Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for the Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation

Networks dealing with wicked sustainability problems: leadership matters!

Networks dealing with wicked sustainability problems: leadership matters!
29.01.2015 | Inge Vermeesch

SuMMa, Flanders’ Policy Research Centre for sustainable materials management that I work for, brings together several researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Together, we explore the socio-economic conditions for and consequences of the transition to sustainable materials management in Flanders. My societal innovation research focuses on the particularities of leadership in the multi-actor governance networks that emerge to deal with this sustainability problem.

Multi-actor governance is a policy process where policy makers venture beyond public participation and pursue a close collaboration with non-governmental actors in multi-actor networks. Besides civil servants, members of such networks can be individual citizens, grass root organizations, private companies and their sectorial federations, non-profit organizations and researchers. A multi-actor governance approach accepts that any network member can take steering initiatives through formal and informal interactions. The main idea is that the network members build on emerging insights about individual and shared goals, on different and similar perspectives, and on conflicting and common values. They do so through intensive interaction, negotiation, conflict management and reflective learning. As you might have guessed, it’s a lengthy process. But in return, it does stimulate creative and innovative solutions, self-regulation and also diminishes hierarchical steering by governments.

Multi-actor governance networks typically address ‘wicked problems’: unique challenges, linked with several problem domains, yielding a large set of potential solutions, yet lacking a true-or-false solution. Defining objectives and setting a direction in this context is extremely hard; multi-actor governance networks bring together various stakeholders with often opposing interests and objectives. And that’s where leadership issues come in: the stakeholders depend on each other to accomplish the task, without any hierarchical interconnection and each connected to their own leader. Moreover, each problem domain that is connected to the task is represented by its leader as well, who may be in or out of the governance network. Multi-actor governance networks thus involve multiple leaders, who cannot lead by themselves, but need to engage in relationships in order to guide and steer the problem solving initiative. And so, I kept wondering: what kind of leadership in multi-actor governance networks stimulates and steers the co-creation of innovative solutions for complex sustainability issues?

To find out, I did action research in three such networks, each dealing with an aspect of sustainable materials management in Flanders. Although all of them were convened by local, regional of federal government actors, the three networks are quite different. The largest of them is closely linked to the Public Waste Agency and brings together Flanders’ ‘regime players’ in sustainable materials management: advisors to the relevant Ministers, presidents of several industrial federations, high level public officials and a few university experts. They drew up a special policy program and try to engage all relevant stakeholders in the execution of the 46 actions of that program. The two other networks are more informal and have no such predefined action plan, although one of them is integrated in a larger ‘city lab’ project that aims to stimulate several initiatives to create a more sustainable urban life style. The network that I investigated for example, focuses on sustainable fashion and a circular, preferably local, fashion economy.

I used the framework of Complexity Leadership in my research because it considers leadership as a joint ‘practice’ of several people. Complexity Leadership rejects the idea of one (charismatic) leader who inspires all the other network members as ‘followers’. The issues that multi-actor governance networks deal with are too complex to be led or steered by one single leader. True to its name, Complexity Leadership is….complex! It defines three leadership functions: administrative leadership, adaptive leadership and enabling leadership. These functions are taken up – not assigned to! - and aligned by several network members ‘Not so complex’, I hear you say… How about this: who these ‘leaders’ are, usually changes over time because thinking up solutions for wicked problems take time and because governance networks are fluid constellations: people leave, newcomers enter, members are replaced by colleagues, etc. So how does it work then?

Administrative leadership refers to traditional, top-down relations based on authority and position. It involves formal management and decision making tasks to efficiently and effectively accomplish the objectives. This function was most distinctive in the ‘high level’ network around the policy program. But also in the fashion network, the administrative leadership set up a structure with a dedicated project team, meetings, workshops and events.

Adaptive leadership takes care of the creative process: exchanging ideas, experimenting, co-creative thinking. It stimulates the learning process and adaptive capacity and represents the innovative force of the multi-actor network. Not surprisingly, it is extremely present in the fashion network with its designers, out-of-the box thinkers, and representatives of a very creative industry. This network also uses professional process facilitators at their workshops and events and they also actively stimulate ‘questioning the obvious’. The ‘high level’ network on the other hand lacks a ‘critical mass’ of adaptive leadership. Most network members are focused on protecting their own political and industrial interest and probably prefer marginal changes or maybe even a BAU scenario…

Last but not least: enabling leadership. It takes up a crucial place in complexity leadership as it connects adaptive and administrative leadership. Through brokering and boundary spanning activities, they stimulate an influx of new knowledge, perspectives and ideas to feed adaptive leadership. Enabling leadership is usually taken up by network members who are very close to administrative leadership. This means they can also create a buffer between the opposing forces of administrative and adaptive leadership. Administrative leadership is keen on control and predictability, while adaptive leadership enjoys chaos and the unexpected as a source of surging ideas. And is it precisely because of this buffer that the can remain connected. In the fashion network for example, the administrative leadership is set on optimizing and showcasing quick results in the larger ‘city lab’ project. The process facilitators take up the enabling role and ease that ‘pushy’ temper by allowing the adaptive leadership the space and time they need to come up with something that is not just a ‘quick fix’, but in line with their vision and ambitions.

My exploration of complexity leadership in these networks has as yet borne following insights:

  • Although the framework was originally developed to study which leadership form stimulates the innovative capacity of companies, it seems an appropriate and useful framework to study leadership in multi-actor networks that focus on collaborative policy innovation for complex sustainability issues The studied networks are quite different, but we recognize the 3 leadership forms in all of them, although to a different extent.
  • To optimize the innovative capacity of the network, it really needs all 3 leadership forms. And they need to be connected. The creative process was most productive and ran the smoothest in the network that this connected leadership constellation.
  • Even though the framework does not rely on individual leaders, the effectiveness of complexity leadership does depend on personal qualities and competences. Complexity leadership does not benefit from ’leaders’, but from people (whatever their role or position) who can stimulate joint leadership practices: engaging in and activating reflective thinking, looking for generative connections, allowing chaos: multiple leaders and switching roles, avoiding wanting to ‘do things themselves’ when the process slows down or grinds to a halt. The key is to take some distance and to activate the network members.

Inge Vermeesch

Relevant themes: Public participation, Sustainable innovation
Relevant tags: Social innovation, Sustainable materials management


  • Inge Vermeesch - KU Leuven

    Inge Vermeesch

    Inge is a PhD researcher at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. She works for Flanders' Policy Research Centre for Sustainable Materials Manangement SuMMa ( Her research focuses on policy innovation, multi-actor collaboration and leadership in multi-actor governance networks that deal with 'wicked problems'.