Department Environmental Social Sciences

Improving problem structuring in Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis

Environmental problems are nowadays very complex. Finding solutions to them requires a good overall understanding of the ecological, economic, and social systems and relationships within and among them. It also requires a good dialogue between scientists, stakeholders, and policy makers. There is great need for methods, which can facilitate science-policy interaction and support the structuring and evaluation of such problems.

Problem structuring methods (PSMs) are a label for a group of methods that aim to structure the problem situation well rather than solving it. PSMs aim to promote an engaged and structured conversation, to view the situation from a variety of perspectives, and to synthesize information. The most well-known PSMs are stakeholder analysis, SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats), DPSIR diagram (Driving forces, Pressures, State, Impact, and Responses), cognitive maps, and scenario planning.

Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) provides a large variety of methods to get a better overall understanding of the decision situation, to develop alternatives, and to compare them systematically from different perspectives. MCDA is best applied to well-structured problems, and so far it lacks tools for proper decision structuring.

The study consists of two parts:

  1. Combined use of PSMs and MCDA. Here, the aim is to find out ways to improve MCDA processes in ill-structured and messy decision situations. We started with an extensive literature review to study the state-of-the art. We identified over 350 articles which we are now analyzing to identify good practices and limitations in the current use of the methods. Recommendations will be presented to support the seamless integration of PSMs and MCDA in different types of decision situations.
  2. Manageable objectives hierarchies in MCDA. The more complex the decision problem is, the more complex MCDA analyses tend to get. This can lead to laborious and inefficient studies. The structure of the objectives hierarchy can also have a crucial impact on the outcome of the MCDA. We aim at developing and testing procedures, which can help to find a proper balance between two conflicting objectives, namely being concise and being complete, when developing objectives hierarchies. We will also systematically explore the effect of the size and structure of the objectives hierarchy on preference elicitation and the decision outcome.

The methods and approaches will be tested in different types of water resources management projects, e.g. in the evaluation and design of Swiss cantonal water quality monitoring programs and in decision support for wastewater infrastructure planning.


Marttunen, M.; Haag, F.; Belton, V.; Mustajoki, J.; Lienert, J. (2019) Methods to inform the development of concise objectives hierarchies in multi-criteria decision analysis, European Journal of Operational Research, 277(2), 604-620, doi:10.1016/j.ejor.2019.02.039, Institutional Repository
Marttunen, M.; Weber, C.; Åberg, U.; Lienert, J. (2019) Identifying relevant objectives in environmental management decisions: an application to a national monitoring program for river restoration, Ecological Indicators, 101, 851-866, doi:10.1016/j.ecolind.2018.11.042, Institutional Repository
Marttunen, M.; Belton, V.; Lienert, J. (2018) Are objectives hierarchy related biases observed in practice? A meta-analysis of environmental and energy applications of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis, European Journal of Operational Research, 265(1), 178-194, doi:10.1016/j.ejor.2017.02.038, Institutional Repository
Marttunen, M.; Lienert, J.; Belton, V. (2017) Structuring problems for multi-criteria decision analysis in practice: a literature review of method combinations, European Journal of Operational Research, 263(1), 1-17, doi:10.1016/j.ejor.2017.04.041, Institutional Repository


Dr. Judit Lienert Group Leader, Cluster: DA (Decision Analysis) Tel. +41 58 765 5574 Send Mail


Project start: February 2015

Project duration: 2 years