Developing agent-based models to assess sustainability

To be sustainable, development must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet its own requirements.

Achieving sustainable development therefore requires balancing long-term economic, environmental and social objectives. What makes this challenging is that the solutions lie beyond the traditional areas of engineering design and industrial ecology, encompassing the ecological and social implications of technological decisions.

But Neeraj Hanumante, a research scholar at the IITB-Monash Research Academy, is no stranger to challenges. For instance, he was among a handful of researchers from all over the country to be picked last year for the Prime Minister’s Fellowship Scheme for Doctoral Research. The fellowship is a public-private partnership between the government and industry.

Neeraj is working on a project titled ‘Agent-Based Modeling of Multi-Scale Systems for Sustainability Assessment’ under the supervision of Prof Yogendra Shastri, Prof Andrew Hoadley, and Ms Alka Talwar of Tata Chemicals Ltd.

The concept of sustainable development

“Conventional tools used for sustainability assessment include indicators and indices such as the Natural Capital Index (NCI), and product-related assessments like Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). These do not address the effects of dynamic changes in the system on its sustainability,” says Neeraj. “Hence, novel methods need to be developed.”

Achieving sustainable development is a complex process owing to its interdisciplinary nature, multiple feedback mechanisms required, and the various spatial and temporal scales involved. Neeraj is attempting to address these limitations by developing a hybridized model. “The basic system dynamics model is based on equations. Hybridization is initiated by providing attributes to human agents,” he says. “A balance has to be maintained while making assumptions for the attributes, to make sure that they are close enough to reality, and do not violate the underlying sense of the system dynamics model.”

On the work he has completed so far, Neeraj adds, “As of now, my model can represent the world population stratification in terms of income, and corresponding life span difference, and the populations of these groups stabilise eventually.”

The model includes a food web with the following tropic levels: plants, herbivores, carnivores, and humans, industrial sector and energy producer, energy source, and two resource pools, one of which is inaccessible. The HH compartment is hybridized, and agents are endowed with attributes

The IITB-Monash Research Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen scientific relationships between the two countries. Graduate research scholars like Neeraj study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich their research experience.

Says Prof Murali Sastry, CEO of the Academy, “Neeraj’s objective is to develop a sustainability assessment model that can be retrofitted to a given condition. Since it uses Agent Based Modelling and Simulation (ABMS), it may also unearth impacts that are possibly not covered by other assessment methodologies.”

Ensuring that development becomes sustainable is non-negotiable. Which is why the work done by researchers like Neeraj Hanumante becomes so critical.

Research scholar: Neeraj Hanumante, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Agent-Based Modeling Of Multi-Scale Systems For Sustainability Assessment

Supervisors: Prof. Yogendra Shastri, IIT Bombay; Prof Andrew Hoadley, Monash University; Ms. Alka Talwar, Tata Chemicals Ltd.

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This story was written by Mr Krishna Warrier based on inputs from the research student, his supervisors and IITB-Monash Research Academy. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.