Everything You Wanted to Know about Agent Based Modeling (but Were Afraid to Ask)

I’ve done a lot of verbal explaining of agent based modeling and its power and potential over the last several months. And after a very interesting and productive meeting with Dr. Tanja Srebotnjak, formerly of Ecologic Institute and now the inaugural Hixon Professor for Sustainable Environmental Design at Harvey Mudd, I decided to put together a summary of my thinking on agent based modeling combined with a list of relevant sources. I’ve discovered a lot of good work, and my own thinking has substantially evolved since my first post on the subject in July of last year.

To start at the beginning I’d like to briefly address modeling more generally in science because the word is associated with very complex exercises by very smart and technical people which spit out results that are all but incomprehensible to most of us without abundant interpretation. Climate models (which often have agent based components) are one example, as are macroeconomic and trade models, and simulations of biological and ecological systems.

We should not, however, get too intimidated. At the end of the day, a model airplane, be it made out of paper or plastic, is just as much a model as the others. It may be used as a toy, but if it is useful for answering scientific questions then it’s a scientific model. None of us have problems understanding the basic thinking behind building a physical model and placing it in a wind tunnel for various tests. The model is not the real thing, it may be of smaller scale, be built out of different materials, lack certain internal components, but as long as it captures the features of interest, it is perfectly adequate. In the case of an airplane or car in a wind tunnel, it is adequate for various scientific tests to inform an engineering process.

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