(C) Joshua Oluwagbemiga, Unsplash
Modelling and Assessment

Interdisciplinary Demand Modelling // Envisioning Surprises: How Social Sciences could help Models represent ‘Deep Uncertainty’ in Future Energy and Water Demand

By Maria Sharmina, Dana Abi Ghanem, Alison L. Browne, Sarah Marie Hall, Josephine Mylan, Saska Petrova, Ruth Wood. This paper explores how future energy and water demand is modelled, using the term modelling to encompass both quantitative and qualitative methods of envisioning future demand, and offers ideas on improving the modelling techniques, as a basis for supporting long-term strategic planning.

Strategic planning of energy and water provision has long-term and far-reaching consequences, as the long lifespan of these infrastructures shapes patterns of demand and consumption for decades ahead. From this perspective, demand appears relatively fixed; however, the on-going major changes in climate, society and technology create an increasingly dynamic environment with manifold effects that themselves interact to drive demand in different ways. Putting aside other elements of the nexus (e.g. food and land), this study focuses on future demand in energy and water sectors in industrialised contexts, as these two sectors share specific characteristics that shape long-term planning. Consequently, when it comes to strategic planning, the issues faced by decision-makers in the two sectors share similarities and overlaps, but tend to be governed separately.

For both water and energy, the impending changes in demand and supply are complicated by social, economic, environmental and technological uncertainties at a range of scales: from individuals and households to international and global levels. The dominance of a particular type of economics is still evident and shapes representations of energy and water futures within policy domains. Poor representation of rapid change, of the diversity of practices and behaviour, and of societal responses to uncertainty and change highlight the need for more integrative approaches.

While there is a proliferation of research funding being directed to these areas, the challenges remain for methodological innovation within the field of energy and water demand—the development of shared languages and the integration of methods across ontological divides. The paper offers insights from disciplines such as psychology, sociology and human geography currently under-represented in dominant modelling methods, to challenge and enrich the methodological possibilities for understanding future water and energy demand. To address this lack of reflection and to highlight a wider range of methods available, this paper has developed a comprehensive typology of methods for exploring future energy and water demand. After identifying the four attributes

  • stochastic events
  • diversity of behaviour
  • policy interventions and
  • co-evolution

the paper posits that methods should be able to represent or capture deep uncertainty; and has provided examples of how insights from psychological and social science disciplines can assist in conceptualising these uncertainties.


Science Direct (open access)


January 2019


Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 50, April 2019, Pages 18-28

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