Structured Decision Making

Structured Decision Making, or SDM, is simply one label that describes an approach, tools and techniques to support planning and decision making. It is a way to provide clarity and insight by structuring objectives in order to both evaluate options and generate creative alternatives. It helps find ‘win-win’ solutions across groups, generate priorities so that resources can be focused and effective, helps address the inevitable  trade-offs and supports better communication.  Over the last 25 years we have established ourselves as innovative firm that is leading the way in bringing more structured decision tools from other fields (e.g., based in multi-attribute utility analysis, behavioural economics, negotiation theory, and cognitive psychology) to community planning, program evaluation, impact assessment and negotiations. Call it what you want (decision aiding, structured decision support or SDM), we have seen it provide a successful way forward —  a way to work through tough choices characterized by multiple perspectives, uncertainty, and competing dimensions of value.

With a focus on both deliberation and analysis, structured decision-making approaches are designed to effectively combine expert driven analysis with local participatory research and engagement to build a common understanding of the complexity of the decision challenge, and then identify and evaluate innovative solutions in a way that is inclusive and rigorous.

This approach helps to ensure that the decision-making that is part of any planning project is more transparent, defensible and more broadly supported.

Our structured decision-making work has included:
Natural resource planning;
Health impact assessments;
Socio-cultural impact assessments and non-market valuations;
Prioritization and trade-offs for strategic planning; and
Monitoring and evaluation programs.

EcoPlan’s Will Trousdale recently spoke on the CBC about one application of SDM – ‘non-market valuation’. Non-market valuation is a method to appraise the monetary value of goods and services that have utility and value, but not necessarily a market price. The CBC interview can be accessed here.

 Interested in training or capacity building? Contact us.

Photograph by Kellan Higgins

Our Approach

Driven by Community Values: Every community is different. We start by listening to community members to find out what is important. Then, we use the values that we identify through this process as a framework to prioritize actions that are appropriate, feasible, and broadly supported. 

Based on Local Knowledge: We work with local people who know their communities and regions and are well positioned to generate practical ideas that make the best use of local assets. We then tap into, organize, and evaluate this local knowledge, using methods and tools from structured decision making to focus investment and energy where it will have the strongest impact.

Expert Supported: We step in where expertise is needed by providing rigorous analysis, cutting-edge research, innovative ideas and over 20 years of experience in the field. We have found that top-down, expert-directed planning approaches work only in unique circumstances and typically do not produce the results communities and clients need for success.

Pragmatic and Effective: Great strategies are strategies that get implemented. We hate to see strategies that are nothing more than laundry lists gathering dust on a shelf. Our approach ensures that the people who will be implementing the plan are involved throughout its development, and that the plan lays out the implementation architecture (i.e., who will be doing what, when). We can also provide supplementary services during implementation, such as project management and coaching. We call this “surge capacity”.

Guidebooks, Toolkits and Publications

Promising Pathways, a Resource Guide
HIA Guide for Metro Vancouver

Guiding Principles for City Climate Action Planning
Climate Guide  for UN Habitat

Development of a Support Tool for Complex Decision-Making in the Provision of Rural Maternity Care
Healthcare Policy

Siting Major Public Facilities: Facts, Values and Accountability
Journal of Urban Planning and Development

Informed Decision Making: The Interaction Between Sustainable Maternity Care Services and Community Sustainability
Maternity Care Research Group

Property Evaluation and Biodiversity Conservation: Decision Support for Making Hard Choices
Ecological Economics

Value-Focused Thinking in a Difficult Context: Planning Tourism for Guimaras, Philippines
Interfaces-Journal of Operations Research and Management Science


The Health Impact Assessment of Transportation and Land Use Planning Activities Guidebook
2016 Planning Institute of B.C. Silver Award for Excellence in Planning Practice in the category of Research and New Directions in Planning

Regional District of North Okanagan Monitoring and Evaluation Program
2014 Planning Institute of B.C. Gold Award for Excellence in Planning Practice in the category of Small Town and Rural Areas

Sustainable Tourism Planning with Multiple Objective Decision Analysis: A Case Study of the Guimara Farm Tourism Pilot Project
Travel and Tourism Research Association Boeing Award

Using Insights from Planning: An Alternative Approach to Assessing Environmental Damages and Cultural Loss
2011 Planning Institute of B.C. Award for Excellence in Research and New Directions in Planning