"System innovation is not just an economic, technological or managerial process, but also a political and cultural project that will require leadership, inclusiveness and a shared societal vision to drive it."
OECD report on System Innovation, 2015, p.7.
The nature of today's sustainability challenges is that of so-called "wicked problems": humans have to operate with incomplete and changing, sometimes contradictory information in complex systems where changing one element may lead to unintended or unexpected consequences, possibly creating new problems.
As a result, fragmented approaches to problem-solving can tackle symptoms at best but will most likely not overcome the root causes of a system's unsustainable development path. The 20th Century ideal of specialization and single-issue expertise needs to be complemented with a holistic understanding of relationships, feedback loops, and tipping points to find responses that are systemic in nature and viable in the long term.
Taking the European Energy System as an example, different expert viewpoints will describe both the system and the best solutions to the problem differently. Whereas some stress the physical, technological or ecological conditions of energy production, distribution and consumption, others focus on the relationships between markets, industries and households. Yet others describe the system as a political structure based on a public notion of needs and priorities. The challenge for a systemic innovation approach is to
Understand the different viewpoints, to consider them as dimensions of one and the same system and to identify their relations;
Design a vision and language that speaks to actors in the system and highlights their commonalities and connections;
Implement and evaluate targeted interventions in collaboration with key stakeholders that are sensitive to the development dynamics of the system.
This thinking big and being specific at the same time is what the System Innovation Lab is about: to develop a systemic understanding of the problems at hand and then to break down the complexity into specific steps of action for change makers to take.
How? Find out more about -> The Lab