Project Summary

About the Seminar Series

This seminar series will bring together researchers from different disciplines and practitioners to discuss innovative ways of responding to pressing policy problems. Twenty-first century societies face three interlinked and seemingly intractable energy problems: climate change, obesity, and oil depletion. The need for change is urgent: the UK has set legally binding greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. All sectors must decarbonise, but the transport sector is lagging behind, even though moving to a highly active, low carbon transport system would generate substantial health and environmental benefits.
Meeting this challenge requires new collaborations, new perspectives, and new combinations of existing methods. We are going to focus on transport modelling, which uses mathematical equations to represent how people, vehicles, and goods travel. Transport modelling plays a key role in policy development and policy choice, and whilst it is changing in response to the need for systemic transitions in transport, it is unclear whether changes so far have been fundamental enough. More profound changes may be necessary and we will respond to these challenges by creating new collaborations between modellers, social scientists, and population health scientists, in order to explore approaches to transport modelling that can help us understand, and bring forward, the necessary system transition.
Two seminars focus specifically on bringing in new approaches and new types of data (evidence). Transport models have traditionally used economic concepts of behaviour; the ‘rational actor’ operating in accordance with self-interest, within a system in equilibrium. However, behaviour is often not premised on this narrow instrumentalist rationality, and transport systems are in a constant process of change. To deal with these issues, and the pressing need for transport system transitions, our seminar series will bring in social and cultural theorists, to learn more about how we might model cultural and political processes shaping transport decisions and the development of transport policies. This will involve discussing how data might be used within new generation transport models, which can incorporate qualitative as well as quantitative data.
A key issue covered in the series is how to make models more participatory, involving practitioners and the public in contributing to model building. The seminar series is not only aimed at academics; policy-makers and other stakeholders will be invited to present and participate, particularly in the three seminars more aimed at addressing their interests and concerns. The first of these, the opening event, will launch the seminar series; it will introduce the key questions to be tackled and disseminate important background information (such as existing projects relating to this series, and key texts that will inform the seminar series as it progresses). The fifth seminar will also be particularly relevant to research users: it will focus on participation, and discuss the different ways in which models can be made more transparent and participatory, while also addressing barriers to, and problems with, user involvement.
The final event we are planning will form part of the annual ESRC Festival of Social Science. Currently entitled ‘But Why Does the Model Say That? Beyond the Black Box’, it will be aimed at stakeholders and practitioners, including people who engage with transport models as community members. The aim will be both to demystify modelling, and to explore how far new forms of modelling can be ‘owned’ or ‘appropriated’ as well as understood by research users. Examples will be drawn from work done at the earlier seminars and projects in progress or carried out by seminar group members. The event will seek to empower research users to understand and to challenge models, and to think about how modelling could be done differently.

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