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How Did En-ROADS Get 755,000 users? Lessons on Modeling, Interface Design, and Facilitation

How Did En-ROADS Get 755,000 users? Lessons on Modeling, Interface Design, and Facilitation

Achieving widespread engagement is a significant challenge with a System Dynamics model. Yet, En-ROADS, the climate solutions simulator co-developed by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan, has captivated hundreds of thousands of users globally. In this webinar led by Andrew Jones, John Sterman, and Florian Kapmeier, the team shared how their commitment to System Dynamics modeling principles, innovative interface design, and thoughtful facilitation created a global movement. The lessons learned are relevant for all System Dynamics modelers seeking to make a greater impact in their fields.

1. Modeling: Build Trust and Ensure Accuracy

“You have to have a rigorous, evidence-based model that is fully documented and tested every which way.” John Sterman

En-ROADS’ impact is built on a robust modeling foundation that adheres to rigorous standards of transparency and continuous testing. John Sterman underscores the importance of rigorous validation: “You have to have a rigorous, evidence-based model that is fully documented and tested every which way,” he states, highlighting the necessity for clear, accessible documentation that allows users to understand and trust the model’s operations.

The En-ROADS team enhances model reliability by calibrating past model behavior against historical data (by, e.g. Lazard, the IEA, etc.) and comparing future model behavior against the behavior of climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), identifying discrepancies not only to prove correctness, but also to pinpoint areas needing improvement. Andrew Jones elaborates on this process: “We compare the model against historical data to understand where the discrepancies are and how we can improve. It’s not about proving the model’s correctness but about identifying areas for growth and improvement.”

For System Dynamics modelers looking to build confidence in the model, these practices are essential. Providing full transparency through comprehensive documentation and continuously validating models against industry benchmarks are crucial steps in establishing credibility. By adhering to these principles, modelers can ensure their models are technically robust and able to support decision-making.

2. Interface Design: Guide Users to Key Insights

“We designed the interface to lead a user to discover our modelers’ top insights without support.” Andrew Jones

En-ROADS’ interface is designed to ensure users reach key insights intuitively. Andrew emphasized the goal: “We designed the interface to lead a user to discover our modelers’ top insights without support.” The interface offers both a beginner mode for quick understanding and an advanced mode for users with more technical skills, providing detailed charts and additional assumptions. Dynamic visuals and animations transform static data into a narrative, making complex concepts accessible and engaging.

Within a few minutes exploring the En-ROADS interface, new users quickly grasp three critical insights:

  1.  “It’s still possible” – to bend the emissions curve and reduce average temperature increase.
  2. “There’s no silver bullet”, highlighting that no single solution can solve the climate crisis.
  3.  “Many solutions together”, emphasizing that combining multiple climate solutions is necessary to mitigate the climate crisis.

An interface designed around key insights helps users understand complexity. The ease of engaging with a new innovation—trialability—is crucial for initial adoption and fostering word of mouth. Yet, negative experiences can lead to adverse feedback, potentially stifling the adoption and diffusion of the model. Sterman emphasized: “if people try something and have a bad experience, they will generate unfavorable word of mouth that can squelch the adoption and diffusion of your model.”

John Sterman emphasizes the consequences of neglecting interface quality: “Suppose you have the world’s greatest model, but a terrible interface. Nobody learns anything, nothing will change, and you and everyone have wasted precious time and resources. That’s a failure mode.”  But he warns, “The opposite, though, is far more dangerous: a great interface with an underlying model that lacks integrity and hasn’t been carefully tested means you’re helping people learn things that are wrong and possibly downright harmful far more effectively than ever before.”

By focusing on intuitive design and rigorous validation, En-ROADS ensures that the simulation is insightful and reliable for understanding possible climate solutions. This strategy serves as a reference for those aiming at making their models both informative and influential. As a System Dynamics Modeler, which 2-3 key takeaways would you like users to learn from your model?

3. Facilitation: Create a Safe Space for Learning

Make sure that you create a safe room where participants can share and challenge their mental models to allow them to engage deeply and learn together.” – Florian Kapmeier

Facilitation is critical to En-ROADS’ global impact. Through experiences like the interactive En-ROADS Climate Workshop and the roleplaying game Climate Action Simulation Game, Climate Interactive effectively conveys the insights of the model by fostering environments that encourage deep learning and reflection. Florian Kapmeier emphasized the importance of these settings: “Make sure that you create a safe room where participants can share and challenge their mental models to allow them to engage deeply and learn together.” This approach allows participants to openly test their assumptions and understand the underlying dynamics of climate change.

Florian, referred to Andrew’s Top 10 Tips to Engage People with a System Dynamics Model,  highlighting one key aspect: By asking participants  to mentally the likely impact of a climate solution on the temperature before running a scenario in En-ROADS, participants reveal their existing mental models and learn more effectively by comparing their understanding with model results. “Learning happens when the theory of thinking is laid out and people have to make a choice.”

The commitment to creating a secure and open space for dialogue is foundational to the success of the engagements with En-ROADS. This facilitation strategy enhances the participants’ ability to understand complex concepts, and encourages them to apply these insights in practical and impactful ways. By ensuring that each session serves as a safe space for exploration and challenge, Climate Interactive fosters an environment where transformative learning and genuine understanding can occur.

Climate Action Simulation for IKEA, Australia

Community & Policy Engagement

Community building has been fundamental to extend En-ROADS’ reach globally. Thousands have completed the Mastering En-ROADS training program, which empowers facilitators to engage diverse audiences. The En-ROADS Climate Ambassador program further nurtures hundreds of facilitators who provide En-ROADS Workshops and Climate Action Simulations worldwide, ensuring a unified network of like-minded advocates. This well-structured support system ensures that these facilitators are equipped to spread their knowledge effectively, fostering a collaborative and impactful community.

In addition to training and support, Climate Interactive’s team emphasized the importance of engaging with policy makers, adapting communication to meet where they are in terms of climate change understanding. Presenting complex model data in an accessible manner is crucial for meaningful engagement. This strategy ensures that decision-makers receive information and are equipped to act on it.

The Power of System Dynamics

“System Dynamics is the most powerful way to engage other people in ways to improve system performance.” – John Sterman

The success of En-ROADS hinges on a commitment to the core principles of System Dynamics, paired with innovative interface design and effective facilitation strategies. This approach has educated a global audience on climate solutions and empowered them to act. John Sterman, reflecting on the broader implications, asserts, “System dynamics is the most powerful way to engage other people in ways to improve system performance”, underscoring the potential of System Dynamics to facilitate meaningful discussions and drive change across various domains.

Sterman reminded the audience that the discipline’s strength lies in its ability to convey complexity in a way that decision-makers can understand and act upon: “System Dynamics modelers need to invite people into the conversation, to join the collective effort and improve system performance together.” This collaborative spirit is reflected in the global network of facilitators, policymakers, and climate advocates brought together by En-ROADS.

As System Dynamics modelers, the challenge is to not only build robust models but also to design engaging interfaces, facilitate participatory workshops, and nurture a community of like-minded advocates. By doing so, modelers can extend their influence beyond their field and create meaningful change in the world.

Watch the recording below

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Top 10 Tips to Engage People with a System Dynamics Model

Top 10 Tips to Engage People with a System Dynamics Model

Andrew P. Jones is Co-Founder and Co-Director of Climate Interactive and a Research Affiliate at MIT Sloan. Andrew is an expert on climate change and energy issues, a prominent System Dynamics modeler, and a keynote speaker.

In his webinar with System Dynamics Society, Jones presented his 10+1 tips to engage people with a System Dynamics model. Here’s a summary of the tips, but you can watch the recording below for all details!

All Seminar Series are free for members of the Society. Join us today and unlock all benefits!

1. Make it a challenging adventure on their terms in your virtual world
Make your model playful to entice curiosity about what it tests. This is a virtual world where people will experience something new. The challenging adventure or game is what we do mostly with the interface of the model. If you open the En-ROADS interface, you will see two main graphs, the main output, and several sliders. When playing with the sliders, your changes will be reflected in the graphs. Avoid telling people: “I’m going to show you how to do this”, instead, try saying: “On your terms, you’re going to have to figure out how to get that graph down to your target line”

“We do NOT model systems. We model problems.

2. Focus on mental models you want to improve
We do NOT model systems. We model problems. In System Dynamics, we define a problem as a behavior over time, a reference mode that we’re curious about why does it behave like that. We’re so curious about the problem that we develop a simulation to understand it. We build interfaces to improve the mental models of the stakeholders or clients. System Dynamics modelers know that mostly the mental models of decision-makers don’t match with the real world and how the actual system behaves. We don’t build interfaces to give access to policy levers in the system, but we are trying to leverage the necessary mental model improvements.

3. Make participants mentally simulate before running a scenario
If people don’t have a theory, they don’t notice the mental model they use to forecast what’s going to happen. Then they don’t get to learn and improve their understanding. Therefore, you must encourage people to anticipate, based on their own theories, what’s going to happen when running a scenario. No theory, no learning.” (Edward Deming)

“Tell people what to look at, let them guess what they are going to see, and then make it exciting like a movie”

4. Create a dynamic visual experience
Humans like to see change and it is important to employ this fact to get people to run and look at your graphs without losing their focus. Make people think and anticipate and then direct their eyes to what you want them to notice. If you do this well, you don’t even need to draw a Causal Loop Diagram because they are drawing it in their heads. Tell people what to look at, let them guess what they are going to see, and then make it exciting like a movie.

5. Set up participants to talk with each other
People learn socially and with hot-button issues like climate change, they need to know that their friends are not going to hate them if they change their minds. You need people to be processing the information collectively and socially with others. When presenting your model, stop frequently and advise: “Turn to the person next to you and discuss what you think of that conclusion”.

“Keep the discussion on improving system performance not on the tool you’re using”

6. Know along the way that you are playing at least seven roles

Try to present your model with the help of, at least, another person. Ideally, you need someone to facilitate the discussion while another runs the model. As a facilitator, you will be playing four roles including:

Coach – Helping participants to extract insights out of the model.
Professor – Teaching the audience theories and sharing factual information
Playwright – Creating an emotional journey of ups and downs.
Fellow Traveler – Being authentic, vulnerable, and just another person trying to solve a complex problem. If it is worth making a model about, it’s very important. If it is very important, you must deeply care about it.

You want the conversation to be around how to solve a complex problem together and what your audience is going to do about it. Keep the discussion on improving system performance not on “oh that’s a cool model how did you make that”. That’s all side information.

You want to minimize your roles in:
Tech – you must keep the conversation on improving the system performance, not the way or tool you have used to develop the model or create the graphs
Advocate – when people disagree with you, your job is not to fight them or disagree with them back, but to set up others to find the voice of your work.
Defender – Don’t get involved in the fight of “YOU HAVE A BAD MODEL!”. Avoid this fight as much as you can.

Read the article “Teamwork in Group Model Building” on the System Dynamics Review for more insights on strategies for efficient and effective model building in groups.

7. Build confidence and share testing as needed

You can share your tests and comparisons to other models and/or predictions to build stronger confidence. For instance, Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan built the En-ROADS with the best science available, using the data sources such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and International Energy Agency. All the assumptions are available open-source in the 400-page reference guide. Many of the assumptions that someone might not believe in are changeable within the model. Several models do not have good literature of other scenarios to compare against, while En-ROADS can be compared with six integrated assessment models to build confidence.

8. Use loops and stock/flow diagrams only to illuminate
As you help people improve their intuition, sometimes you need to use loops and stock/flow diagrams, especially if you are presenting to a more technical audience but always connect it to the simulator. Avoid showing this to policymakers, they are usually not interested in the loops, instead, tell a story about reinforcing or balancing feedback.

9. Make space for feelings and processing

Deliver your presentation with excitement and intensity, but you need to slam on the brakes and let participants compromise with their feelings and do the necessary processing. You may create a scenario of success, and they get to create their vision, something that they would love to see. And it’s time to slam on the brakes and may invite them to 60 seconds of silence. Yes! It is weird but imagine 60 seconds of silence of people sitting with a scenario of success.

“Create the conditions where people are open to changing their minds”

10. Pay attention to three legs of the learning stool
Reflective Conversation – Create the conditions where people are open to changing their minds, surfacing and testing assumptions, and talking to their peers about improving their assumptions. You’ve got to make the space where people are open to being wrong and thinking differently.

Vision – Help people see a future that they fall in love with they just want it so badly that they see the gap between the vision they want and the reality that they feel and experience that tension in between. Orient towards what one genuinely cares about.

Systems Thinking – Explaining how a complex system works where time, cause, and effect are distant in time and space can be difficult, especially when you include stocks, flows, feedback loops, and other inner relationships. You can learn how to facilitate a training that uses systems thinking and System Dynamics for free with Climate Interactive learning resources

10 + 1. Give them the simulator

People need your help as a facilitator, but you must give them something to play with that naturally gives them the mental model improvements that you want and guides them towards committing themselves to action to improve system performance. As Buckminster Fuller states “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

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