Learning module 4: Tools & Methods

Learning module 4: Tools & Methods


Guiding questions:

  • Why do we need tools/models for anticipating and managing synergies and trade-offs?
  • What are examples of existing tools and models for assessing which synergies and trade-offs at different scales and levels?
  • Which tool to use for what & with whom & with what data?


The complexity of issues in agricultural and food systems necessitates the use of supporting tools and methods to inform stakeholders and policy makers, to design alternatives and to explore scenarios for the future. There are a large number of potentially usable approaches and techniques available to reveal trade-offs and synergies in a structured, reproducible way.

For more of an orientation click here where we discuss why models are used and examples are listed of models that could be employed to reveal trade-offs and synergies across different levels of food, land and water systems.


In this module we include various tools and methods that can be used in concert, such as systems analysis and simulation tools at different spatial levels (e.g. Rotat+, FarmDESIGN, LandscapeLAB), methods to gain systems understanding (e.g. Complexity Index, Resilience in SEPLS) and scenario building and evaluation tools (e.g. ProbFLO, Valuing Urban Change, decisionSupport). These tools all have quantitative components and should be embedded in a participatory process involving relevant actors to address the trade-offs, because decision-making when facing trade-offs is unavoidably dependent on the values and priorities of the actors involved. It is therefore crucial to determine which and whose values play a role in the design and application of tools and in the use of deliberative processes. Most tools and methods presented here are developed to be used by researchers. Keep in mind that this implies that a translation of the results will still be necessary to make them accessible and available for the proposed beneficiaries (farmers, policy makers, extension services).


To learn more about the tools and methods, click on the name of the tool in the graphic below. Listen to the interview to hear about how tools developed for one spatial level may in fact be useful to assess other levels. The Looking Ahead essay also offers additional thoughts on exploring how the results of development decision simulation models can be applied for supporting uncertain decisions in complex agricultural systems.




Xin Zhang and team developed a Sustainable Agriculture Matrix. Here she shares insights and lessons learned on the process and discusses the analysis findings around synergies and tradeoffs among indicators.

By Xin Zhang

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Looking ahead

Designing Decision Simulation Models With Trade Offs In Mind





By Cory Whitney and Eike Luedeling

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48. Sarah

Looking ahead

Meta-analysis as a powerful approach to identify trade-offs and synergies.



By Sarah Jones

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Questions for reflection


  1. Why would you use a data-driven tool/method to reveal trade-offs or synergies? Why not? 
  2. What are some of your experiences of how to effectively engage relevant stakeholders in the process of revealing synergies and tradeoffs?
  3. What do you consider important indicators for sustainability, but are difficult to measure? How could you still include these indicators in an assessment?


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