Simulating Social Complexity

Part of the series Understanding Complex Systems pp 39-55


Informal Approaches to Developing Simulation Models

  • Emma NorlingAffiliated withCentre for Policy Modelling, Business School, Manchester Metropolitan University Email author 
  • , Bruce EdmondsAffiliated withCentre for Policy Modelling, Business School, Manchester Metropolitan University Email author 
  • , Ruth MeyerAffiliated withCentre for Policy Modelling, Business School, Manchester Metropolitan University

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Why Read This Chapter?

To get to know some of the issues, techniques and tools involved in building simulation models in the manner that probably most people in the field do this. That is, not using the “proper” computer science techniques of specification and design, but rather using a combination of exploration, checking and consolidation.


This chapter describes the approach probably taken by most people in the social sciences when developing simulation models. Instead of following a formal approach of specification, design and implementation, what often seems to happen in practice is that modellers start off in a phase of exploratory modelling, where they don’t have a precise conception of the model they want but a series of ideas and/or evidence they want to capture. They then may develop the model in different directions, backtracking and changing their ideas as they go. This phase continues until they think they may have a model or results that are worth telling others about. This then is (or at least should be) followed by a consolidation phase where the model is more rigorously tested and checked so that reliable and clear results can be reported. In a sense what happens in this later phase is that the model is made so that it is as if a more formal and planned approach had been taken.

There is a danger of this approach: that the modeller will be tempted by apparently significant results to rush to publication before sufficient consolidation has occurred. There may be times when the exploratory phase may result in useful and influential personal knowledge but such knowledge is not reliable enough to be up to the more exacting standards expected of publicly presented results. Thus it is only with careful consolidation of models that this informal approach to building simulations should be undertaken.