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Multi-criteria assessment (MCA) is a decision-making approach used to evaluate problems when one is faced with a number of different alternatives and expectations and wants to find the best solutions with regard to different and often conflicting objectives. The ability of MCA to deal with complex and unstructured decision problems in the sphere of environmental and natural resource management, which involve a number of conflicting ecological, environmental, societal and economic objectives, multiple interests groups and different languages of valuation is widely acknowledged.
MCA constitutes both a framework for structuring decision problems, as well as a set of methods to generate preferences among alternatives. MCA has the potential to take into account conflicting, multidimensional, incommensurable and uncertain effects of decisions explicitly enabling it to focus more on the ―decision process‖ itself, and not on a final result (Munda, 2008).
A multi-criteria problem is characterized by the presence of a finite set of alternatives (for instance alternative corridors for a railway or different design options for a regional transportation system) and the existence of different (and often conflicting) evaluation criteria under which we evaluate each alternative (e.g. impacts on land use, travel costs, people affected – see http://www.ceecec.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/TAV-matrix.JPG for an example of alternatives and criterion in the context of the CEECEC case study on TAV). The MCA problem may then be represented in the form of a matrix (alternatives x criteria) depicting the evaluation of each alternative regarding to each criterion.
Supposing that it is possible to evaluate each alternative in relation to each criterion, we can obtain a weak ordering of the alternatives for each criterion, ranging from best to worst. The multi-criteria decision problem consists of ranking the alternatives according to an ordering that is a legitimate synthesis of the criteria. Generally, there is no solution optimizing all criteria at the same time and compromises have to be found. A wide set of multi-criteria methods have been developed for this purpose. These methods have particular features regarding information requirements, criteria assessment, modeling of preferences and decision rules.
MCA in a participatory context
Multicriteria methods may provide a powerful framework for policy analysis in the context of sustainability problems, since they can accomplish the goals of being inter- or multi-disciplinary (accounting for the multiple dimensions present), participatory (open to all stakeholders), and transparent (Munda, 2008). Stakeholder participation may be included in the overall structure of the MCA process: alternatives and criteria generation, evaluation of alternatives and discussion of results (Antunes et al., 2006).
The subjectivity of MCA, common to every evaluation process, should be treated with caution. One possible way of dealing with subjectivity is to design participatory MCA processes where criteria selection, weighting and aggregation steps are performed with the input of a broader group of actors, in order to account for different interests and values (De Marchi et al., 2000; Munda, 2008) or combining MCA with participatory techniques (Antunes et al., 2006; Kallis et al., 2006). Each manner of conducting MCA is closely connected to participation, as a way to validate the overall structure and framing of the analysis. It should however be noted that participation is a necessary condition but may not be sufficient for reaching transparency and accountability.
Social Multi-Criteria Evaluation (SMCE)
A way of approaching the issue of participation in MCA is through the adoption of a Social Multi-criteria Evaluation (SMCE) framework, which defines the concept of evaluation as a mixture of representation, assessment and quality check connected with a given policy problem, based on a specified objective (Munda, 2008). SMCE aims to foster transparency, reflection and learning in MCA decision processes, simultaneously integrating political, socio-economic, as well as ecological, cultural and technological dimensions of the problem.
For the purpose of obtaining evaluation criteria, SMCE examines stakeholders‘ objectives and expectations, trying to avoid as much as possible a technocratic approach. As various dimensions are taken into account, the main goal is to find a balance between them, aiming at ―compromise solutions‖ (Munda, 1995). Weights in
SMCE are understood as importance coefficients and not as trade-offs. Aggregation conventions used are non-compensatory mathematical algorithms, meaning that criteria with smaller weights can be also influential, which excludes the complete compensability concept. Additional features are profound social actor analysis and conflict analysis (equity matrix for consensus seeking). NAIADE, the Novel Approach to Imprecise Assessment and Decision Environments is a discrete SMCE method developed by Munda (1995) that combines the use of mixed information types and conflict analysis. NAIADE produces a ranking of alternatives according to the set of evaluation criteria, and indications of the distance of the positions of the various interest groups and a ranking of the alternatives according to actors‘ impacts or preferences (Munda, 2008). Figure 1 illustrates the steps typically undertaken in a SMCE process, and descriptions of the application of SMCE frameworks to different sustainability problems are described in Munda, 2008; de Marchi et al. 2000;and Antunes et al. 2010.
- Antunes, P., Santos, R., Videira, N., 2006. Participatory decision making for sustainable development – the use of mediated modeling techniques, Land Use Policy, 23, 44-52.
- Antunes, P., Karadzic, V., Santos, R., Beça, P., Osann, A., 2010. Participatory multi-criteria analysis for the evaluation of irrigation management alternatives. The case of Caia irrigation area, Portugal, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability (submitted).
- De Marchi, B., Funtowicz, S., Cascio, S. L., Munda, G., 2000. Combining participative and institutional approaches with multicriteria evaluation. An empirical study for water issues in Troina, Sicily. Ecological Economics, 34, 267-282.
- Kallis, G., Videira, N., Antunes, P., Guimarães Pereira, A., Spash, C. Coccossis, H. Corral Quintana, S., del Moral, L., Hatzilacou, D., Lobo, G., Mexa, A., Paneque, P., Pedregal, B., Santos, R. (2006). Participatory Methods for Water Resources Planning and Governance. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy. 24, 215-234.
- Munda, G., 1995. Multicriteria evaluation in a fuzzy environment. Theory and applications in ecological economics. Physica-Verlag, Heidelberg.
- Munda, G., 2008. Social Multi-Criteria Evaluation for a Sustainable Economy, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg.