Models for Informed Decisions
By Murali Ramakrishnan Ananthakumar and Thirumalai N C.
Think tanks play a critical role in influencing policy discourses through evidence-based analysis and ideation. Since 2005, the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) has been working with various governments to address long-term issues in key areas such as energy, climate, and health. CSTEP has developed a wide range of computational tools using inter-disciplinary methods to assist governments in examining and improving the efficacy of policies, especially in the energy sector.
The tools may represent a case to design a policy (before implementation) or examine the intricacies of a policy (during implementation) or evaluate the benefits of a policy (after implementation). This approach provides a suite of solutions to decision makers at any stage of a policy-process cycle. The solutions help them prudently examine the fallouts of a policy before implementing it.
Models and Public Policy
Clear boundary definitions and robust modelling techniques are critical elements of a policy model. A policy model, when used ex ante to predict the efficacy of a policy, is employed to study policy options with specifics related to policy design. It is also used to identify synergies and conflicts between multiple policies. Models are also developed to evaluate a policy either using a summative approach (ex post, based on actual results) or a formative approach. It is imperative to note that one of the key goals is pre-empting iterations of the policy, that can be covered adequately in the modelling approach.
To develop a model that evaluates a policy ex post, a comparison of results after policy implementation against business-as-usual scenario is required. To execute this, we need real-time data relevant to any given policy upon implementation, which can be compared with business-as-usual data. This is often carried out in a policy scenario analysis with a futuristic timeline based on the year of interest. For instance, CSTEP’s work with the erstwhile planning commission and the NITI Aayog examined India’s energy security through a scenario-based model, which included policies in various sectors and their implications towards energy security. Additionally, ex post models are also used to study and test theory-based approaches towards policy evaluation (Theory of Change and Logic Mapping).
In general, there are alternatives to policy models. They primarily focus on computational models that run simulations to ascertain the role of a policy (with and without). Further comparisons between these results would eliminate the requirement of establishing real-world counterfactuals. Given the technological advancements, the application of computational tools in examining problems associated with societal well-being, as an area of interest, will expand multifold in the near future.
Tools Developed by CSTEP
At CSTEP, the computational tools sector develops models and tools for various areas such as energy, climate, and disaster management.
As depicted (Figure 1), this approach is employed for the design and development of any tool. At each stage, important aspects such as stakeholder needs, user-friendliness, and key decision metrics including system architecture for developing modular or re-useable programmes are taken into consideration.
Figure 1: Approach for Tool Development
CSTEP has developed a suite of tools (Figure 2).
CSTEM: CSTEP’s Solar Techno-Economic Model (CSTEM) provides a platform to perform techno-economic assessments of solar technologies in Indian conditions. Currently, both solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal technologies can be modelled for utility-scale, mini-grid, and rooftop systems (PV only). CSTEM is an open-access tool that facilitates decision-making for a wide range of audience, viz., investors, policymakers, and academia. It allows users to perform simulations based on the choice of inputs, viz., geographic locations, technology options, and costs. (Link: https://cstem.cstep.in/cstem/#/)
CREST: CSTEP’s Rooftop Evaluation for Solar Tool (CREST) is designed to help rooftop owners in Bengaluru evaluate the potential for deploying RTPV systems. The tool uses high-resolution light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data obtained from an aerial survey of Bengaluru. A rooftop system’s performance is vulnerable to the shadow cast on the PV panels by neighbouring buildings, trees, or other obstructions. This tool identifies the ideal spots on rooftops for positioning RTPV systems after eliminating highly shaded locations. The tool, blended with financial analysis and current policy incentives, enables users to decide on RTPV installations. (Link: https://crest.cstep.in)
RE Atlas: The Renewable Energy (RE) Atlas is a user-interactive application that analyses the RE potential in India based on vital parameters such as land availability (wasteland, fallow land, etc.), solar and wind resources, water, roadways transmission system infrastructure, and technology options. It features multi-criteria analyses to identify the best parcels based on the inputs provided by users. The unique feature of the system is that it deploys multiple screens to display detailed visual representations of decisions, policies, and their impact. (Link: http://darpan.cstep.in/reatlas/). A snapshot showcasing these tools is provided below.
SPOORTHI: This is a digital platform that the urban poor community in Bengaluru can actively interact with to improve their water, sanitation and health (WASH) infrastructure. It is a community-owned-and-managed spatial data system to improve urban governance responsiveness in urban poor communities. It is currently deployed as a pilot project in some of the slums in Bengaluru. The platform, through integrated apps, enables data collection, analyses local spatial data sets, and improves local governance via an increased representation of civic issues in urban poor areas.
SANITECH: Similar to RE Atlas, SANITECH is a decision-support tool to examine cost-effective and sustainable sanitation options for the urban poor. The tool deploys an integrated framework of the sanitation investment planning process for urban local bodies. It also houses information of existing and new technologies, while enabling users to compare options, assess costs/benefits, and make informed decisions.
Public policy and management problems are interdisciplinary. Computational tools can aid in simulating and visualising these problems and act as a dynamic platform to examine the societal impacts of alternative policy decisions. Some areas that interest us include:
a. Urban flooding: Estimating flood extent and impacts to device better infrastructure planning or proper evacuation and disaster management plans
b. Electric vehicle deployment: Developing a decision-support system for faster electric vehicle adoption in the public transportation sector or designing public charging infrastructure systems, etc.
c. Disaster management system: A platform for modelling and simulation for various phases of emergency management, viz., mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. This is an interactive system with a series of screens that enables users to see detailed representations of the consequences of behaviour, decisions, and policy to examine potential scenarios.
Today, computational tools can provide a realistic scenario of results to decision makers. This, at least in developed countries, has transformed policymaking, impacting businesses in a positive way. Regardless of the nature of clientele, tool development is riddled with systemic data challenges such as quality, availability, uncertainty, and validation issues. These need to be carefully addressed and articulated to stakeholders during various stages of development and testing. Albeit the challenges, computational tools are ideal for evaluating any given policy, which would otherwise require allocation of physical resources and suboptimal time.
Think tanks must utilise computational tools to inform policymakers with all plausible scenarios. This would also mean that active participation from all stakeholders is indispensable for designing an effective and efficient tool.
About Enrich Series: This article is the third in the Enrich series of blogs. The series acknowledges CSTEP’s belief that think tanks are more than research and is the coming together of multiple disciplines — science, policy, modelling, management and communication — all working on a single mandate: bring forth scientific evidence to improve policy to tackle developmental challenges. It looks behind the scenes at what happens at a think tank and the value of each link in the policy-analysis process.
The authors, Murali Ramakrishnan and Thirmalai NC are Consultant and Sector Head — Computational Tools and Project Management, respectively, at CSTEP.