Exploring the adaptive capacity of emergency management using agent-based modelling

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Professor Lin Padgham
RMIT University
Year Started: 

Executive summary from final reports

Adapting to the complex and sometimes uncertain effects of climate change is an issue of concern to a wide range of organisations tasked with developing various plans and responses (IPCC 2007). 

This project aimed to explore the suitability of Agent Based Modelling and Simulation (ABMS) technology in assisting planners and policy makers to better understand complex situations with multiple interacting aspects. The technology supports exploration of the impact of different factors on potential outcomes of a scenario, thus building understanding to inform decision making. To concretise this exploration a specific simulation tool was developed to explore response capacity around flash flooding in an inner Melbourne suburb, with a focus on sandbag depots as an option to be considered.

The project was delivered by an interdisciplinary team of computer science and social science researchers at RMIT University in collaboration with partners Victorian State Emergency Services (VicSES) and City of Port Phillip (CoPP).

The three types of activities delivered by this project to achieve its objectives were the development of an agent-based simulation, data collection to inform the development of the simulation and communication and engagement activities to progress the work. 

Project activities and outputs

The project resulted in outputs in the following three categories.


a) Computer simulation system developed 

This output is the actual decision support tool built by the project team. It simulates a flood event in Elwood and the potential to use sandbagging as response by community members.  

b) Prototype game

The development of a computer game played at the household level was not a contracted deliverable but added significant value to the project by way of engagement with stakeholders. They also see it as a valuable output for community education. The character in the game receives information of an approaching storm and must sandbag to save the house from flooding. 


a) Sandbagging

Analysis was done by running the simulation multiple times with various parameters, to achieve an understanding of the potential to protect property given varying warning times and numbers of depots. It became evident that in this situation, many depots would be required to service any significant sector of the Elwood population, without excessive waiting times. As resources are clearly not available to make this feasible, further analysis on location and management of depots was not warranted. 

b) Use of simulation technology

Potential usefulness of the technology was assessed by presenting the developed system to a stakeholder workshop in a hands-on session, and then exploring in discussion and by a questionnaire, their views on usefulness. Views of partner organisations also informed this analysis. The technology is seen as potentially very useful, both for policy and planning analysis, but also as a communication tool for use within the community. Some areas of further work were identified. The importance of interdisciplinary teams was also affirmed

Capacity building

a) Internal and external capacity 

The project resulted in building increased interdisciplinary capacity  within the project team as well as expanding the awareness of  end users regarding the possibilities of ABMS technology

b) Workshop

A workshop at the end of the project, for 34 people from 21 organisations showcased the work of the project and demonstrated the software to end users who gave positive and constructive feedback. 

c) Engagement and communication. 

Regular meetings with VicSES and CoPP,   including discussion and demonstration of ongoing work ensured the project end users were engaged throughout. Media materials including a 2 page flier, a short you-tube video, and scholarly peer reviewed publications also ensured dissemination to a broad audience.

Key Findings

Key findings resulting from the project are: 

ABMS technology for policy and planning is potentially valuable and of interest to stakeholders.

Technical research and development work is required in order to provide a framework that will support the desired level of interoperability and re-usability

There is a need to develop methodologies and tools to support the use of this technology

Interdisciplinary work is essential

In supporting the technology uptake it is important to provide funding for non-research development that impacts usability for stakeholders.

It is important to keep stakeholders engaged throughout the process so that they  contribute to all phases of the project

It is important to manage expectations by reminding users of the ‘decision support’ nature of this technology to deal with the risk that uses assume the tool provides definitive answers

Clear and consistent communication with stakeholders and well developed and tested communication materials are critical

Building strong cohesive teams is important for reaping benefits of using this type of technology

View the final report

Professor Lin Padgham is also Primary Investigator for the Emergency Management Project Agent based simulation framework for improved understanding and enhancement of community and organisational resilience to extreme events.  

Visit the RMIT project pages for additional materials.