Research at the Multi-Actor Systems Department deals with the governance component of Comprehensive Engineering. By governance we mean, the use of instruments, strategies and structures aimed at shaping or changing socio-technical systems, or parts thereof. The central premise is that there is a tension between the urgency of system change – in domains such as water, cyber, transport and energy – and the options to effect that change. This tension stems from a number of central hallmarks of modern society.

  • There is a variety of players, often with conflicting interests, who are almost all interdependent. In these networks of interdependencies, no player is dominant - it is a ‘nobody in charge’ environment and each player may have a different perspective on the need for and direction of system change. As a result, decision-making and change are the outcome of often complex and seemingly erratic interaction processes.
  • There is great uncertainty and an abundance of ambiguous information on the performance of both systems and actors - thus knowledge and information determine the course of decision-making and change only to a limited extent. Moreover, in an environment with many players and conflicting interests, there are important incentives for these players to distrust knowledge and information.
  • Socio-technical systems have no clear boundaries and different actors will define the system in various ways, depending on their perspective on reality. The whole of the interdependencies and interactions between subsystems, between actors and between subsystems and actors, is incomprehensible for a single actor.
  • In an environment with a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity, parties also develop conflicting moral judgments - about right and wrong, and about who is right or wrong - which further deepens the contradictions and conflicts of interest.
  • The environments are extremely dynamic. The networks of interdependencies are constantly changing, as too are the problem definitions. This makes change and decision-making processes even more fluid. These dynamics make it almost impossible for individual players to comprehend the entire field of players and problems - which further complicates decision making and change.
  • There are institutional voids, instances where the rules and institutions lag behind the development of the systems which they were designed to serve, in effect leaving a governance gap.

The research at MAS addresses the question of how, in such an environment, decision-making, change and coordination of and in socio-technical systems happen. These  processes (1) are described empirically, (2) are modelled and analysed, and (3) are improved by the intervention arrangements we design, varying from IT-based system solutions to strategies for individual actors. We are particularly interested in governance issues in which a tension exists between systems and values on one hand and governance structures and mechanisms on the other.