IMAGE: Nuno Marques

Imagining different futures – agent-based modelling steering sustainability transitions

Can successful sustainability transitions be modelled and then replicated elsewhere?

Agent-based modelling is proving to be a promising tool to guide policymakers in decision-making.

September 18, 2021


By Nea Pakarinen

Communications Officer, ICLEI Europe

We need to embrace change now more than ever, if we are to achieve a sustainable and resilient society post-pandemic. Research on sustainable transitions indicates that a fortuitous moment to influence transitions is during crises, as they already disrupt current systems – leaving space for innovation and new paths.  Hence all the talk on green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.


As society has had to put on the breaks during the pandemic, why not switch gears altogether and take a more sustainable course? Many decision makers are embracing this approach, but how to reach citizens and ensure they are on board with the transition?


The SMARTEES project in El Hierro, Spain, is helping the Canary Islands' smallest island reach its stated goal of 100% renewable energy self-sufficiency through wind power.


A simulation based on real-life scenarios


First and foremost, to ensure successful sustainable transitions it is crucial to take into account the inherent conflicts between the values, ambitions, and goals of a multitude of stakeholders. This is where agent-based modelling (ABM) can prove to be a handy tool to guide decision-makers. ABM is essentially computational modelling of behaviour (actions and interactions) of individuals and groups. It allows for a detailed assessment of how decisions are made and their effects.


In a nutshell, ABM entails modelling of autonomous decision-making entities called agents. The models are effective at anticipating real-life behaviour, as each agent in the models individually assesses the situation based on a set of rules, which can be programmed to represent the real-life conditions in the system under study. The modelling also accounts for relationships and interactions between agents. Agent-based modelling can thus be used to create simulations to anticipate the reactions of individuals and groups, helping to support the replication of successful sustainability transitions.


As a basis of ABM, it is crucial to assess existing physical, cultural, social, regulatory, policy and economic conditions and the systems in place, as these can either hinder or drive social innovations. These can be fine-tuned to the field of study, and include variables such as the mobility landscape, trust towards authorities, subsidies on fossil fuels and influential actors such as activists etc. The categories are relevant when assessing transferability of the social innovations to different contexts.



IMAGE: Glenn Carstens-Peters

A tool for informed decision-making


European projects such as Horizon 2020 funded SMARTEES are applying modelling to help policy makers explore sustainability transitions, based on the modelling of real-life scenarios. In the case of SMARTEES, agent-based modelling is used to model social innovation processes in energy- and mobility transitions and actors in cities and islands. These are programmed into a ‘Policy Sandbox Tool’, enabling policy makers to test out different scenarios, helping to identify the best path of ‘least resistance’ for the transition.


The tool makes it possible to examine critical factors for success and failures based on the modelled real-life scenarios.




Stockholm's Sustainable Järva regeneration project has not only proved to be a powerful tool for energy efficiency, but has also helped cultivate social innovation and local engagement.


Niklas Mischkowski, Governance and Social Innovation officer at ICLEI Europe involved in the SMARTEES tool development, elaborates on the process: “These models are based on assumptions about reality - and albeit not a hundred percent certain, they can act as a source of inspiration.  When using this approach for policy design, it is important to think of it as

a source for ideas on stakeholder dialogue. With this tool we want to indicate the likelihood of the occurrence of the modelled scenarios in other contexts.”


ICLEI Europe is also involved in various other projects dealing with modelling for sustainability transitions, such as the district-specific energy modelling done in Horizon 2020 funded Smart City projects such as RUGGEDISED, and the web-based energy planning software implemented in the THERMOS project.




The SMARTEES project has been integral to the Dutch city of Groningen's transformation from a car-city to a bicycle-city where 60% of all individual transport is made by bicycle.


While agent-based modelling might not be a crystal ball, it can be a powerful tool to describe scenarios, when programmed into a user-friendly interface, such as the SMARTEES Policy Sandbox Tool. It can support policy makers to make grounded assumptions about what could happen in a particular context and its likelihood, and thereby better understand the implications of a local sustainable transition.





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