Dr Sondoss El Sawah

PG Systems Engineering Program Coordinator & Associate Professor -Engineering Management
School of Engineering and Information Technology
Capability Systems Centre
+61 2 5114 5143

Most of the contemporary persistent issues that we (as individuals, organizations and societies) grapple with (e.g. climate change, risks to national security, resource degradation) are caused by our limited capacity to foresee the delayed and cumulative impacts (e.g. socio-economic, security, environmental) of our decisions and policies. To deal with these challenges, we need to liberate ourselves from conventional ways of thinking focused around narrowly defined sub-problems leading to short-term solutions and unintended consequences. Instead, we need to hone our abilities to see connections, develop big-pictures, and formulate systemic solutions. In other words, we need to become systems thinkers. Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary research field, concerned with drawing on multiple scientific areas (e.g. learning science, decision science, operations research) to support problem solving and decision making in situations featured by complexity, uncertainty, and plurality of views.

I have focused my research and teaching programs on advancing the science and practice of systems thinking, and especially its applications in public policy, engineering, and education. I have ventured on developing methods, tools, and applications to challenge and stretch the boundaries of conventional mental models beyond immediate and direct outcomes to understand the long-term and system-wide effects created by these mental models.

Research Impact

I have produced over 90 academic publications including articles in reputable journals, a diverse range of book chapters, conference papers, reports, blogs, and edited collections. My publications include journal articles recognized by the Web of Science to be high impact articles in computer science. My research has been recognized by 8 awards from national and international bodies, including the prestigious Research Award by the International Environmental Modelling and Software Society (2018). I am also the first female recipient of the Australian Operations Research Society Rising Star Award (2016). Both awards are devoted to recognize science talents and academic excellence.

Through a series of ARC and industry funded projects, I have led and worked in several projects that pursue high stake public policy issues, such as: climate change adaptation, risk assessment of the cumulative impacts of mining on ecological and social assets, sustainable management of Australia’s groundwater resource, and policy design with consideration of food-environment-water-energy nexus.

The policy impact of my research program has been recognized by the prestigious Peter Cullen Trust (PCT) fellowship award (outstanding fellow of the year; 2014). This fellowship recognizes leaders in science and policy who have an impact in bridging the science-policy gap.

Since I joined UNSW Canberra in 2014, I focused my attention on broadening the impact of my research program by extending the application of systems thinking to defence and asset management applications. Part of this focus is the transference of the research on systems thinking into practical and accessible tools that can be used to promote systems thinking in decision areas related to Australia’s future force design and securing the sustainability of our strategic assets. These efforts have led to the set up of the systems modelling program at the Capability Systems Center. As a part of my role as a deputy director of the Capability Systems Center, I coordinate and lead large scale industry funded research projects, and building research capabilities for systems thinking and modelling.

Recently, I have been a chief investigator on ARC Discovery Project on "Machine-education methodologies and algorithms for designing trusted multi-skilled evolutionary learners". This is an exciting project where I explore the novel interactions between AI, education, and systems thinking methodologies as a knowledge co-design framework.

I am also recognized for my strong collaborative projects in Australia and internationally. For example, I hold an honorary Associate Professor affiliation at the Australian National University. I am also an inaugural Associate of the ANU Institute for Water Futures. 

I have research peer esteem being ARC assessor for grant applications, as well as organising committee or invited/keynote speaker for a number of international conferences.

Education Impact

Promoting systems thinking is not only about the development of methods and tools, but more importantly about schooling our minds to see the world in a different way.  I strongly believe that equipping our students with these knowledge and skillsets is essential for building their capacity to deal with future challenges. Therefore, since I joined UNSW Canberra I have focused my teaching efforts on reinvigorating the education of systems thinking and modelling at UNSW. 

Because of its strong learning-orientated and inquiry-based nature, the field of systems thinking/modelling lies in the research-education nexus. I have focused some of my efforts into adopting a research-led approach for my teaching. For example, I have a successful research grant from the US National Science Foundation on identifying and codifying the core modelling practices to promote sharing of knowledge and experience for both research and education purposes. The grant has resulted in several publications that serve as educational material for both teachers and students.

I have worked on the design of a curriculum for systems thinking focused on leadership development and capacity building for decision makers in public policy. The learning objective of the curriculum is to provide practical methods and practices to help participants develop a holistic view on the problems they face in their organization, and recognize the role of their own perceptions and attitudes in creating delays and undesirable consequences.

These efforts resulted in peer-reviewed publications, (invited) conference presentations, and workshops. For example, in 2019, I was invited to teach in the leading European Summer School on decision making and policy design. The summer school, an EU initiative, brought together authorities in the area of decision analysis to create momentum around various decision support approaches. 

Outreach Activities

To augment my research and teaching efforts, I have worked on building a community of practice to promote systems thinking in the research and practice of public policy. This led to the creation of the IEEE Systems modelling conference in 2017, as an annual event to provide practitioners and researchers with forum to exchange knowledge and expertise around systems thinking applications.

Government agencies drew on my modelling experience several times. For example, I have contributed to a commissioned review of the current practices for employing models for decision support by the State Government in QLD. As a result of this effort, I have co-authored a report to the QLD State Government on the good modelling practices for guiding model-based decision-making (2018). I have been commissioned by the Department of Defence for delivering several professional educational courses on the use of systems models for problem solving and decision-making.

Research topics

  • Systems thinking and modelling
  • Development of multi-method modelling processes and methods
  • Pedagogy of systems and participatory modelling
  • Learning and decision making 
  • Complex socio-environmental-technical problems
  • Interaction between system thinking, modelling, and AI


Professional Services



Book Chapters

Alan M; El Sawah S, 2020, 'System Dynamics Modeling to Inform Defense Strategic Decision-Making', in Meyers RA (ed.), Encyclopedia of Complexity and Systems Science, Springer, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27737-5_657-1

Patrick MJ; Elsawah S; Burgher I; Jakeman AJ, 2016, 'Australian water security: A water-food-environment-energy nexus perspective', in Handbook on Water Security, pp. 232 - 358

El Sawah SA, 2016, 'Incorporating Human Aspects into Groundwater Research and Policy Making: A Soft and Critical Systems Thinking Approach', in Integrated Groundwater Management, pp. 619 - 637, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23576-9_24

Holley C; Jakeman A; Kelly (nee Letcher) R; Ticehurst J; Blakers R; Croke B; Curtis A; Fu B; El Sawah S; Gardner A; Guillame J; Hartley M; Hutchings P; Pannell D; Ross A; Sharp E; Sinclair D; Wilson A, 2013, 'Modelling for Managing the Complex Issue of Catchment-Scale Surface and Groundwater Allocation', in Obaidat MS; Filipe J; Kacprzyk J; Pina N (ed.), Simulation and Modeling Methodologies, Technologies and Applications, Springer Science & Business Media, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-03581-9_2

Journal articles

Hossain MA; Chakrabortty R; El Sawah SA; Ryan M, 2021, 'Very Short-term Forecasting of Wind Power Generation using Hybrid Deep Learning Model', Journal of Cleaner Production

Iwanaga T; Wang HH; Hamilton SH; Grimm V; Koralewski TE; Salado A; Elsawah S; Razavi S; Yang J; Glynn P; Badham J; Voinov A; Chen M; Grant WE; Peterson TR; Frank K; Shenk G; Barton CM; Jakeman AJ; Little JC, 2021, 'Socio-technical scales in socio-environmental modeling: Managing a system-of-systems modeling approach', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 135, pp. 104885 - 104885, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2020.104885

Turan HH; Atmis M; Kosanoglu F; Elsawah S; Ryan MJ, 2020, 'A risk-averse simulation-based approach for a joint optimization of workforce capacity, spare part stocks and scheduling priorities in maintenance planning', Reliability Engineering and System Safety, vol. 204, pp. 107199 - 107199, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ress.2020.107199

Hussein A; Elsawah S; Abbass HA, 2020, 'Trust Mediating Reliability–Reliance Relationship in Supervisory Control of Human–Swarm Interactions', Human Factors, vol. 62, pp. 1237 - 1248, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0018720819879273

Hussein A; Elsawah S; Abbass HA, 2020, 'The reliability and transparency bases of trust in human-swarm interaction: principles and implications', Ergonomics, vol. 63, pp. 1116 - 1132, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00140139.2020.1764112

Elsawah S; Hamilton SH; Jakeman AJ; Rothman D; Schweizer V; Trutnevyte E; Carlsen H; Drakes C; Frame B; Fu B; Guivarch C; Haasnoot M; Kemp-Benedict E; Kok K; Kosow H; Ryan M; van Delden H, 2020, 'Scenario processes for socio-environmental systems analysis of futures: A review of recent efforts and a salient research agenda for supporting decision making', Science of the Total Environment, vol. 729, pp. 138393 - 138393, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138393

Ivanova K; Elsawah S; Fidock J, 2020, 'Technological ecosystems in capability development: A case study in emerging technologies', Systems Engineering, vol. 23, pp. 423 - 435, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/sys.21535

Turan HH; Elsawah S; Ryan MJ, 2020, 'A long-term fleet renewal problem under uncertainty: A simulation-based optimization approach', Expert Systems with Applications, vol. 145, pp. 113158 - 113158, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eswa.2019.113158

Moallemi EA; Elsawah S; Ryan MJ, 2020, 'Robust decision making and Epoch–Era analysis: A comparison of two robustness frameworks for decision-making under uncertainty', Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 151, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2019.119797

Elsawah S; Filatova T; Jakeman AJ; Kettner AJ; Zellner ML; Athanasiadis IN; Hamilton SH; Axtell RL; Brown DG; Gilligan JM; Janssen MA; Robinson DT; Rozenberg J; Ullah IIT; Lade SJ, 2020, 'Eight grand challenges in socio-environmental systems modeling', Socio-Environmental Systems Modelling, vol. 2, pp. 16226 - 16226, http://dx.doi.org/10.18174/sesmo.2020a16226

Moallemi EA; Zare F; Reed PM; Elsawah S; Ryan MJ; Bryan BA, 2020, 'Structuring and evaluating decision support processes to enhance the robustness of complex human–natural systems', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 123, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2019.104551

Zare F; Elsawah S; Bagheri A; Nabavi E; Jakeman AJ, 2019, 'Improved integrated water resource modelling by combining DPSIR and system dynamics conceptual modelling techniques', Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 246, pp. 27 - 41, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.05.033

Hamilton SH; Fu B; Guillaume JHA; Badham J; Elsawah S; Gober P; Hunt RJ; Iwanaga T; Jakeman AJ; Ames DP; Curtis A; Hill MC; Pierce SA; Zare F, 2019, 'A framework for characterising and evaluating the effectiveness of environmental modelling', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 118, pp. 83 - 98, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2019.04.008

Badham J; Elsawah S; Guillaume JHA; Hamilton SH; Hunt RJ; Jakeman AJ; Pierce SA; Snow VO; Babbar-Sebens M; Fu B; Gober P; Hill MC; Iwanaga T; Loucks DP; Merritt WS; Peckham SD; Richmond AK; Zare F; Ames D; Bammer G, 2019, 'Effective modeling for Integrated Water Resource Management: A guide to contextual practices by phases and steps and future opportunities', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 116, pp. 40 - 56, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2019.02.013

Little JC; Hester ET; Elsawah S; Filz GM; Sandu A; Carey CC; Iwanaga T; Jakeman AJ, 2019, 'A tiered, system-of-systems modeling framework for resolving complex socio-environmental policy issues', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 112, pp. 82 - 94, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2018.11.011

Moallemi EA; Elsawah S; Ryan MJ, 2019, 'Strengthening ‘good’ modelling practices in robust decision support: A reporting guideline for combining multiple model-based methods', Mathematics and Computers in Simulation, vol. 175, pp. 3 - 24, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.matcom.2019.05.002

Moallemi EA; Elsawah S; Ryan MJ, 2018, 'An agent-monitored framework for the output-oriented design of experiments in exploratory modelling', Simulation Modelling Practice and Theory, vol. 89, pp. 48 - 63, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.simpat.2018.09.008

Voinov A; Jenni K; Gray S; Kolagani N; Glynn PD; Bommel P; Prell C; Zellner M; Paolisso M; Jordan R; Sterling E; Schmitt Olabisi L; Giabbanelli PJ; Sun Z; Le Page C; Elsawah S; BenDor TK; Hubacek K; Laursen BK; Jetter A; Basco-Carrera L; Singer A; Young L; Brunacini J; Smajgl A, 2018, 'Tools and methods in participatory modeling: Selecting the right tool for the job', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 109, pp. 232 - 255, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2018.08.028

Moallemi E; Elsawah S; Ryan MJ, 2018, 'Model-based multi-objective decision making under deep uncertainty from a multi-method design lens', Simulation Modelling Practice and Theory, vol. 84, pp. 232 - 250, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.simpat.2018.02.009

Jnitova V; Elsawah S; Ryan M, 2017, 'Review of simulation models in military workforce planning and management context', Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation, vol. 14, pp. 447 - 463, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1548512917704525

Zare F; Elsawah S; Iwanaga T; Jakeman AJ; Pierce SA, 2017, 'Integrated water assessment and modelling: A bibliometric analysis of trends in the water resource sector', Journal of Hydrology, vol. 552, pp. 765 - 778, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2017.07.031

Guillaume JHA; Helgeson C; Elsawah S; Jakeman AJ; Kummu M, 2017, 'Toward best practice framing of uncertainty in scientific publications: A review of Water Resources Research abstracts', Water Resources Research, vol. 53, pp. 6744 - 6762, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2017WR020609

Elsawah S; McLucas A; Mazanov J, 2017, 'An empirical investigation into the learning effects of management flight simulators: A mental models approach', European Journal of Operational Research, vol. 259, pp. 262 - 272, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ejor.2016.10.011

Merritt WS; Fu B; Ticehurst JL; El Sawah S; Vigiak O; Roberts AM; Dyer F; Pollino CA; Guillaume JHA; Croke BFW; Jakeman AJ, 2017, 'Realizing modelling outcomes: A synthesis of success factors and their use in a retrospective analysis of 15 Australian water resource projects', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 94, pp. 63 - 72, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2017.03.021

Elsawah S; Pierce SA; Hamilton SH; van Delden H; Haase D; Elmahdi A; Jakeman AJ, 2017, 'An overview of the system dynamics process for integrated modelling of socio-ecological systems: Lessons on good modelling practice from five case studies', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 93, pp. 127 - 145, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2017.03.001

ElSawah S; McLucas A; Mazanov J, 2015, 'Communicating About Water Issues in Australia: A Simulation/Gaming Approach', Simulation and Gaming, vol. 46, pp. 713 - 741, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1046878115580410

Kath J; Powell S; Reardon-Smith K; El Sawah S; Jakeman AJ; Croke BFW; Dyer FJ, 2015, 'Groundwater salinization intensifies drought impacts in forests and reduces refuge capacity', Journal of Applied Ecology, vol. 52, pp. 1116 - 1125, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12495

Lucena-Moya P; Brawata R; Kath J; Harrison E; ElSawah S; Dyer F, 2015, 'Discretization of continuous predictor variables in Bayesian networks: An ecological threshold approach', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 66, pp. 36 - 45, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2014.12.019

Elsawah S; Guillaume JHA; Filatova T; Rook J; Jakeman AJ, 2015, 'A methodology for eliciting, representing, and analysing stakeholder knowledge for decision making on complex socio-ecological systems: From cognitive maps to agent-based models', Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 151, pp. 500 - 516, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2014.11.028

Hamilton SH; ElSawah S; Guillaume JHA; Jakeman AJ; Pierce SA, 2015, 'Integrated assessment and modelling: Overview and synthesis ofsalient dimensions', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 64, pp. 215 - 229, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2014.12.005

Dyer F; ElSawah S; Croke B; Griffiths R; Harrison E; Lucena-Moya P; Jakeman A, 2014, 'The effects of climate change on ecologically-relevant flow regime and water quality attributes', Stochastic Environmental Research and Risk Assessment, vol. 28, pp. 67 - 82, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00477-013-0744-8

Guillaume JHA; El Sawah S, 2014, 'Fostering assumption-based stress-test thinking in managing groundwater systems: learning to avoid failures due to basic dynamics', Hydrogeology Journal, vol. 22, pp. 1507 - 1523, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10040-014-1153-x

Kelly RA; Jakeman AJ; Barreteau O; Borsuk ME; ElSawah S; Hamilton SH; Henriksen HJ; Kuikka S; Maier HR; Rizzoli AE; van Delden H; Voinov AA, 2013, 'Selecting among five common modelling approaches for integrated environmental assessment and management', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 47, pp. 159 - 181, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2013.05.005

Iwanaga T; El Sawah S; Jakeman A, 2013, 'Design and implementation of a web-based groundwater data management system', Mathematics and Computers in Simulation, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.matcom.2012.11.009

Iwanaga T; El Sawah S; Jakeman A, 2013, 'Design and implementation of a web-based groundwater data management system', Mathematics and Computers in Simulation, vol. 93, pp. 164 - 174, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.matcom.2012.11.009

McLucas A; Mazanov J, 2013, 'Using a Cognitive Mapping Approach to Frame the Perceptions of Water Users About Managing Water Resources: A Case Study in the Australian Capital Territory', Water Resources Management, vol. 27, pp. 3441 - 3456, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11269-013-0357-5

McIntosh BS; Ascough JC; Twery M; Chew J; Elmahdi A; Haase D; Harou JJ; Hepting D; Cuddy S; Jakeman AJ; Chen S; Kassahun A; Lautenbach S; Matthews K; Merritt W; Quinn NWT; Rodriguez-Roda I; Sieber S; Stavenga M; Sulis A; Ticehurst J; Volk M; Wrobel M; van Delden H; El-Sawah S; Rizzoli A; Voinov A, 2011, 'Environmental decision support systems (EDSS) development - Challenges and best practices', Environmental Modelling and Software, vol. 26, pp. 1389 - 1402, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2011.09.009

Wang XJ; Zhang JY; Liu JF; Wang GQ; He RM; Elmahdi A; Elsawah S, 2011, 'Water resources planning and management based on system dynamics: A case study of Yulin city', Environment, Development and Sustainability, vol. 13, pp. 331 - 351, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10668-010-9264-6

Wang X-J; Zhang J-Y; He R-M; Amgad E; Sondoss E; Shang M-T, 2011, 'A strategy to deal with water crisis under climate change for mainstream in the middle reaches of Yellow River', Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, vol. 16, pp. 555 - 566, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11027-010-9279-1

El Sawah S; El Fattah Tharwat AA; Rasmy MH, 2008, 'A quantitative model to predict the Egyptian ERP implementation success index', Business Process Management Journal, vol. 14, pp. 288 - 306, http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/14637150810876643

El Sawah SA; Mclucas A; Mazanov J, 2008, 'Water Management in the Australian Capital Territory: Problem Structuring using SODA', ASOR Bulletin, vol. 27, pp. 2 - 12

Conference Papers

Sallam KM; Turan HH; Chakrabortty RK; Elsawah S; Ryan MJ, 2020, 'A Differential Evolution Algorithm for Military Workforce Planning Problems: A Simulation-Optimization Approach', in 2020 IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence, SSCI 2020, pp. 2504 - 2509, http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/SSCI47803.2020.9308566

Jalalvand F; Turan H; El Sawah S; Ryan M, 2020, 'A multi-objective risk-averse workforce planning under uncertainty', Canberra, Australia, presented at IEEE SYMPOSIUM SERIES ON COMPUTATIONAL INTELLIGENCE, Canberra, Australia, 01 December 2020 - 04 December 2020

Turan H; El Sawah S; Jalalvand F; Ryan M, 2020, 'Solving Strategic Military Workforce Planning Problems with Simulation-Optimization', Canberra, Australia, presented at IEEE SYMPOSIUM SERIES ON COMPUTATIONAL INTELLIGENCE, Canberra, Australia, 01 December 2020 - 04 September 2020

Sallam K; Turan H; Chakrabortty R; El Sawah S; Ryan M, 2020, 'A Differential Evolution Algorithm for Military Workforce Planning Problems: A Simulation-Optimization Approach', in IEEE SYMPOSIUM SERIES ON COMPUTATIONAL INTELLIGENCE, IEEE, Canberra, Australia, pp. 2504 - 2509, presented at 2020 IEEE SYMPOSIUM SERIES ON COMPUTATIONAL INTELLIGENCE, Canberra, Australia, 01 December 2020 - 04 December 2020, http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/SSCI47803.2020.9308566.

Hussein A; Elsawah S; Abbass H, 2020, 'Investigating Gender Differences in Human Interactions with a Transparent Swarm', in Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society ... Annual Meeting Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Annual Meeting, SAGE Publications, SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA, pp. 853 - 857, presented at 63rd Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA, 28 October 2020 - 01 November 2019, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1071181319631009

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