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Integrated Assessment

This article gives a brief overview on the concept of integrated assessment approaches, describing procedures and working phases to be organized.

Introduction and definition

Integrated assessment is an interdisciplinary approach to assessment based on combining, interpreting and communicating knowledge from diverse scientific disciplines to policy in such a way that an entire cause–effect chain of a problem can be evaluated from a synoptic perspective. The main task of any assessment is to provide useful information to politicians and policy makers. Integrating a broader set of studies, approaches and points of view coming from different scientific areas interacting among each other provides more and better information on the issue assessed than single disciplinary studies added up.

Integrated assessment is used in integrated coastal zone management to assess policy issues under an holistic approach. Integration is achieved either in vertical or horizontal sense. Vertical assessment considers all aspects of a single policy issue (for instance coastal defence, or adaptation to climate change), aiming at the assessment of a comprehensive issue policy. Horizontal integration considers all aspects of one sector (a coastal area, an island, a region, or a system consisting of river basin and coastal area) aiming at an assessment of comprehensive sectorial or regional policies.


Integrated assessment can be based on mainly two different approaches to problem analysis, which are based on participative methods, or on modelling methods. According to the approach adopted, two slightly different three-stage procedures can be identified.

  1. As a first step, which is common to all approaches, the problem, generally dealing with rather complex systems, needs to be identified and structured.
  2. As second step, either participatory methods such as Delphi, or integrated modelling approaches are used for the analysis of the problem. In practice, stage 2 proposes two opposite ways, pure discussion and pure modelling, which can be combined or used in alternative manner.
  3. In the third step, again common to all approaches, the findings and insights are communicated to the relevant audience. This again involves extensive discussion between scientists, policy makers and stakeholders.


Problem structuring, the first step of the assessment process, is aimed at defining and framing the problem. This phase, the problem is to be clearly defined and well-structured, especially if its analysis is made by modelling approach. Although the problem in one sense is already known at the beginning of an integrated assessment process – assessment processes are activated by the need for information stemming from policy – the identification and framing of the problem represents an important step and implies considerable efforts from policy makers, scientists and stakeholders in defining and agreeing on what is actually the problem[1] and how it can be analysed, either choosing specific lay outs of integrated models or choosing disciplines, scientists and stakeholders to be involved.

Integrated analysis, as introduced before, can be pursued following two complementary approaches; participatory integrated assessment and integrated assessment modelling. The two approaches can be considered complementary as where one is strong the other is weak and vice versa.

Participatory integrated assessment (PIA) can be considered as a form of participatory policy analysis, which aims at supporting the policy process by designing and facilitating policy debate and argumentation. The introduction of participatory methods into the integrated environmental assessment community is of quite recent date, which has contributed to the misconception that participatory methodologies are less developed and matured than integrated assessment modelling[2]. As for any form of stakeholder participation, activities can be of different intensity and ask for different grades of involvement:

  1. Information/education. The primary function of stakeholder involvement is to make them aware of scientific findings and to explore the usability of the information offered.
  2. Consultation. Stakeholders are asked what they know about the problem and what should be done about it.
  3. The anticipation of future developments, often used in IEA. Forecasting and backcasting are methodologies that fit in with this approach.
  4. Mediation. Here, the question is: What do participants know about mutual values? What level of consensus can they reach?
  5. Co-ordination adresses questions such as: What interdisciplinary knowledge should participants generate? What is the relation with other policy issues or sectors?
  6. Co-production, relates to joint problem solving. The main question is: What shared responsibility can participants achieve?
  7. Learning. This kind of participatory activity enhances a change in core knowledge and attitudes. Participants are asked to explore new styles and strategies for policymaking [3][4].

Techniques used in participatory integrated assessment basically reflect two main approaches to participation that are labelled “cognitive approach” and “argumentative approach”. The cognitive approach aims in favouring interaction among scientist and between science and policy makers, using specific methods which favour creative thinking and consideration of new options. Methods used are either based on direct interaction (role games, cognitive maps, simulation exercises) or on indirect expert consultation methods like Delphi and backcasting. The argumentative approach aims at tackling the difficulties in understanding conflicting assumptions and underlying diverging viewpoints. This involves confrontation and integration of diverging viewpoints on the issue under exam, including confrontation on very basic assumptions in order to make underlying argumentative structures evident and improve the quality of debate.

The choice of stakeholders to be involved has to be made in relation to the character of the assessment, in order to achieve a representation of eventually conflicting views. Scientists to be involved will provide information, or will work on a critical evaluation of scientific knowledge across disciplines involved in expert panels.

The use of participative approaches to integrated assessment allows for analysis of different views and can initiate mutual learning processes, creating new insights for policy ad research agendas, and as any stakeholder involvement, is able to increase commitment to policy decisions and implementation. The mayor weakness of participatory approaches is – beyond obviously the time- and energy demanding organization of the process – the fact that outcomes depend on the points of view of stakeholders involved, and thus cannot be reproduced with a different composition of the stakeholder group, which may open some discussion on the consistency of results.

The alternative approach to participated assessment passes by the use of more formalized procedures as numeric modelling. Integrated assessment modelling (IAM) combines scientific theory and data from different scientific areas in a precise and rigorous way. Most frequently integrated assessment models consist of coupled disciplinary models communicating with each other exchanging input and output data (soft linked models) or use a common shell (hard linked models). Only rarely integrated models are implemented with a single computer code. Integration of models developed in a single disciplinary context encounters similar difficulties as dialogue between scientists, due to different basic assumptions, but also because of different temporal and spatial scales, data availability and quality.

  • Policy optimization vs policy evaluation. Integrated models can be classified according to their relationship to policy, either addressing the evaluation of proposed policy outcomes or giving advice on how to optimize proposed policies. In the first case, a precisely designed policy option has to be formulated in order to be evaluated, often from a natural science point of view, in the second case, the assessment gives a contribution to the design of policies, frequently using criteria from economic sciences.
  • Uncertainty: A second important distinction between different integrated models refers to the way uncertainty is treated. The first approach used in models is to try to exclude uncertainty representing the system as accurately as possible. This will result in very detailed and huge models. Nevertheless the resulting models are not necessarily as accurate ad needed, particularly not for complex environmental issues on large spatial and temporal scales. The alternative strategy explicitly takes into account uncertainty, trying to consider the range of possible future development in different courses of simulation. Obviously the amount of data increased by the consideration of different alternatives will go on expense of detail in the predictive capacity of the model.

Modelling approaches and participative approaches are no exclusive strategies but can be used in an integrated manner according to the necessities of the issue.

Communication of results from integrated assessment, in particular if modelling approaches have been involved, presents a further challenge, as communication between science and policy is often not straightforward, and expectations of politicians in terms of ready-to use solutions are confronted with an often abstract and theoretic nature in which scientific results are presented. If an indirect way of presentation of results is chosen, like for instance in the case the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dissemination of scientific results is indirect and results are filtered by comparison between scientific publications and framed into the requested policy format[5]. This strategy is obviously less suitable to situations where rapid information is required, but has the advantage of providing filtered and ready to use information.


  1. Tol, Vellinga (1998), The European Forum on Integrated Environmental Assessment, in: Environmental Modeling and Assessment 3(3
  2. Hisschemöller,Tol, et al. 2001; The Relevance of Participatory Approaches in Integrated Environmental Assessment.in: Integrated Assessment 2(2)
  3. Mayer, I. 1997, Debating Technologies. A Methodological Contribution to the Design and Evaluation of Participatory Policy Analysis (Tilburg University Press, Tilburg
  4. Hisschemöller, Tol, Vellinga, 2001, The Relevance of Participatory Approaches in Integrated Environmental Assessment, Integrated Assessment, 2,2, p. 57–72
  5. Tol, R. S. J. and P. Vellinga (1998). "The European Forum on Integrated Environmental Assessment." Environmental Modeling and Assessment 3(3)
The main authors of this article are Margaretha Breil and Francesca Ciampalini
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.