System Innovation Lab

Problem statement

Europe`s energy future requires us to master a substantial transformation towards sustainability. We are caught in national ways of thinking, yet needen a common European vision to design our future energy system. Europeans across all sectors - public policy, corporate, civil society and individual citizens - need to work together towards a sustainable energy system in order to secure prospereous living conditions for themselves and future generations.

The mission was to...

...understand different paradigms in energy policy between EU member states. a common vision for a sustainable European energy system.
...implement & evaluate concrete solutions that will shape Europe`s energy future.

The goal was to...

...bolster a network of inspired and inspiring system innovators with the objective of overcoming barriers towards a sustainable energy future across Europe.


"System innovation is not just an economic, technological or managerial process, but also a political and cultural project that will require leadership, inclusiveness and a shared societal vision to drive it." (OECD report on System Innovation, 2015, p.7.)

The nature of  today`s sustainability challenges is that of so-called "wicked problems": humans have to operate with incomplete and changing, sometimes contradictory information in complex systems where changing one element may lead to unintended  or unexpected consequences, possibly creating new problems.

As a result, fragmented approaches to problem-solving can tackle symptoms at best but will most likely not overcome the root causes of a systems`s unsustainable development path. The 20th Century ideal of specialization and single-issue expertise needs to be complemented with a holistic understanding of relationships, feedback loops, and tipping points to find responses that are systemic in nature and viable in the long term.

Taking the European Energy System as an example, different expert viewpoints will describe both the system and the best solutions to the problem differently. Whereas some stress the physical, technological or ecological conditions of energy production, distribution and consumption, other focus on the relationship between markets, industries and households. Yet others describe the system as a political structure based on a public notions of needs and priorities. The challenge for a systemic innovation approach is to

  • understand the different viewpoints, to consider them as dimensions of one and the same system and to identify their relations;
  • design a vision and language that speaks to actors in the system and highlights their commonalities and connections;
  • implement and evaluate targeted interventions in collaboration with key stakeholders that are sensitive to the development dynamics of the system.

This thinking big and being specific at the same time is what the System Innovation Lab was about: to develop a systemic understanding of the problems at hand and then to break down the complexity into specific steps of action for change makers to take.

Project partner

Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and the Centre for Social Investment of Heidelberg University merged 2016 their expertise in the realms of systemic-ecological and socio-cultural innovation to create the System Innovation Lab.

The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy (WI) is a research institute with the mission of developing models, strategies and instruments for transitions to sustainable development at the local, national and international level. Research at WI champions transdisciplinarity and focuses on resource flows, climate and energy systems and sustainable prosperity solutions:

21.02.2016 - 27.05.2016

Project team
Dr. Volker Then (project manager)

Project partner
Wuppertal Institut

Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt
Stiftung für deutsch-polnische Zusammenarbeit


Funding partners

The Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (German Federal Environmental Foundation) is one of Europe's largest foundations and promotes innovative and exemplary projects for the protection of the environment. In doing so it is guided by ecological, economic, social and cultural considerations based on the concept of sustainable development:


The Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation supports friendly relations between the Poles and the Germans. For the last 20 years, the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation has co-financed over 10 000 bilateral projects, thereby contributing to the foundations of Polish-German dialogue: