New Zealand as a social laboratory

The principal objective of this proposal is to use existing data to create a dynamic representation of New Zealand society in which virtual experiments on matters of policy and substantive interest can be conducted; this is the “social laboratory” of the proposal’s title. The period for which this representation will be constructed will be 1981-2013, and a series of virtual experiments will be conducted around issues of policy, scientific and public interest, with a special emphasis on the potential role that personal and contextual assets and resources might play in helping individuals achieve valued social goals (such as doing well at school, getting a job, establishing a family).

Work of this scale requires a substantial investment, and thus this project builds on an existing programme of research conducted over the last decade at the COMPASS research centre. Our centre has constructed a simulation-based inquiry system in which data from existing longitudinal studies have been combined into a dynamic and realistic, but synthetic, working model of the early childhood years in New Zealand. We plan to extend this methodology and adapt it to a unique linked census data series over the entire life span – also called life path here - and to use unlinked data from the census to calibrate this model with the New Zealand population as it is now and as it has evolved since 1981.

An important part of the proposal is the potential it has for application and uptake in both the scientific and policy communities. Again, this is a substantial undertaking and one that our research centre has been actively involved in. We have developed our inquiry system in collaboration with policy advisers in central government agencies. As part of this process we have developed a software package that allows users to interrogate our inquiry system. The software has been implemented in free-standing desktop computers that are located on a trial basis in our collaborating agencies. However, this software package and the associated inquiry system are oriented to issues of the early childhood years and the package itself is “a work in progress”. Thus this proposal would plan to extend the inquiry system to the entire life course, enhance the dynamism of the model to the period 1981-2013, and increase the sophistication and reach of the software package.

By the end of the project, we would aim to have an inquiry system operational that spans the life course, that articulates with census data – both linked and unlinked – that is able to incorporate and interrogate significant issues of policy, scientific and public interest, that has several worked examples of these, and that has a range of partners in a working “collaboratory”.