Robust Decision Making

Achieving Tomorrow’s Goals Across an Uncertain Future

How might different short-term actions affect long-term outcomes? With sufficient knowledge and having unknowns well-characterized by probabilities, such decisions over choices are amenable to the tools of analysis. But when information is sparse or unavailable and probability estimates unreliable, these tools may be inoperable or their results misleading. We are then left to weigh alternative stories: “What if..? Suppose that..? Could this..?”. Instead of the rich tool kit of analytical methods for deductive reasoning, what remains are competing, unsystematic narratives.

The individual ability to reason over “What if...?” stories becomes even more challenging when a group (or assembly of groups) tries to reason collectively through complex and uncertain futures. Business and government processes become overburdened when confronted by an environment not imagined by their framers.

Robust Decision Making (RDM) is a method designed to supply the missing machinery for systematic, shareable reasoning and decision making under conditions of deep uncertainty (DMDU). RDM’s rigor comes from using the same models already being used to conduct more traditional analysis. The difference lies in the use of those models. Rather than seeking to enhance the ability to be predictive – unlikely to prove successful under deep uncertainty – RDM supports the systematic construction, testing and selection of short-term actions that will be consistent with long-term goals over many alternative futures. (That is, rather than decisions optimized for planning assumptions that may not anticipate how the future actually unfolds, robust decisions will achieve set threshold for indicators of satisfactory outcomes across a wide range of plausible futures.)

A Primer on RDM

Robust Decision Making (RDM) is a widely used approach for Decisionmaking Under Deep Uncertainty (DMDU). Originally developed at the RAND Corporation, RDM asks “How can we make good decisions without first needing to make predictions?”

RDM focuses stakeholders’ attention on the characteristics of their policy options rather than on predictions of the future. Through an iterative process, stakeholder deliberation informs the kinds of analysis that are needed to answer key questions about the policy problem, and the analysis provides information over which stakeholders deliberate.

The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River on the border of Arizona and Nevada, photo by stryjek / Adobe Stock

As part of the online tool Water Planning for the Uncertain Future, the authors developed an overview of RDM that explains this process.

Read the overview »

Developing RDM Methods

RAND has played a leading role in the development of Robust Decision Making, beginning with early research on exploratory modeling, to the first report-length description and application of Robust Decision Making, and subsequent academic journal articles formalizing the method, explaining how it can be applied, and describing key techniques. Below are more recent RAND publications on RDM methods.

  • Business decision making concept, photo by mantinov/AdobeStock

    Engaging Multiple Worldviews With Quantitative Decision Support

    Many of today's pressing policy challenges—such as climate change and inequality—are characterized as wicked problems. How might decision making under deep uncertainty be used to demonstrate methods that may help resolve the tension between differing approaches for addressing these problems?

  • A Norwegian Army Leopard 2A4 main battle tank during the NATO exercise Trident Juncture in Norway, 2018, photo by Ole-Sverre Haugli/Norwegian Armed Forces

    Robust Decision Making and Scenario Discovery in the Absence of Formal Models

    RDM was intended for use with formal models. This paper shows a model-less RDM application to a portfolio planning problem — selecting U.S. Army security cooperation activities with a partner country — seeking to achieve several objectives.

  • Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty: From Theory to Practice

    This open-access book provides an overview of the different approaches to Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty (DMDU) and their applications to a range of policy areas.

  • Chaos concept, too many choices

    Robust Decision Making

    Decisionmakers often seek predictions about the future to inform policy choices. But a reliance upon analytic methods that require them can prove counter-productive and sometimes dangerous in a fast-changing, complex world. Chapter 2 of Decision Making under Deep Uncertainty: From Theory to Practice describes Robust Decision Making.

  • parched desert landscape

    New Methods to Implement Multi-Attribute RDM

    Many objective robust decision making (MORDM) combines concepts and methods from many objective evolutionary optimization and robust decision making (RDM), along with extensive use of interactive visual analytics, to facilitate the management of complex environmental systems.

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    Using Scenario Elicitation Methodology to Map Possible Future Challenges to Mitigation and Adaptation

    A new set of scenarios, referred to as Shared Socio-economic Pathways (SSPs), examines challenges to mitigation and challenges to adaptation. Developing SSPs with a "backwards" approach could help inform the development of SSPs to ensure the storylines focus on the driving forces most relevant to distinguishing between the SSPs.

  • train track switch

    Robust Decision Making Aids Planning Under Deep Uncertainty

    Quantitative analysis is often indispensable to sound planning, but with deep uncertainty, predictions can lead decisionmakers astray. Robust Decision Making supports good decisions without predictions by testing plans against many futures.

Applying RDM to Policy and Decisionmaking

The RAND Center for Decision Making under Uncertainty not only works to develop RDM as a methodology, we also apply it to a wide range of disciplines and problems.

Jump to: Decarbonization and climate policy | Water resources planning and climate change adaptation | Coastal resilience planning | Climate risk management and global sustainability | Energy planning | Insurance, finance, and fiscal issues | Stormwater management | Transportation

Decarbonization and Climate Policy

  • The hydroelectric dam Cachi in Ujarras de Cartago, 60 miles of San Jose, Costa Rica, May 25, 2007, photo by Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters

    The Benefits and Costs of Decarbonizing Costa Rica's Economy

    Costa Rica set the ambitious goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. An evaluation of the benefits and costs of its National Decarbonization Plan, conducted using Robust Decision Making methods, finds that under most plausible assumptions about the future, the plan would achieve or nearly achieve its goals and do so at a net economic benefit.

  • An aerial view of the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona. Photo by Jupiterimages / Getty Imges

    Robust Decision Making: Application to Water Planning and Climate Policy

    Long-term water planning is increasingly challenging, and there are also large uncertainties faced by policymakers addressing global climate change. Methods for Decision Making under Deep Uncertainty (DMDU) can be useful for addressing long-term policy challenges.

Water Resources Planning and Climate Change Adaptation

  • The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River on the border of Arizona and Nevada, photo by stryjek / Adobe Stock

    Water Planning for the Uncertain Future

    Through case studies focusing on the Colorado River Basin, Sacramento–San Joaquin River Basin, Pecos River–New Mexico Basin, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and Monterrey, Mexico, this interactive tool provides information about decisionmaking under deep uncertainty (DMDU) methods—specifically, Robust Decision Making (RDM).

  • Developing a Robust Water Strategy for Monterrey, Mexico

    Mexico's third-largest metropolitan area, Monterrey, faces future water security challenges as the region grows. Using RAND's Robust Decision Making (RDM) framework, researchers analyzed long-term trends and vulnerabilities in water management and showed the city's water planning community how a robust, adaptive water management strategy can meet current and future needs.

  • An aerial view of the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona. Photo by Jupiterimages / Getty Imges

    Robust Decision Making: Application to Water Planning and Climate Policy

    Long-term water planning is increasingly challenging, and there are also large uncertainties faced by policymakers addressing global climate change. Methods for Decision Making under Deep Uncertainty (DMDU) can be useful for addressing long-term policy challenges.

  •  Baotu Spring in Jinan City, Shandong, China

    Evaluation of the Jinan City Water Ecological Development Implementation Plan

    Using Robust Decision Making methods, researchers evaluated potential effects of demand and climate uncertainties on investments recently undertaken by the Jinan Municipal Water Resources Bureau according to the Jinan City Water Ecological Development Implementation Plan, and assessed the potential of new investments and management strategies to help Jinan meet its long-term water resources goals.

  • An aerial view of Lima, Peru. Photo by antorti / Getty Images

    Preparing for Future Droughts in Lima, Peru

    A rapidly growing population and expanding city will likely increase demand for water in Lima, Peru. Using methods for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty, researchers explore uncertainty in near-term drought management conditions and identify drought management strategies robust to these uncertainties.

  • Commercial stores at the beach in Lima, Peru

    A Strategy for Implementing Lima's Long-Term Water Resources Master Plan

    How can water resource agencies make smart investments to ensure long-term water reliability when the future is fraught with deep climate and economic uncertainty? This study helped SEDAPAL, the water utility serving Lima, Peru, answer this question by drawing on methods for decision making under deep uncertainty such as RDM.

  • Evaluating Robust Water Management Strategies for the Colorado River Basin

    RAND worked with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado River Basin states to apply innovative robust decision methods to evaluate thousands of plausible futures on the Colorado River and develop and compare strategies to address future vulnerabilities.

Coastal Resilience Planning

  • Flood Damage Reduction Benefits and Costs in Louisiana's 2017 Coastal Master Plan

    Oct 23, 2019

    Louisiana's coastwide master plans include substantial investments in coastal restoration and hurricane flood risk reduction over 50 years. Modeling of different future scenarios showed implementing the plans could yield net economic benefit for coastal Louisiana in many plausible future scenarios.

  • Aerial view of Miami, Florida

    Adapting to a Changing Climate in Southeast Florida

    Jun 6, 2018

    Florida's Miami-Dade and Broward counties are vulnerable to flooding and intrusion of saltwater into drinking water. These risks are driven by sea level rise, changes in precipitation, and urban development. How can the region adapt?

  • Aerial shot of coastal wetlands, Louisiana

    Updated Coastal Master Plan Relies on Robust Decision Making

    Jun 2, 2017

    RAND has been a key partner in helping the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) develop its long-term Coastal Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. The 2017 state master plan provides a 50-year blueprint for coastal restoration and flood risk reduction projects coastwide.

  • The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West Closure Complex in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, August 25, 2015

    Exploring Funding Allocations to Best Support Louisiana's Flood Risk and Resilience

    Mar 1, 2016

    States that have recently experienced a presidentially declared major disaster can apply for funds through the Natural Disaster Resilience Competition. For Louisiana's application, RAND provided a quantitative analysis of baseline flood risks under different amounts of investment in three parishes.

  • Vietnamese woman paddling a boat

    Ensuring Robust Flood Risk Management in Vietnam

    Aug 16, 2013

    Ho Chi Minh City faces significant and growing flood risk. Recent risk reduction efforts may not work if climate and socio-economic conditions diverge from earlier projections. Robust decision making can help Vietnam's largest city develop integrated flood risk management strategies despite this uncertainty.

  • Louisiana coast

    Adapting to Climate Change on the Coast: Lessons from Louisiana for Federal Policy

    Jan 23, 2013

    In this January 2013 Congressional Briefing, Jordan Fischbach discusses how RAND helped Louisiana develop its 2012 Coastal Master Plan and key lessons that can make other communities more resilient in the face of natural disasters.

  • Houses are partially submerged in flood waters after a Hurricane Isaac levee breach in Braithwaite, Louisiana August 31, 2012

    Bringing Sustainability to the Louisiana Coast

    Jun 5, 2012

    Policy Researcher David Groves describes RAND's role in helping to develop a plan to guide Louisiana's coastal investments, help its coastal citizens plan for the future, and create a sustainable coast.

  • Flooded I-10/I-610/West End Blvd interchange and surrounding area of northwest New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana

    Reducing New Orleans Storm-Surge Flood Risk in an Uncertain Future

    Sep 10, 2012

    Preparing for natural disasters is a long, multi-faceted process that requires years of planning, coordination, and direct action. RAND has developed a new approach for assessing hurricane flood risk in New Orleans under uncertainty and evaluating city-wide approaches for reducing this risk.

Climate Risk Management and Global Sustainability

  • Women and children collecting water from the unimproved water source of Asengo Community. Asengo Community, Kisumu, Kenya

    Enhancing the Climate Resilience of Africa's Infrastructure

    Working with the World Bank, RAND researchers used robust decision methods to provide the first continent-wide evaluation of the potential effects of climate change on such investments. They also examined the potential impacts of climate change on five specific hydropower and irrigation projects.

  • houses destroyed by Hurricane Sandy

    Planning for Superstorms, Wildfires, and Deep Uncertainty

    The path to climate change preparedness should start at the intersection of resilience and robustness — that is, building resilient communities with the individuals and organizations within those communities making robust decisions, ones designed to work well over a wide range of ever-changing conditions.

Energy Planning

  • Aswan High Dam, photo by Cliff Hellis/Flickr

    Measuring Electricity Sector Resilience to Climate-Driven Changes in Hydropower Generation

    Hydropower is expected to play an essential role in improving electricity access in East Africa, but variations in water availability due to a changing climate could leave hydro infrastructure stranded or result in underutilization of available resources. Researchers developed a framework of long-term models for electricity supply and water systems management to assess the vulnerability of potential expansion plans to the effects of climate change.

  • Natural Gas and Israel's Energy Future

    Israel can make natural gas usage a bigger part of its energy portfolio without jeopardizing its security, but even more importantly, the nation needs to make conservation measures a priority in its future energy plans.

  • Florida,Tampa,USA,burner,catalyst,catalytic,chemical,chimney,complex,corporate,corporation,distill,ecology,kyoto,emission,energy,engine,environment,environmental,day,light,factory,fuel,fume,gas,gasoline,global,heavy,industrial,industry,landscape,manufacturing,metal,oil,petrochemical,petroleum,plant,supply,electricity,power,process,production,refinery,florida,tampa,site,sky,smog,smoke,station,steam,structure,technology,vapor,pollution,exhaust,toxic,climate,thermal,white,blue,Florida,Tampa,USA,burner,catalyst,catalytic,chemical,chimney,complex,corporate,corporation,distill,ecology,kyoto,emission,energy,engine,environment,environmental,day,light,factory,fuel,fume,gas,gasoline,global,heavy,industrial,industry,landscape,manufacturing,metal,oil,petrochemical,petroleum,plant,supply,electricity,power,process,production,refinery,florida,tampa,site,sky,smog,smoke,station,steam,structure,technology,vapor,pollution,exhaust,toxic,climate,thermal,white,blue

    Examining Analytic Tools to Evaluate Policies for Market Transformations

    Limiting climate change requires a transformation of energy and transportation systems. RAND researchers designed a policy simulation tool and supporting decision framework to examine how alternative designs of market-based policy instruments might or might not facilitate such transformations.

Insurance, Finance, and Fiscal Issues

  • Visitors to the 911 Memorial plaza peer through glass windows into the 911 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center site in New York

    Taxpayers, Policyholders Benefit from Terrorism Risk Insurance Program

    Taxpayers save money and businesses are better protected with the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) in place than if the act is allowed to expire. TRIA allows the insurance industry to play a larger role in compensating losses caused by smaller terrorist attacks by transferring some of the risk for the largest attack to the government.

  • A destroyed home in Moore, OK, where an F5 tornado struck on May 20, 2013

    Kenneth R. Feinberg Center for Catastrophic Risk Management and Compensation

    The RAND Kenneth R. Feinberg Center for Catastrophic Risk Management and Compensation seeks to identify and promote laws, programs, and institutions that reduce the adverse social and economic effects of catastrophes.

  • Water dripping from a faucet

    Better Water Decisions in the Age of Deep Uncertainty

    Water utility planning is ripe with uncertainty: Rainfall, economic factors, and regulations with regard to water utilities are constantly changing or unknown. Developing tools for better water decision making was one of the key topics at the 2016 Society for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty Workshop.

Stormwater Management

Transportation

  • Aerial view of Sacramento, Calif., photo by Ron Reiring/Flickr CC BY 2.0

    Meeting Climate, Mobility, and Equity Goals in Transportation Planning Under Wide-Ranging Scenarios

    Prediction-based approaches, the heart of current transportation planning practice, are inadequate for informing transportation decisions in today's rapidly changing conditions. Researchers show how could enhance current long-range planning by applying the approach to selected components of Sacramento Area Council of Government's regional transportation plan.

  • Culver City sign with lights at night, photo by albertc111/AdobeStock

    Implementing a New Mobility Vision in a Fast-Changing World

    Culver City's booming local economy contributes to significant traffic congestion. Its Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plan aims to reduce the reliance on cars by reshaping the urban landscape. An implementation plan for the Rancho Higuera neighborhood can help the city realize its TOD vision.

  • A self-driving Uber drives in Pittsburgh during a media preview

    Deploying Autonomous Vehicles Before They're Perfect Will Save More Lives

    Autonomous vehicles should only have to be moderately better than human drivers before being widely used in the United States, according to modeling using Robust Decision Making methods. This approach could save thousands of lives annually even before the technology is perfected.