On Policy Experimentation: Decision, Design and Evolutionary Attitudes

Thinking & Analysis

 MAY 2018

At the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC), we are embarking on an exciting five-year programme that involves a good deal of policy experimentation and co-creation. With this blog, the first in a series that each time focuses on one element of the TIPC programme, I share some of my reflections about policy experimentation, gathered as I was scouting this territory during our explorotary year.

References to experiments, experimentation and experimentalism are becoming ubiquitous. It is hard to listen to a podcast without coming across at least one reference to these “exes”. Dedicated spaces for experimentation, or laboratories, are cropping up in cities, policy units and multi-stakeholder platforms under a variety of guises and labels. Part of this enthusiasm stems from a recent embrace of the uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance brought forward by complex and wicked problems (Stirling 2010, Leach et al. 2010). Look closely at the UN Sustainable Development Goals and you find multiple intersecting issues, for which solutions are far from obvious, and that could create knock-on effects and impacts. In this context, labs are typically designed to tackle a particular challenge or mission and are the embodiment of a rhetoric instilled with optimism about innovation and scepticism about planning and traditional approaches to policymaking. Despite these commonalities, a similar language is being used to describe diverse, and at times, contradictory expectations of what can be achieved by experimentation, including:

  • to generate scientific evidence of ‘what works’ for decision making
  • to test design-hypothesis and clarify ‘what is really going on’
  • to innovate within the public sector and demonstrate ‘what will happen’
  • to deal with uncertainty and complexity on ‘what would happen if’
  • to foster creativity and learning about ‘what could be’
  • to protect, nourish and empower alternatives ‘which might happen’
  • to provoke discussion and probe ‘what ought to happen’

However, before TIPC jumps on this bandwagon, it is essential we question the contours and directions of experimentation. Bason (2017) proposed a useful way to do this when he identified the decision and design attitudes (or rationales) for experimentation. Here, I review these attitudes and complement them with a perspective which is prevalent in my field of study (sustainability transitions). These attitudes are often taken for granted by the various communities of practice that pursue policy experimentation. Making their assumptions evident is an important step to develop a shared understanding within TIPC.

Decision attitude

The decision attitude focuses on enabling decision making (Bason, 2017), and thus is primarily concerned with producing (scientific) evidence about the efficacy of a predefined set of options, to estimate impacts, mitigate risk, confirm design hypothesis and optimise policy instruments. This attitude is associated with an emphasis on econometric methods (e.g. randomised control trials) or behavioural experiments, which adhere to strict control of experimental parameters.

Considering TIPC’s objectives, this attitude, in and of itself, is insufficient to handle the uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance brought about by the process of transformation, as it can precipitate closure around specific interventions and stifle deliberation about the ends, means and implications of different pathways. Nevertheless, developing other methodologies that combine social appraisal and experimentation can be an entry point for more transformative practices of deliberation. This can be achieved, for example, by mapping the criteria that different stakeholders utilise when evaluating a particular policy dilemma (i.e. multi-criteria mapping), then using that information to set up experiments and evaluate their progress.

Design attitude

In contrast, the design attitude emphasizes ‘probing next practice’, and takes a ‘future-making stance’ (Bason, 2017). This position embraces uncertainty and ambiguity as generative for the process, which is primarily thought of as a creative endeavour. The abilities and sensitivities of designers are seen as good ways to navigate the process of experimenting with policymaking. In particular, cultivating a deep empathy is seen as crucial for re-centring policy on people’s needs and their relationships with the system (as opposed to abstract ideas of efficiency or performance). Here, laboratories are often presented as creative spaces, where policy-makers and other stakeholders can approach problems from new angles, and craft novel approaches which then go on to be tested in practice (e.g. by rapid prototyping).

Various methods associated with this attitude have been permeating policy practice and giving it a new dynamism. However, it is not evident to what extent the adoption of a design attitude can help promote systemic change, if this is the goal. By framing the issue of policy experimentation as primarily concerning creativity, it tends to neglect the concrete ways in which path-dependence and lock-in of existing systems stifle transformations. Most innovations and well-designed interventions recoil when confronted with the sheer indomitability of that which is already here.

Evolutionary attitude

Within the field of sustainability transitions, we observe an evolutionary attitude that places systemic change front and centre.  Even when a promising technology or social practice is apparent (say solar PV for decarbonising electricity generation), mainstreaming it remains a challenge; it can take decades to align the various process of developing that technology, its supply chains, creating the appropriate business models, policies, regulations and informing users. It can take even longer to establish and align complementary innovations (e.g. smart grids, grid-scale storage, domestic storage), to create a viable alternative, and handle the multiple complications that emerge (e.g. appropriate subsidies, rising electricity costs). These up-and-coming socio-technical configurations face immense pressure when competing with the dominant way of doing things, such as users’ expectations of performance and cost, and active resistance by the incumbent players.

For that reason, scholars highlight the importance of niches: protective spaces where the effects of the dominant way of doing things are not as overbearing, and emerging practices and technologies can find the necessary resources and conditions to develop. Such niches can be built by taking advantage of pre-existing favourable conditions and by establishing, and supporting strategic socio-technical experiments (Schot and Geels, 2008). Thus, the transitions field argues that experimentation, coupled with efforts to develop niches, and other policy approaches (embedded in a policy mix) can help foster sustainability transitions (Kivimaa and Kern, 2016, Rogge and Reichardt, 2016). In this context, experiments can be defined as ‘an inclusive, practice-based and challenge-led initiative designed to promote system innovation through social learning under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity’ (Sengers et al., 2016).

Mobilising experimentation for TIPC

In the context of TIPC, elements of these different attitudes are salient. In particular, we hope to empower our members to develop the evolutionary attitude, as we have observed that it is still largely neglected in the current practice that favours decision and design.

Crucially, as experimentation continues to develop in various domains within and outside the policy realm, it is vital that policymakers move beyond setting-up specific policy experiments solely for policy formulation and build the capacity to engage and mobilise the initiatives, and the lessons emerging from a range of experimental activities. With that in mind, we published last year a brief that explores experimental policy engagements (EPEs):  ‘The diverse ways in which policymakers engage with processes of experimentation, initiating, supporting or mobilising such initiatives for informing decision-making, enabling processes of social learning, developing alternatives pathways and enacting desirable futures.’ (Torrens and Schot, 2017).

We have begun preparation for our transformation laboratory, where we shall explore different EPEs and co-develop the methods, practices and rationales that can underpin Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP). In these efforts, we are committed to co-creation and shared learning. So in this spirit, I am curious to hear your feedback and contributions to the points discussed in this TIPC core programme debut blog.


Bason, C. (2017) Leading Public Desing: Discovering human-centred governance. Bristol: Policy Press.
Kivimaa, P., Kern, F., 2016. Creative destruction or mere niche support? Innovation policy mixes for sustainability transitions. Research Policy 45. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2015.09.008
Leach, M., Scoones, I. and Stirling, A. C. (2010) Dynamic Sustainabilities, Dynamic Sustainabilities: Technology, Environment, Social Justice. Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9781849775069.
Rogge, K.S., Reichardt, K., 2016. Policy mixes for sustainability transitions: An extended concept and framework for analysis. Research Policy 45, 1620–1635. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2016.04.004
Schot, J. and Geels, F. W. (2008) ‘Strategic niche management and sustainable innovation journeys: theory, findings, research agenda, and policy’, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 20(5), pp. 537–554. doi: 10.1080/09537320802292651.
Sengers, F., Wieczorek, A. J. and Raven, R. (2016) ‘Experimenting for sustainability transitions: A systematic literature review’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Elsevier Inc., (In Press). doi: 10.1016/j.techfore.2016.08.031.
Stirling, A. C. (2010) ‘Keep it complex.’, Nature, 468(7327), pp. 1029–31. doi: 10.1038/4681029a.
Torrens, J. and Schot, J. (2017) The Roles of Experimentation in Transformative Innovation Policy. 2017–2. Brighton. http://www.transformative-innovation-policy.net/publications/roles-of-experimentation-in-transformative-innovation-policy/