Unlocking transformation: a toolkit for tracking and advancing societal missions

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Photo: Orbon Alija/iStock

A fully circular Dutch economy by 2050. Like the Netherlands, governments around the world are setting large, ambitious goals around society’s most pressing challenges. But where do decision-makers start when there are multiple, often competing innovative solutions and ideas about what the future should look like? Recently published Utrecht University research equips decision-makers with the tools to understand and enhance possibilities for driving change.

The implementation and monitoring of so-called mission-specific innovation policies (also known as mission-oriented innovation policy) remains challenging. “A mission is a point on the horizon, but it is often unclear how we get there. There are many potential solutions and ways that the future can be imagined,” explains Remi Elzinga, lead author of the study in Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions.

The novel Mission-specific Innovation Systems (MIS) framework provides a new way to assess progress and identify barriers to system-wide changes necessary to tackle complex societal problems. “The task is to foster these different solutions and eventually choose what we want to do”.

A three-step assessment process

The Dutch government has committed itself to the goal of A fully circular Dutch economy by 2050. It is now trying to understand and accelerate the required transition. The study, co-authored by Matthijs Janssen, Simona Negro, Joeri Wesseling and Marko Hekkert analysed three cases central to this mission—the textile, plastic and manufacturing sectors. Elzinga explains: “Looking at the development and diffusion of innovation through a MIS lens helps us understand whether and where momentum for change is building up, and what is holding it back.”

Looking at the development and diffusion of innovation through a MIS lens helps us understand whether and where momentum for change is building up, and what is holding it back.

The paper outlines a three-step process for conducting a MIS analysis. Elzinga explains, "It begins with a thorough examination of the problems and potential solutions, which forms the basis for analyzing the structure and functioning of the system. Then, by studying key actors, institutions, and their interactions, we gain insights into where change is happening and what obstacles we might face." Finally, it assesses the performance of different solution approaches, allowing for a comprehensive evaluation of transformational processes.

Tools to formulate effective policy

The proposed framework fills a critical gap in monitoring societal missions reliant on system transformation. "Our research provides decision-makers with a comprehensive understanding of societal transformation processes. It equips them with the tools to develop effective policy responses to wicked societal challenges," says Elzinga.

By offering guidance on decisions, processes, and structures, the study advances the discourse surrounding mission-specific innovation policies. Elzinga concludes: "We believe that the MIS assessment framework can drive successful implementation and monitoring of mission-specific innovation policies, paving the way for transformative change."


Elzinga, R., Janssen, M. J., Wesseling, J., Negro, S. O., & Hekkert, M. P. (2023). Assessing mission-specific innovation systems: Towards an analytical frameworkEnvironmental Innovation and Societal Transitions48, 100745.