eliciting, representing, and analysing stakeholder knowledge for decision making on complex socio-ecological systems: From cognitive maps to agent-based models. Journal of Environmental Management, 151, 500-516. Online (DOI): doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2014.11.028.

Weblog: El Sawah, S. (2016). ICTAM: Bringing mental models to numerical models. Implementation and Implementation Insights weblog, September 22, 2016. Online:

Posted: January 2015
Last modified: November 2019