8.3 Challenges and research questions

As early as the 1970s, the Club of Rome explored the limits of our world systems and their limitations on human numbers and human activity. This resulted in the report Limits to Growth in which computer simulations showed that there is a limit to economic growth and population growth (Meadows et al., 2004). Instead of economic growth, governments should focus on resilience and adaptation. The COVID-19 crisis could not clarify more how important it is to our society that we develop systems that are resilient: that can adapt or can transform as soon as the environment requires it. This requires innovation capabilities from organisations, but also system properties of society itself, such as diversity and flexibility. We therefore need methods that answer questions such as: how can we increase the adaptivity of a system? How can we better develop transdisciplinary action research in this context? How can we better monitor and understand system change in the long term? How can we organise the government, private sector, science and society as a learning system?

Adaptive systems This cluster deals with the conditional properties of socio-technical systems that promote adaptive system behaviour and guide desired changes:

  • What are general and sector-specific conditions under which societal systems are able to adapt to changing circumstances and innovate responsibly?

  • How do we deal with challenges in ‘chaos’ where there are various interests that compete with each other about where to go within a system? What is a suitable participation model? Which actors should be involved in which phase?

  • How can we guide the demolition and completion of existing structures? How can we link existing initiatives and systems?

  • How can we develop open structures and interventions that increase the adaptability of a system?

Transdisciplinary action research A common criticism of the field of systems thinking is its emphasis on understanding system changes that have already occurred in the past and sharing this knowledge among scientists, rather than exploring what a systemic approach could mean for the future and sharing it with social actors (Ackoff, 2004). In recent decades, we have therefore seen an emergence of transdisciplinary action research. Through active experimentation and the development and implementation of initiatives, this research contributes to knowledge about how systems behave and how we can influence or guide them. A transdisciplinary lens ensures integration of knowledge from both the scientific and the societal domain. This concerns research questions such as:

  • What are effective leverage points for conducting innovation experiments?

  • What are suitable methods for designing system interventions that focus on the social and emotional dimensions of change, for example influencing mental models, paradigm changes, and human relationships?

  • How do we stimulate transdisciplinary action research and make science more entrepreneurial?

Monitoring system change and making long-term estimates One point of concern is that changes in society and the economy are moving faster than science can keep up with. In addition, we would like to understand long-term system change. This leads to questions such as:

  • How can we better monitor system change?

  • How can we understand long-term change and develop indicators for change?

  • How can we develop better cost-benefit studies for transitions?

  • How can we better understand the coordination between system changes in different domains?

  • How can we use different qualitative and quantitative methods to monitor system change and understand it in the long term?

System awareness, reflexivity & learning together The basis of effective system change and societal transitions is a structured form of learning together about our perspective on the system, about what we learn about that system, and about our role in intervening in the system. The following questions play a role in this:

  • How do we involve different system actors in the system perspective? How can we guide actors in understanding different world views and perspectives? How do we make them aware of the qualities of resilient systems such as flexibility and diversity?

  • How can we make tensions within a social system productive? How do we avoid polarisation that limits learning?

  • How can we help system actors develop skills that encourage dialogue and adaptive leadership?

  • How do we help system actors to be reflexive about how they interact with system changes in progress?

  • How do we stimulate knowledge transfer between system actors? How do we create a learning system?

  • What are new forms of public, private, civil cooperation?

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