- How do I define the scope of the vision?
- What is the result?
- Vision creation - a collective process or not?
- How do I assemble an arena group?
- What criteria should a chairperson meet?
- Is an arena group a permanent group?
- How long does it take to build a vision?
- What support is needed for a transition?
- What should I be particularly aware of as policymaker?
- What background information should I collect?
- What can go wrong in a collective vision creation process?
- Does participation mean commitment?
- What methods are there for creating a vision?
How do I define the scope of the vision?
A vision can be formulated at different system levels:
- A high system level: a large region (Europe, the Netherlands or the province of Zeeland); a sector (water management, agriculture); or a societal function (mobility, food supply), for example.
- A lower system level: a sub-region (a district in a city, for example); a sub-sector or a sub-function (greenhouse horticulture or care for the chronically ill); an organisational unit at the meso level (a production chain, for example); or a technological process (biomass; nuclear energy).
- At the level of a specific experiment: a specific residential care complex; a new unit for back complaints in a particular hospital; a new housing system for hens, for example.
The definition of the system is crucial for:
- the visualisation (what are we talking about?);
- understanding the challenge to be addressed by the system innovation (what are we trying to do?)
- the potential solution (what can we do)?
Logically, the vision for an operational programme should be defined at meso level:
- a sub-region or a district in a city;
- a sub-sector or function in a region;
- an organisational unit (a product chain, for example); or
- a specific technological process (biomass; nuclear energy).
This is, because a vision formulated at a higher system level does not lead directly to an operational programme. These visions - also referred to here as the social agenda - are usually intended to make regime actors aware of the need for change. They have a long-term horizon (around 25-50 years) and serve as inspiration for and legitimation of (underlying) operational programmes and projects that will be carried out on the way to achieving that longer-term vision. You then have to formulate separate visions for the operational programmes and the projects at the appropriate level.
Defining the system level for an operational programme is a gradual process. You will probably have to search for a definition, and in practice there are various routes that can be taken to arrive at a programme.
- Top-down route: The energy transition programme is an example where the top-down route was followed. The government started the process by producing an outline vision for a sustainable energy supply for the whole of the Netherlands (to legitimise the process). Only then were transition paths defined with visions for operational programmes.
- Bottom-up route: There are also examples of visions for operational programmes that started with experiments. The vision for Kas als energiebron (The greenhouse as a source of energy), a sub-programme of the energy transition programme, also started with ideas for an experiment.
- Direct formulation of vision at meso level: Finally, there are also programmes where the visions were formulated directly at an appropriate meso level. Examples include the vision formulated for Houden van hennen ('Keeping and loving hens') research programme and the vision for long-term care.
Your operational programme will benefit if you take into account any other initiatives in system innovation that you encounter in defining the scope of your vision.
Interaction between levels
If you are working simultaneously or successively with visions at different levels, it is important to ensure that those working at different levels are on the same wavelength. Facilitate the exchange of information by allowing some of those involved to operate at different levels. If necessary, organise meetings to discuss any contradictions between the visions at the different levels.
What is the result?
The outcome of the vision creation process is:
- A common definition of the system and perception of the problem. The vision should preferably also indicate how the problems are embedded in the existing regime of rules, routines, culture and knowledge
- A well-argued shared sense of urgency for system innovation
- Guiding principles for system innovation
- Some qualitative (or even quantitative) target scenarios, and possibly milestones, which can be fleshed out in a more detailed vision
- An initial network.
The vision for an operational programme should ideally meet the following criteria:
- It has a long-term or medium-term horizon (around 15-05 years)
- It is a response to certain developments at the level of the landscape
- It provides inspiration for the short term
- It contains one or more key ideas for system innovation
- It is sufficiently open: various parties must see something in it and the vision must not be overly susceptible to new developments
- It is easy to convey (to be explained by practical experts)
- It explains the conditions the ultimate practices have to meet.
It has often appeared, with hindsight, that visions for transition programmes were not particularly novel. The ideas and values contained in them had already been expressed previously. But those values and ideas had been snowed under by existing practice with its rules, standards and culture. The transition visions were therefore not immediately apparent. They often only came to the fore later in the vision creation process. The visions restore the prominence of these overlooked ideas and values and makes them a guiding ideal. This is what makes the transition visions innovative.
Vision creation - a collective process or not?
The choice of whether or not the creation of a vision should be a collective process depends in practice on the context of the programme for system innovation.
Collective creation of a vision
The collective approach to creating a vision, along with special arena groups or platforms, can be chosen if various parties depend on one another to realise the system innovation and there is no organisation with the explicit task of achieving system innovations. Transition professionals can be hired to help the arena group or platform.
One of the advantages of a platform or arena group is that the participants undertake the process of formulating the vision together and can learn from one another during that process. Groups that include participants from different areas of expertise and with different practical backgrounds can formulate a valuable and well-argued vision. A carefully chosen arena or platform group can also prepare the way for implementation of the vision. On this point, see also the question "How do I assemble an arena group?"
The creation of a vision can also be a non-collective process. This approach is taken, for example, by some professional network organisations for system innovation. One Dutch example is InnovatieNetwerk, an organisation devoted to system innovation in agriculture. InnovatieNetwerk's project managers first play a prominent role in identifying new themes (although they are in fact helped in this by InnovatieKringen (InnovationCircles), whose members represent different sectors). The project managers then flesh out the themes in more detail, using various methods including internal brainstorming sessions and ad hoc meetings with stakeholders or with front-runners. They also sometimes adopt ideas from elsewhere. The professionals then take the resulting vision with an idea for a system innovation and search for supporters and new consortia to implement the ideas. Sometimes, InnovatieNetwerk also takes it upon itself to inform the government of obstacles to the innovative practice.
How do I assemble an arena group?
Start with a broad definition and analysis of the system and with an outline social map or actor analysis, which will identify the major challenges and the specific involvement of different parties. Then make a long-list of candidates and select a short list of around 10 to 15 people from that list for the transition group. It is more difficult to share knowledge and formulate a common vision if the group is larger. For descriptions of different methods you can use to assemble a group, click on the tab ‘Methods' at the top of this page.
The individual members should:
- have a commitment to sustainability
- be willing to work together and share their ideas
- be capable of formulating visions
- understand complex problems at a reasonably high level of abstraction
- be capable of seeing beyond the boundaries of their own area of expertise and background
- not be dogmatic when it comes to defining problems and solutions
- be respected as innovators in their own sector
- be willing to invest time in exploring problems and formulating a vision and to commit to it.
For the roles and competences of the participants, see also the cluster ‘Competences'.
The group as a whole
Guidelines for the group as a whole are:
- Select members from the various stakeholders: government, the business sector, civil-society organisations, the scientific community. After all, sustainable solutions will almost always require input from actors in every domain. You will not only have the benefit of the knowledge possessed by the various parties, but will also have access to diverse relevant networks.
- Assemble a mix of pioneers with experience in innovation and decision-makers in the established regime. Experience shows that the majority of the group that formulates the outline vision should be innovators (creative thinkers); they are the backbone for implementing the innovative visions.
- Make sure that there are enough people in your group with social status and networks, since they will be able to give the innovative vision a more prominent place on the public agenda
- The members of the group have three functions: vision creation, communication and networking.
Tailored to the level of vision creation
Ensure that there is an operational programme before selecting the people who will implement the vision. Some members of the group should always be able to think in abstract terms, but a majority of the group can be people who think in more practical terms.
The group has no formal status yet
If you are establishing an arena group or platform, do not immediately give it a formal status. You will then have time to assess the prospects of a programme for system innovation without immediately facing the pressure of high expectations or accountability. If the results of the group's work are good, they can be published more widely and the group can be given a more formal status.
What criteria should a chairperson meet?
First and foremost, the chairperson of an arena or platform group must meet the profile that applies for all members. In addition, he or she must be capable of understanding and evaluating the range of opinions within the group. The chairperson must also have sufficient authority to convey the messages from the group to relevant individuals at a sufficiently high strategic level.
Managing the process
To manage the process of creating a vision properly the chairperson must also:
- establish trust between the participants
- be able to prompt the participants to think beyond the obvious
- encourage the participants to think beyond their own interests or the direct interests of those they represent
- have a sharp eye for new ideas
- be able equalise power imbalances.
Consider the implications before selecting a chairperson from one of the most powerful parties, since that could prevent an open, united process, something that could happen even if the chairperson behaves impartially and only serves the interests of the transition process.
Is an arena group a permanent group?
In principle, a transition group is a closed group, which means that the members of the group remain the same. One reason for this is that trust has to be established between the participants. Another reason is the need to maintain sufficient continuity in the development of ideas. Nevertheless, the composition of the group will change over time. The changes will often occur more or less naturally, but may also be the result of a conscious decision. For example, there may be a parting of the ways at some point with participants who persist in thinking mainly in terms of their own direct interests. Alternatively, you might want to introduce new participants because a new perspective is needed or because the arena group is about to draft an action plan and needs practical know-how. For example, when it is time to write an action plan you will often need more input from regime actors, since they will play an important role in putting new practices into effect.
How long does it take to build a vision?
Transition groups usually exist for between three months and 18 months and meet between three and 15 times during that period. The longer term of 18 months generally applies for arena or platform groups that are also responsible for initially translating the vision into transition paths.
A shorter period than three months is often not enough because the members have to build mutual trust and shake off ingrained mental processes, and that takes time. A transition group often also needs time to gather information to formulate the vision.
Even without a transition group creating a vision often takes just as long: the change in the mental model required for a transition is seldom straightforward. And even if it is, initial ideas often need time to mature.
What support is needed for a transition?
An arena group or platform usually requires the assistance of a 'transition team', including at least the client or ‘problem owner' and one or more transition professionals. The chairman of the platform group usually joins this team later. The team prepares the process of vision creation, both in terms of the content and the procedure, advances it and makes sure that the vision is clear, ambitious and focuses on achieving a transition. The team can also play an important role in embedding the vision in regular policy during the course of the process.
Specific activities of the transition team include:
- Arranging the meetings
- Producing trend, system and actor/network analyses
- Interviewing experts outside the arena group
- Summarising and organising the results of discussions
- Planning specific interventions if the group lapses back into obvious thought patterns
- Maintaining the commitment of the members and helping to resolve any conflicts
- Helping to create a network
- Conducting monitoring or evaluations.
Knowledge of system innovation
The transition professionals in the team must have knowledge of system innovation and methods of carrying out transition projects. Because no two arena groups adopt the same approach, the transition professionals must be flexible in their role as process managers. They must be able to clearly identify what is needed for the group and the process to succeed. See also the cluster 'Competences'.
What should I be particularly aware of as policymaker?
Changes in policy and government measures are almost always needed to remove barriers for innovators and to encourage further innovation. Consequently, the government is generally one of the parties involved in a transition. It is also sometimes the client for a transition programme. There are a number of specific points that need to be taken into account with regard to the government's involvement.
- The terms of reference for the system innovation should not be defined by the department or the regional government organisation, but in consultation with other stakeholders
- Create a body, for example a special directorate or department, to serve as a ‘linch pin' within your department and with other departments in implementing the results of innovation programmes.
- Be responsive to the needs and wishes of innovators and do not be dogmatic about ‘decentralisation where decentralisation is possible'. To do so is to neglect local system innovators and slow the transition.
- From the time the vision is formulated, arrange for government involvement in learning processes and experiments, possibly through a director or director general. If that is not possible, you should in any case be informed about experiences in practice.
- Make strategic use of landscape developments in your government body.
What background information should I collect?
Besides technical information for a transition programme, gather:
- information about shortcomings in existing practices that underscore the urgency of system innovation
- information about networks of actors
- information about general social developments and important events. Some trends might confirm the importance and urgency of major reform; others could have the opposite effect
- information about regime obstacles and success factors of previous and related change initiatives. These are obstacles and success factors relating to power relations, rules, routines, knowledge gaps, etc.
- Integrated system analyses to assemble and analyse information about a complex problem. Methods that can be used include causal loop diagrams, SCENE, narrative analysis, socio-technical problem analysis, collective system analysis
- Actor or network analyses (also known as stakeholder analyses) to identify the major stakeholders, their interests and the interactions between them insofar as they relevant for opportunities and/or problems. See, for example, the methods of actor, network or stakeholder analysis, DEED, the and cognitive model, interpretive frame approach
- Trend analyses, which describe developments that may occur in the future and which could influence the nature and scale of problems and/or opportunities. Such trends can be discovered by means of a literature study or by conducting interviews, for example.
- When a vision is created in a collective process, the participants with their various academic and practical backgrounds are also an important source of relevant knowledge.
What can go wrong in a collective vision creation process?
With no pretence at being exhaustive, here is a list of potential pitfalls:
- Collective vision creation takes time and the process always has its downs and periods where views diverge. Transition teams and clients who are not prepared for this sometimes lose faith in the collective process. The participants can also become impatient. In that case, there is quickly a tendency to seek consensus and to accept less ambitious ideas. But the transition team must overcome the frustration and help the group to persist and to remain focused on the long-term ambitions for the system innovation. See also the question "What to do if the group falls back on the obvious?" under Experiment.
- Most of the members of the group have been chosen for their influence, with less attention for their personal commitment to the issue and innovation-mindedness. The vision creation then reaches a dead end because the ambition to innovate is lacking. You should therefore avoid involving everyone who should be asked because of their position. To do so will be at the expense of creativity and innovation
- Some participants will persist in defending their own direct interests. Consequently, they will not contribute effectively to the collective process of creating a vision. In such cases, the chairperson should talk to the participants and consider whether the individuals concerned should remain in the group. Individuals will sometimes decide themselves to withdraw from a group because they do not feel comfortable in it.
- Members of the transition group are too busy to participate in the formulation of the vision. You should therefore discuss in advance with the members of the group what you expect of them.
- Another factor that could cause the process to fail is the absence of personal chemistry or of mutual trust, for example because differences in power form an impediment. In the latter case, you can try to design the process in such a way as to resolve the power differences. On this point, see also the questions "What criteria should a chairperson meet?" and "How to deal with power differences?" under Experiment. Or look at the example 'Health research: dealing with power differences.'
Does participation mean commitment?
Participants in vision building are not by definition committed to carrying out the experiments. There can be two reasons for this:
- They are often unable to, because they are not taking part on behalf of the people they represent or with a carte blanche for further action from their managers
- They sometimes don't want to: some participants first want to wait and see what happens.
Smart choice of participants
The transition professional is able to choose participants in such a way as to maximise the chance that they will remain committed to a follow-up. Their commitment must in any case be clear when you are preparing specific plans for experiments. See also the cluster 'Producing an action plan'.
What methods are there for creating a vision?
There are various methods or approaches to creating a vision. For a list and a brief description of each of them, click on 'Methods' in the bar at the top of this page and choose Creating a Vision under 'Select'.