Political questions on environmental issues are multi-faceted and can often face several conflicting objectives at once. The solutions are therefore seldom simple, and seldom satisfy all stakeholders. Environmental social scientist and biologist Judit Leinert is investigating with her research group how such conflicting objectives can best be handled.
Judit Leinert, you’re a specialist in good decision making. How can I decide on the perfect place to go on holiday this summer?
In my research group, we approach decision making with the help of “Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis”, or MCDA. This method allows you to arrive at the optimum solution to a problem to which there is no one perfect answer from the outset.
In the case of your holiday destination, we would first look at your needs and then assess how well numerous holiday options meet these needs. Then we would ascertain what areas you would feel most comfortable making compromises in. For instance, you might be happy to pay more in order to have a lower carbon footprint. Finally, I would bring all of your needs and considerations together in a mathematical model. So, just to give it a whirl, what is important to you in your choice of holiday?
Being in nature, not spending too much, environmental sustainability and experiencing something out of the ordinary.
Right. So now we’ll generate as many options as possible using plenty of imagination and find out how we can best satisfy your needs. What does a cycling holiday in Scandinavia cost, or trekking in Nepal? What’s the carbon footprint of an all-inclusive holiday on the Mediterranean or survival training in Toggenburg? Now I’ll ask you how important one requirement is to you in comparison to the others. If you rate cost as only half as important as a low carbon footprint, then the trip to Toggenburg will land first place. Now, you might have arrived at this solution even without MCDA, but we often experience surprises because we become more acutely aware of what is really important to us. And with very complex issues, particularly where a lot of people are involved, a gut feeling can often send us in the wrong direction.
What problems do you tackle in the research group with Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis?
So far, we’ve mainly been dealing with decisions in urban water management, where people are trying to achieve several – often conflicting – objectives such as “low costs” and “environmental sustainability”. The problem is, the most environmentally friendly solution may sometimes be the most expensive. What is more, many people are involved in the decision making process in contrast to your perfect holiday destination decision. A carefully conducted MCDA involves the various stakeholders in the decision making process, creates transparency and allows reasonable compromises to be worked out. This process increases acceptance for the subsequent decision among the politicians, associations and the population.