Modelling regional dynamics

Status: complete

Leader: Dr Mark Stafford Smith, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Alice Springs

Full title: Analytical and modelling methods for characterising regional community, economic and natural resource dynamics
Project 3.1.5

Summary | Background | Objectives | Contribution to CRC objectives, themes and projects | Approach and methods | Outcomes | Outputs | Project team


This project is a year-long scoping study that explores what questions and attributes might underpin a systems framework to help facilitate sustainable land-use decisions in regional and remote communities.

Such a framework would encompass economic, social, natural resource and institutional dimensions, and would facilitate an understanding of how the social and economic resilience of rural and remote communities and their capacity for change interacts with land use.

The study aims to establish whether it is possible to develop such a framework, and/or if the approach used is worth pursuing further.

Attributes to consider might include community size and relationships with other communities, demography, wealth, access to services, employment base, etc. This framework would use Australian Bureau of Statistics, Bureau of Resource Science, the National Land & Water Audit and similar datasets and existing R&D outputs as well as expert opinion of the working group members, to predict the capacity of a range of communities to respond to defined economic, social and environmental pressures.

These outcomes will require an as yet unknown consortium of researchers to make strategic co-investments in modelling capacity and infrastructure. Effective relationships with government agencies, regional communities and other clients will need to be established to ensure relevance.


Australia’s policy environment is changing as federal and state governments devolve responsibilities to regional communities for the management and administration of regional issues; specifically natural resource and development matters.

Regional communities, therefore, need to understand the fundamental requirements of regional systems—from natural resource, social and economic perspectives, and how those areas interact—to make effective decisions regarding sustainable development.

Communities in Australia’s tropical savannas are under siege from a variety of processes and circumstances, some of which are generic issues in regional Australia, but many of which are restricted to sparsely populated rangeland areas.

For example, throughout the savannas, primary industries have traditionally provided the major source of regional income and employment, but increasingly there is an explicit uncoupling of grazing, agriculture and mining from regional economies so that communities are becoming more dependent on welfare payments.

The existing infrastructure for understanding regional dynamics is predominantly Canberra-based and has relatively limited investment in the specifics of savanna regions.

In order to maximise the TS–CRC’s contributions in regional planning and management, a core capacity in regional analysis and modelling that encompasses economic, social, natural resource and institutional dimensions is required.

We need to develop a sustained capacity in state-of-the-art regional-scale systems analysis to support communities and decision makers in implementing ecologically sustainable regional development in the savannas.

None of the partners to the CRC currently have this capacity. Nor does it exist elsewhere in a form tailored to the needs of remote Australia. However, some of the partners to the CRC would be core contributors to its development.

A project is needed to reflect deeply on the approaches that could be taken to a systems analysis of savanna regions which goes beyond traditional sectoral models, whether economic input-output models, resource-driven limits models or demography driven paradigms, to a genuinely integrated systems view.


To undertake preliminary development of data analysis and modelling resources and infrastructure to:

  • support regional partnerships in exploring regional dynamics so as to prioritise regional strategies in terms of their likely ability to achieve the best possible outcomes with limited financial and human resources.
  • better equip government, R&D providers and other agencies to target appropriate investments in partnerships with different regional communities in planning for sustainable regional development.

These objectives will be achieved by:

  • developing partnerships between regional communities/decision makers and research providers to identify key gaps in the existing ability to analyse regional dynamics;
  • developing a consortium of research institutions and a team of researchers with the capability of developing a process and technology framework;
  • demonstrating opportunities through a focused set of activities designed to inform regional investments of Savanna CRC resources with a preliminary profile of regions across the CRC’s area of interest.

Contribution to CRC objectives, themes and projects

The project sits within Theme 3, and contributes to the broad CRC objectives Viable and socially desirable regions and productive and capable people. While the core project group is drawn from a single CRC partner, CSIRO, the main workshop will draw in others (particularly the University of Queensland, Qld Dept. Natural Resources & Mines and the NT Dept. Primary Industries & Fisheries), and make links to project such Project 3.2.1 Bioregional Planning. It is anticipated that any subsequent project phases would necessitate significant links across agencies.

Approach and Methods

A small coordinating team has been established with systems analysis skills. Once the slope and focus of core issues is refined, a general conceptual model—or alternative models of the system initially being debated—will be created. The team will then assemble some literature and ideas for a second larger workshop.

In this workshop additional experts will be assembled, bringing a diversity of sectoral and disciplinary expertise to bear. By the end of this workshop one or more integrated models of the critical pathways of regional functioning will have been developed and simplistically coded into a quantitative framework using VENSIM.

Systems analysts will further develop the simple models and collate appropriate regional socioeconomic, cultural and environmental information to act as inputs to the models. Accepting that many of the hypothesised processes will not be able to parametised, we will carry out an extensive sensitivity analysis of the significance of different processes in the models.

Once we have an understanding of this, we will perform another round of sensitivity analysis, this time aimed at the sensitivity of the outcomes to driving characteristics that differ between savanna regions. With innumerable caveats, this will provide a first attempt to prioritise research, monitoring and capacity building needs in regions of different types.

The final step will be to document these findings and formally identify

  1. whether the approach is worth pursuing; if so,
  2. what types of partners and who are needed for the pursuit, and
  3. what research is next most critically needed in terms of the most sensitive parts of the models.

Answers to these issues will form the basis for recommendations to the TS–CRC on how to proceed. Two ancillary products will be more of a discursive analysis of linkages in savanna regions, and a collation of a contextual data base of data going beyond the underlying resource data.


What contributions would successful completion of this project make to improved management in the savannas, with particular reference to the activities of institutions, groups and people collaborating in the TS–CRC?

Informed investment by the CRC in the development of an integrated, multi-agency modelling & analysis infrastructure clearly based on client needs

Investment in TS–CRC regional case studies informed by a preliminary analysis of the social, economic and environmental status and trajectories of all the regions in the Savannas.

As a result of 1) & 2), development of regional development and policy choices regarding resource use in the Savannas based on best available information and knowledge.


A report profiling the savanna regions in terms of their economic, social and natural resource status and trajectory, with conceptual and coded models of the process links between these factors.

A report assessing options for strategic R&D and infrastructure investment to build a state-of-the-art regional modelling capacity for the Savannas.

These outputs are available in a single report which can be downloaded as a PDF from the links below. It is also available in summary form.

Project team

Mark Stafford Smith, CSIRO SE
Romy Greiner, CSIRO SE
Dan Walker, CSIRO SE
Vanessa Chewings, CSIRO
Colin Mayocchi, CSIRO


Dr Mark Stafford Smith
Officer in Charge & Program Leader
Desert Knowledge CRC, Care CSIRO
Tel: 08 8950 7162

Fax: 08 8950 7187

PO Box 2111