16. Systems approaches for understanding and assessing the impact of directionality in challenge-led policy

Convenors: Joeri Wesseling, Anna Bergek and Matthijs Janssen.

Session type: Full paper and speed talk sessions.


Overcoming wicked societal challenges typically requires socio-technical transition (Weber and Rohracher, 2012). Different approaches have been proposed for making attempts to steer and facilitate such challenge-led transitions (Haddad et al., 2019). Some works stress the importance of the open-ended nature of transition (Schot and Steinmueller, 2018), whereas others highlight the relevance of directionality-through-goals or missions (Hekkert et al., 2020; Mazzucato, 2018; Wanzenböck et al., 2020). This has diverging implications on the shape and success of challenge-led, innovation and transitions policy, or ‘challenge-led policy’ in short.

To better understand and ex-ante and ex-post evaluate challenge-led policies, and in particular the role of directionality, a call has been raised for new socio-technical and innovation systems approaches that move beyond the typical Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) perspective (Edler and Boon, 2018; Hekkert et al., 2020; Janssen, 2019; Janssen et al., 2020; Molas-Gallart et al., 2020; Schot and Steinmueller, 2018). Various works have already contributed in this direction, such as the new analytical frames to understand and legitimize challenge-led transformative policy (Diercks et al., 2019; Weber and Rohracher, 2012); the combination of innovation systems and transitions perspectives with the concept of policy mixes (Kivimaa and Kern, 2016; Rogge and Reichardt, 2016); and the extended use of the structural-functional approach to evaluate transformative innovation policy (Haddad and Bergek, 2020) and to study the Mission-Oriented Innovation System (Wesseling and Meijerhof, 2020). This special track builds on the aforementioned call for new systems approaches that help understand and assess directionality in challenge-based policy. The conference session aims to give an overview of well-developed, state-of-the-art works, create a discussion on prospective research directions, and explores opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas.

The track is guided by the following research questions: 

  • How to assess the impact of (the lack of) directionality provided by challenge-led policy in meeting wicked societal problems? 
  • Which governance arrangements are successful in mobilizing support across the innovation or socio-technical system, for solution development and adoption? 
  • How is this mobilized supported impacted by the formulation and legitimacy of the goal or mission statement? 
  • What is the impact of directional policies on the realignment of existing innovation and socio-technical systems structures? 
  • Under which circumstances are such directional policies most effective? 
  • How to balance between opening new pathways (exploration) and advancing in particular directions (exploitation) when pursuing a goal or mission? 

Both well-developed papers and early work (speed talks) relating to these questions are welcome in our special track, as long as the ideas and theoretical perspectives have been developed thoroughly enough for an in-depth discussion.