“Don’t look at the world, look at your lens". That was the key thought during the Neth-ER event ‘UNLOCK System Innovation’. During the event, participants engaged in a workshop using TNO’s UNLOCK System Transitions methodology, which allowed attendees to explore and stretch out complex challenges.

Neth-ER event “UNLOCK System Innovation Workshop“

The system is the result of interactions of its individual parts

On the 26th of April 2024, Neth-ER and TNO, the Dutch organisation for applied research and technology, organised the “UNLOCK System Innovation Workshop”. The event started with a keynote speech by Mieke van der Bijl-Bouwer, Associate professor at TU Delft and founder of IDE system design lab, who introduced the participants to system thinking and system change. Mieke spoke about her own experience with system thinking and the way she has applied it at her university, with a special focus on student well-being. “A system is not the sum of behaviours of its individual parts, but the results of their interactions. Hence, the focus on relationships formed the most important insight of her presentation. When dealing with complex issues, Mieke applies ‘safe to fail’-experiments in order to find a common ground. If the experiment works, you expand; if it does not, you let go. These experiments are conducted at ‘leverage points’, which are points in a system where small changes could lead to a large shift in behaviour.

‘Seizing the potential of system thinking’

Bianca Cavicchi, policy officer at DG RTD, delivered the second keynote speech of the day. In her presentation, Bianca spoke about her own experience with system thinking and how she got involved in it herself. During her time at the Commission, Bianca conducted research on system thinking alongside fellow expert Erika Palmer. Their research assesses the impact of the Framework Programme on societal challenges, such as healthcare and green energy. They found that Horizon Europe’s synergies with other programmes are not very strong, which leads to overlap and inefficiencies to tackle these challenges. Bianca explained that system analysis is not currently in the EU Better Regulation agenda, meaning that the Commission cannot use it in its policy making cycle. However, there is the intention of improving this, through on-going collaboration with the Parliament’s Joint Research Centre, conducting a study to develop a system dynamics tool for impact assessments and by better connecting interested parties in different EU institutions as well as with academic and research institutions.

‘Don’t look at the world, look at your lens’

After the two keynote speeches, Josephine Sassen-van Meer and Marjoleine ‘t Hart from TNO’s Systems Innovation programme introduced TNO’s “UNLOCK System Transition” methodology during the workshop.  Their methodology contains multiple phases, of which the ‘paradoxical tension fields' would be imitated during the workshop. In this step, paradoxes and complex problems are explored and stretched. Participants were challenged to use system thinking themselves through a paradoxical exercise. Paradoxes are worth exploring as they force deeper understanding of the tension fields in a system and provide gateway for innovative ideas. To warm up,  participants were encouraged to look inwards to discover what type of person they are in the workplace. For this, the group was presented with the paradox of choosing whether they felt more connected to the qualities of a samurai - a disciplined, stable, reliable, and moral person, or those of a ninja - a fast, flexible, resourceful, and creative person. Participants from both groups were asked to reflect on how they thought the other group viewed them. The samurai mentioned that they mostly thought the ninjas saw them as weak, whereas the ninjas thought the samurai would see them as disloyal and untrustworthy. The exercise showed how quickly people start assuming negative things about each other when they are put against each other.

Autonomy, heteronomy and critical raw materials

To kickstart the official workshop, Josephine and Marjoleine explained two extreme ways of making decisions: autonomy versus heteronomy. When an actor has autonomy, they have the ability to make choices independently. When an actor acts out of heteronomy, they follow the choices of others. The workshop was based on these two types of decision-making, using critical raw materials as a case study. To delve into the paradox of critical raw materials, the group was split in two. The first group was tasked to ‘explore’ the paradox, while the second group had to ‘stretch’ the paradox. The first group performed a debate, either arguing for ‘autonomy’, or ‘heteronomy’ when making policy decisions about critical raw materials. While the first group prepared the debate, the second group split into two in order to stretch the paradox. These groups were asked to think in both extremes of autonomy and heteronomy, when looking at the case study of critical raw materials. Thinking in extremes resulted into dire visions of the world. The autonomous world turned out to be individualistic and selfish, in which countries only cared about what is going on within their own borders. In the heteronomous world, the world remained stagnant as every country took a passive approach and there was no sight of innovation. After their individual sessions, the groups were joined to hear the debate of the first group. The debate consisted of opening statements and rebuttals from both teams, during which the second group posed as audience and showed their support or opposition. While the ‘autonomy’ group argued for the importance of the EU’s independence concerning critical raw materials, the ‘heteronomy’ group stressed the need for cooperation of many actors. Overall, all participants found it was enlightening to be forced to think in extremes in order to truly discover paradoxical situations and complex problems.


Neth-ER and TNO organised this event on TNO’s UNLOCK System Transition methodology together to get the conversation started on this different way of thinking and the potential it has to provide innovative ideas. Europe is at the cusp of several transition concerning energy, cyber security, and digitalisation. These complex transitions call for a deeper understanding of the system, resulting in system innovation.


Mede geschreven door Fleur Korte.