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Innovation Quarter Session Delivers an Exclusive Behind the Scenes Look at Decision Theater

December 29, 2020

Innovation Quarter provides the community with a special learning opportunity. ASU affiliates and the general public alike have access to a month of Zoom sessions that showcase the university’s dedication to innovation. Sessions take the form of either one-time seminars or courses occurring over several weeks. With nearly 200 activities in the catalog and topics ranging from walking tours to Python essentials to cookie decorating, there is something for everyone. Decision Theater (DT) hosted a session titled “Multidimensional Decision Making: Behind the Scenes at Decision Theater,” which offered participants a unique view at the inner workings of the DT project development process. The learning experience began with an overview of DT’s mission and a demonstration of two projects. This led into a thoughtful workshop activity and reflective discussion.

On the morning of December 8th, 2020, a dozen learners comprised of ASU students, researchers, and curious professionals joined the Decision Theater's virtual environment. Holly Smith, Coordinator for DT, introduced DT’s core purpose of enriching the decision-making process with analytics and predicative modeling. Attendees also became acquainted with the convergence framework that supports all DT’s projects. This framework emphasizes the merging of mapping the landscape of interrelated systems, iterative analysis and narrative development, and engagement and co-creation. Themes of DT’s central purpose and the convergence framework come together to create the informal motto, “We don’t make decisions, we make informed decision makers”.

The demonstration of two projects – Chief of Mission Security Training and WorldEDIT – illustrated Decision Theater’s mission and framework in action. The Chief of Mission Security­­ Training prepares future United States Ambassadors via an immersive game-based simulation. Keren Hirsch, Project Manager at DT, led the Innovation Quarter participants through one of five programmed diplomatic crisis scenarios. As the scenario unfolded, session participants voted on how to proceed at each decision point, with each decision triggering a different outcome in the overall simulation. The ambassador training program is a visually and emotionally gripping software tool. Trainees attempt to make the best decisions possible in high-pressure scenarios, based on the limited information available and their perceptions of future events. At the conclusion of each scenario, participants are presented with a summary of their decisions and how their choices impacted the final outcome. This provides a valuable opportunity to discuss and learn how to approach decisions differently in the future.

After one round of game play, DT’s User Experience Design Lead, Erzhena Soktoeva, demonstrated a different type of decision-support model: WorldEDIT (Earth Degradation Intervention Tool). Developed in partnership with Conservation International, the tool allows users to analyze the extent and type of land degradation a country is facing. Decision-makers are able to explore different policy interventions and their corresponding costs and benefits. As participants investigate an array of options, they compare solutions to make the most knowledgeable decision possible. Although the subject matter of the Chief of Mission Training and WorldEDIT projects differ greatly, both serve as catalysts for discussion among stakeholders. With an open mindset and the convergence framework established, the session transitioned into the workshop portion of the morning.

Decision Theater projects aim to organize chaos and fine-tune the definition of a shared complex problem. To illustrate the initial project creation process and facilitate thinking through complexity, attendees collaborated on a mind map. Mind mapping provides a visual structure for brainstorming by connecting numerous, diverse ideas with nodes and branches. The non-linear nature of mind mapping is more consistent with how ideas are naturally generated for complex problems. At the center of a map is the main idea/topic. The group voted between education and waste, with the latter narrowly winning.

Almost immediately, ideas about waste management and consequences bounced fervently between individuals in the group. The map quickly filled up with related categories and questions, such as “Why is waste an accepted concept, instead of a circular economy?” and “Who has the influence to change policy?”. The extensive final map (Fig. 1) exemplifies how countless paths and narratives exist for one complex issue. It was abundantly clear that the multiplicity of the group – with specialties ranging from global logistics and international health management to public interest technology and sustainability – worked seamlessly within the mind mapping structure and DT’s convergence framework. The collaboration explored waste in terms of stakeholder and individual level, available data, education, policy, environmental impacts and much more.


final mind map
Fig. 1: Final Mind Map


The conclusion of the initial mind mapping activity signaled that it was time for individual research. Participants dove deeper into questions or nodes on the mind map that resonated the most with them. During this fifteen-minute time period, the group independently researched and shared their findings in the Zoom chat. The discussion that followed demonstrated how multifaceted problems can be, and more importantly, how collaboration is the best approach for such complex topics. Concurrent individual research allowed for a wide range of information to be collected in a relatively short amount of time. Aside from efficiency, the varied backgrounds of the guests proved to be an added benefit of an interdisciplinary lens in this exercise.

The abundance of waste research nodes elucidated the importance of having a multiple-perspective mindset. This mindset is a principal concept in the convergence framework established in the first half of the session. Upon the initial introduction of the convergence framework, one attendee asked, “Are you able to connect pieces from individual projects together into a large interrelated system?” As guests reflected on their mind mapping experience, it was evident that this query was answered with a resounding ‘yes’. The mind map shows that when looking at an issue such as waste, many sectors are involved and often overlap. Had the session been longer, there is no doubt that more nodes would have been added. To prepare for an actual project initiation, additional questions about data collection and analysis would be included in the map. Identifying potential stakeholders would also help shape the story and objectives of the project. Each node can play into the narrative of a proposed project, exemplifying how so many paths can be pursued within the single issue of waste.

Follow-up responses indicated that participants found the session to be a positive learning experience, especially in regards to future personal and professional use of the Decision Theater approaches and tools.  One guest stated that they “…appreciated how you made it interactive, and showed us tools that I can use for my future research and jobs.” With the promising success of the first ‘Behind the Scenes’ session, Decision Theater looks forward to providing more learning experiences in the future.