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Decision Theater leads interactive “Be a Future Energy Policymaker” activity for GFL’s Earth Day Celebration

April 26, 2023

On April 21, 2023, the ASU community gathered at the Walton Center for Planetary Health to celebrate Earth Day. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs opened the event with an inspiring speech, after which Dr. Peter Schlosser facilitated a panel on Arizona’s water future, and Elizabeth Quigley moderated a panel titled “Students are Changemakers.” The event concluded with an interactive experience titled “Be a Future Energy Policymaker” led by Decision Theater’s Dr. Manfred Laubichler and Chelsea Dickson.

“Be a Future Policymaker” was a joint effort between the Decision Theater and the School of Complex Adaptive Systems, which will work closely together going forward.

The goal of the interactive experience, which centered on a 7-screen model about where to build solar power plants, was to highlight by way of example that Global Futures challenges are complex and benefit from new ways of integrating multiple systems. Complex challenges require interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral tools that can paint a more comprehensive data-based picture of the systems involved and provide a safe venue to experiment with potential solutions. All solutions involve trade-offs and unintended consequences. Decision Theater is able to make those impacts visible beforehand in a way that enables stakeholders to deliberate more effectively, negotiate trade-offs, and attempt to mitigate the downsides and unintended consequences of specific solutions.

During the Earth Day experience, participants first used their phones to answer some quick questions about solar power, including some Arizona facts and how well they thought they understood the implications of solar power plant location selection. Their answers appeared on large screens in visually appealing graphs or word clouds, which evolved in real time with each new answer from the audience. Next, Dr. Manfred Laubichler and Chelsea Dickson gave the participants a chance to vote for one of six locations for a solar power plant in Arizona. They then ran the top two selected locations through a Decision Theater model and discussed the options and their implications with the audience, showing the capabilities of the Decision Theater framework to serve as a decision-support tool for interdisciplinary problems.

DT Earth Day
Photo credit: Erik Johnston


Neither of the top two locations for the solar power plant that the audience selected were realistically ideal choices for various reasons. The exploration of them, however, opened a broader discussion with the audience about solar energy and the interdisciplinary complexities of building a solar power plant, even in one of the sunniest states in the US. Issues of land ownership, protected species, and power grid capacity were some of the key aspects participants had not considered before the event, according to their answers to one of the last questions. Responses at the end also confirmed that participants felt the tool fostered greater understanding of the complexities involved and would be of great assistance in actual deliberations on the topic.  The audience had many questions for the speakers and seemed generally excited about the capabilities of the Decision Theater at ASU, and how tools like the one shown could serve a great need in addressing the most urgent issues facing our earth.

As Chelsea framed it for the event, “The challenges facing our earth today are not simple. They are complex, with a lot of different interacting systems, perspectives, values, and objectives. Tools and services like the ones Decision Theater offers provide ways to approach them in data-based, inclusive, and productive ways - increasing understanding, empowering deliberations, and generating informed decisions.”


Special thanks to GFL’s event manager Michelle Oldfield and ASU systems support specialist Ronald Magadan who helped run all the technology at WCPH, as well as Decision Theater’s Keren Hirsch, Brandon Andrews, and Holly Smith who provided additional technological support during the event.