Multi-Actor Systems

Research Themes

Governance and participation: an overview of the Multi-Actor Systems (MAS) Department’s research

Within the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, the Multi-Actor Systems (MAS) Department focuses on issues with a strong social and technical or physical component.  

  • As a result of global warming, glaciers are melting more rapidly, which increases the risk of flooding. This does not just apply to individual rivers but to entire river systems, which must be able to process large volumes of water. This requires adjustments to the flow of rivers as well as integrated river management. But how can this be achieved when the management structure is characterised by fragmentation? Many river systems fall under dozens of local, regional and national authorities that all have their own interests at heart and whose data is often incomplete and inconsistent.
  • The electricity network is designed to serve a small number of centralised energy providers and a large number of consumers. The past decade, however, has seen a trend in which many consumers have also become small-scale renewable energy suppliers who produce solar or wind energy. The existing electricity network and the accompanying social structures therefore need to be redesigned. How do we create a new network that is able handle these changes? How do we integrate millions of electric cars into this infrastructure? What rules need to be adopted and how do we coordinate the vital interaction between the participants in this network: energy providers and consumers, energy communities and the distribution system?
  • A circular economy is characterised by closed-loop production and consumption systems and networks. Many waste products that are currently incinerated, dumped in landfills or otherwise disposed of in the environment (e.g. manure, plastic packaging, CO2 and waste heat) could actually be recycled into useful resources. The necessary technology is often already available but on closer examination proves to be incompatible with existing regulations, too costly or too risky for one of the parties concerned. How can we determine for a wide range of systems and networks what forms of recycling and reuse are technologically and economically feasible and what regulations need to be adapted for this purpose? How can we assess the risks to the various parties, and to what extent can those risks be mitigated through smart agreements?
  • The financial crisis (also: euro crisis or banking crisis) has had a huge impact on the housing market. Despite historically low interest rates, hundreds of thousands of homeowners are at risk of defaulting on their mortgage payments. Real estate corporations have lost billions by investing in financial products that were designed to cover them against such losses. How can we reform the housing industry? What regulations would contribute to a fair sharing of the burden? What measures might prevent parties from taking irresponsible risks in the future? And what social structures could be of significance in this context

Key question

Designing an effective socio-technical system requires consideration of the entire system from a technical or physical systems perspective as well as from the perspective of the relevant actors, who each have their own interests and resources. This is a far from simple task, as the actors may even disagree on what constitutes ‘effective’ in the first place. The research of the Multi-Actor Systems (MAS) Department focuses on this key question. How can we move towards a form of governance and participation that does justice to all concerned?


In addition, new developments within these technical and/or physical systems almost always lead to tension with existing governance structures, thus creating a need for innovation. 

  • Climate change and rising sea levels necessitate radical changes in the way we handle water security. Urban development and water management can no longer be regarded as separate governance issues. Municipalities and regional water boards will have to integrate their policies in these areas to a considerable extent. How should such integration take shape? Can citizens play a role in these developments?
  • Due to the advance of solar and wind energy, Europe’s electricity network is becoming increasingly decentralised, while governance in the energy sector is still based on the idea of centralised energy production. How can we coordinate millions of decentralised energy producers? What social structures are suitable for this purpose?
  • The rapid rise of new and evolving forms of cyber criminality requires technological solutions as well as the development of new governance models. For example, what type of incentive mechanism is most conducive to cyber security?
  • ‘Disruptive technologies’ such as Uber and Airbnb (as well as iTunes, the Model T Ford, etc.) produce rapid change in existing multi-actor systems. Are there any governance models that are flexible enough to adapt to such rapid change or do we simply have to keep redesigning them? And if so, how?


Our research deals with real-life problems, not hypothetical case studies. We focus on sectors dominated by technical or physical systems. Examples of technical systems include networks in the field of energy, telecommunications, (public) transport, computing and security. Examples of physical systems include river basins, coastal areas, urban areas and so forth.


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