Modelling Social Care Complexity


Social care research requires understanding of complex issues surrounding human need and ageing, capacity and impact of services, sustainability, use of resources, and change over time. Social care and social work theory draw on systems thinking, and simulation is used in education and training. Yet use of modelling and simulation to aid understanding is rare. Our review described one approach to modelling and simulation, System Dynamics, which can bring potential benefits and insights.


  • Most problems that include any of the following might benefit from an element of System Dynamics modelling: population change, ageing, long-term conditions, health and social care integration, resource allocation across a pathway, policy analysis, workforce planning, and options appraisals. There are, of course, other social care scenarios to which System Dynamics could be usefully applied
  • Development of a small System Dynamics model towards the start of an enquiry can clarify more precisely its focus and highlight data definitions/requirement
  • The field of System Dynamics is relatively small in the UK; it needs support to extend beyond a small number of business schools into mainstream social science
  • Social care researchers need a greater awareness of the potential of System Dynamics to enhance understanding of complex, dynamic problems, and to recognise when they are dealing with an issue that might benefit from this approach
  • Social care researchers who already have modelling and simulation expertise should be encouraged to incorporate this within current work
  • There should be greater dialogue between the modelling and simulation field and social researchers, for example, through participation in each other’s networking events and conferences
  • There is great potential for a conversation between health economists with an interest in social care and system dynamicists; each group is concerned with almost identical problems, especially at the aggregate level, but using a different approach.
  • Improving the use of System Dynamics within social care research would benefit from:

    • the establishment of a centre of excellence that brings together social care researchers and system dynamicists
    • commissioning of some small-scale projects involving collaboration between social care researchers, social care practitioners, service users and carers, and system dynamicists
    • training for social care researchers in modelling and simulation
    • more awareness amongst those working in social care practice and policy of the potential benefits of engaging with System Dynamics

You can read the full Review in the Resources section of this website; and in the Simulation Modelling section you can play with some of our demonstration models online.