Discrete-element, individual-based and agent-based models: Tools for interdisciplinary enquiry in geography?

Mike Bithell, James Brasington, Keith S. Richards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (SciVal)


Discrete-element, individual-based and agent-based modelling techniques represent the interactions of individuals or entities with one another and their environments by sets of computational rules. These methods are now being used in geophysics, ecology, zoology, and increasingly in the social sciences. A characteristic is that the “agents” are embedded in an environment with which they interact, so that joint evolution of physical, ecological and socio-economic systems can be studied; this makes them of interest in integrated geographical investigation. Of particular interest is the fact that they allow the study of macro-scale emergent behaviour generated by multiple individual actions. Discrete techniques have the potential to create integrated models that cross disciplines. Similar computational methods can be employed to control the spatial search process, deal with irregular or changing boundaries, and to track the evolution of systems where preservation of heterogeneity across space and time is important. The complex series of feedbacks between the different types of system can thus be modelled within a single computational framework. Humans modelled in this way as “agents” can allow the collective effect of many interacting individuals to generate emergent structures at the community scale. The structural characteristics of their social and natural environments will influence their behaviour, while at the same time constituting emergent consequences of their actions. The principal challenge of the latter is to find those sets of rules that represent the beliefs and desires of real human agents, accurately reflecting the cultural context, while allowing us to explore the social and economic limitations of agents to take action. This paper reviews and illustrates discrete methods applicable to a range of geographical enquiries, and with particular reference to individual- and agent-based methods, assesses the rich diversity of approaches that must be combined to take full advantage of their potential to explore interactions of social and environmental processes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)652-642
Number of pages11
Issue number2
Early online date22 Dec 2006
Publication statusPublished - 01 Mar 2008


  • discrete-element model
  • individual based model
  • agent-based model
  • environment
  • society


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