Reflexive Monitoring in Action

Reflexive Monitoring in Action (RMA) is an integrated methodology to encourage learning within multi-actor groups or networks as well as institutional change in order to deal with complex problems. Appointed reflexive monitors stimulate collective learning and the design and adaptation of actions targeting a future system change. Key is to trigger recurrent collective reflection on the results of actions undertaken in the light of systemic barriers as well as opportunities. While facing the everyday struggles of an ongoing transformative change process, these system innovation initiatives will thus be able to change their practices, relations and rules and contribute to the long term ambition of sustainability.

Over the past decade, the methodology has been applied in many projects and programmes in a diversity of domains, such as sustainable agriculture, health, international development, the knowledge infrastructure, and learning for sustainability. It has developed into a coherent body of basic starting points, principles and intervention strategies. On this site, you find the basic guide, additional tools, practical results and the main scientific articles about RMA.

Guide and tools

The guide on Reflexive Monitoring in Action offers principles, practical guidelines as well as theory and tools. Additional tools, developed more recently, are provided separately. The guide and tools focus on three target groups:

  1. Reflexive monitors
    Consultants, innovation brokers and action researchers who are (or will be) handling the actual monitoring
  2. Innovation managers
    Project managers or innovation champions who feel responsible for the progress of the innovation process and the realisation of the system innovation ambition.
  3. Clients
    Policy officers, financiers and others who act as the commissioning party for system innovation initiatives.

RMA Guide

Learning Mirror New tool RMA, supplement to the RMA guide

Elaboration of Dynamic Learning Agenda Application in natal care (Dutch)


In these projects, Reflexive Monitoring in Action is or will be applied.

  • Coaching in Home & Placemaking: actieonderzoek innovatieve zorg in sociaal-geografisch perspectief 2018 – 2018. By UMCG and KTI, Wageningen University
  • INCAS-2 (Integral maternity care), by VUMC/ Athena Institute, Amsterdam
  • Primary Innovation, New Zealand 2012-2017 by Agresearch, New Zealand
  • Natuurpact (2014-2027) evaluation for BPL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency by Athena Institute, VU, Amsterdam
  • The national Policy Programme ‘Duurzaam Door’ (Moving Forward Sustainably) 2014 – 2016 by Education and Competence Studies, Wageningen University

Practical results

Below you find practical output of projects and initiatives in which RMA has been applied.

Scientific articles

Here you find scientific articles that 1) reflect upon experiences with reflexive monitoring in general or any of its specific tools or 2) elaborate the theoretical foundations of the methodology. If you cannot obtain the full paper through your library system, you can ask Barbara a copy for personal use.

Key articles

van Mierlo, B. & P.J. Beers. (2018). Understanding and governing learning in sustainability transitions: A review. Environmental innovation and societal transitions. In press. Many transitions scholars underscore the importance of learning in sustainability transitions, but the associated learning processes have hardly been conceptualised. The diverse, well-established research fields related to learning are broadly ignored or loosely applied. In this paper, we systematically explore four interesting learning traditions in terms of their value for gaining an in-depth understanding of learning in sustainability transitions and their relevance for fostering learning, by connecting them to key features of transitions. The selected learning traditions from different disciplinary backgrounds provide valuable insights. None of them sufficiently addresses the complexity of transitions. They include, however, a diversity of relevant learning contexts. We conclude that they have value for investigating new areas such as learning in socio-technological regimes and in later phases of a transition, while enlightening forms of learning that have not yet been fully recognised in transition studies, such as superficial learning, unlearning, and learning to resist change. Beers, P. J., & van Mierlo, B. (2017).

Reflexivity and Learning in System Innovation Processes. Sociologia Ruralis, 57(3), 415-436. In‐depth insight into the relationship between reflexivity, learning and reflection is needed to enrich governance approaches for persistent sustainability issues. However, current conceptualisations of reflexivity seem limited for the understanding of system innovation processes – reflexivity remains highly abstract and often gets conflated with reflection, and, by extension, learning. In this article, we critique the concepts reflexivity and learning and then present an exploratory case‐study of greenhouse vegetable production in the Netherlands to examine their relations. Results suggest a shifting compatibility between initiative and context – reflexivity alignment: the extent to which an innovation initiative shares an orientation towards structural change with its institutional setting. Furthermore, learning sometimes appeared to increase reflexivity, as often assumed, but we found evidence of the opposite as well – reflexivity changes preceding learning. Synthesising the results, we posit three archetypal modes that describe the relation between learning in and reflexivity of a system innovation initiative.

Beers, P. J., Mierlo, B., & Hoes, A. C. (2016). Toward an integrative perspective on social learning in system innovation initiatives. Ecology and Society, 21(1): 33. Sustainability transitions go hand in hand with learning. Theories in the realm of sustainability sciences mostly concentrate on diversity and learning outcomes, whereas theories from the educational sciences mostly focus on learning as an interactive process. In this contribution, we aim to benefit from an integration of these perspectives in order to better understand how different interaction patterns contribute to learning. We studied STAP, an innovation initiative of Dutch greenhouse growers. The Dutch greenhouse sector is predominantly focused on production and efficiency, which causes problems for its future viability. STAP aimed to make the sector more market-oriented while at the same time increasing its societal acceptability (societally responsible innovation). To that end, STAP focused on the development of integrated value chains (primary production, sales, trade) that can contribute to a transition towards a societally sensitive greenhouse sector. As action researchers, we collected extensive transcripts of meetings, interviews, and various other documents. We used an open coding strategy to identify different patterns of interaction and the learning outcomes produced by the initiative. We then linked the interaction patterns to the outcomes. Analysis suggests that seemingly negative attack-and-defend patterns of interaction certainly can result in substantial learning results, while seemingly positive synthetic interaction patterns, where participants strive to build on each other, can result in rather bland interaction without substantial outcomes. The results offer an empirical basis to our approach of linking learning interactions to learning outcomes, and it suggests that learning for sustainability can be enhanced by focusing on interaction patterns.

Regeer, B. J., de Wildt-Liesveld, R., van Mierlo, B., & Bunders, J. F. (2016). Exploring ways to reconcile accountability and learning in the evaluation of niche experiments. Evaluation, 22(1), 6-28. While evaluation is seen as a mechanism for both accountability and learning, it is not self-evident that the evaluation of niche experiments focuses on both accountability and learning at the same time. Tensions exist between the accountability-oriented needs of funders and the learning needs of managers of niche experiments. This article explores the differences in needs and expectations of funders and managers in terms of upwards, downwards and internal accountability. The article shows that as the multi-stakeholder contexts in which niche experiments take place give rise to various requirements, tensions in evaluation are essentially a specific manifestation of tensions between niche experiments and their multiple contexts. Based on our findings, an adjusted accountability framework is proposed, including several strategies that can reconcile a learning approach with accountability needs in niche experiments aiming to change current practices in a more sustainable direction.

Arkesteijn, M., B. van Mierlo and C. Leeuwis (2015). The need for reflexive evaluation approaches in development cooperation. Evaluation 21(1): 99-115. Within development cooperation, development issues are increasingly recognized as complex problems requiring new paths towards solving them. In addition to the commonly used two dimensions of complex problems (uncertainty and disagreement), we introduce a third dimension: systemic stability; that is, stability provided by rules, relations and complementary technology. This article reflects on how development evaluation methodologies and especially those introducing a complexity perspective address these three dimensions. Inferring that this third dimension deserves more attention, we explore the characteristics of reflexive evaluation approaches that challenge systemic stability and support processes of learning and institutional change. We conclude that reflexive evaluation approaches may well complement current system approaches in development evaluation practice.

Veen, S. C. V., R. D. Wildt–Liesveld, J. F. Bunders and B. J. Regeer (2014). Supporting reflective practices in social change processes with the dynamic learning agenda: an example of learning about the process towards disability inclusive development. International Journal of Learning and Change, 7(3-4): 211-233. Change processes are increasingly seen as the solution to entrenched (social) problems. However, change is difficult to realise while dealing with multiple actors, values, and approaches. (Inter)organisational learning is seen as a way to facilitate reflective practices in social change that support emergent changes, vicarious learning, and dialogues in a participatory manner. The inclusion of persons with disability in development cooperation requires a social change process to transform current attitudes, practices, and organisational cultures. This paper aims to show how the dynamic learning agenda (DLA) integrates learning with social change by analysing and reflecting on the application of the DLA in the case of facilitating learning on the process towards disability inclusive development. In this paper, we will show the theoretical foundations, purpose, practical implementation and added value of the DLA. We will reflect on the application of the DLA and we will discuss how the DLA supports the integration of learning in social change.

van Mierlo, B., M. Arkesteijn and C. Leeuwis (2010). Enhancing the reflexivity of system innovation projects with system analyses. American Journal of Evaluation 31(2): 143-161. Networks aiming for fundamental changes bring together a variety of actors who are part and parcel of a problematic context. These system innovation projects need to be accompanied by a monitoring and evaluation approach that supports and maintains reflexivity to be able to deal with uncertainties and conflicts while challenging current practices and related institutions. This article reports on experiences with reflexive process monitoring (RPM)—an approach that has been applied in several networks in the Dutch agricultural sector, which strive for sustainable development. Particular attention is paid to conducting system analyses—a core element of the methodology. The first results show that system analyses indeed have the potential to enhance reflexivity if carried out collectively. However, regular patterns of thinking and acting within projects interfere in subtle ways with the new knowledge generated and limit the transformation of the reflexive feedback and insights into action.

Fielke, S.J., Nelson, T., Blackett, P., Bewsell, D., Bayne, K., Park, . N, Rijswijk, K., and Small, B. (2017). Hitting the bullseye: The role of a reflexive monitor in New Zealand agricultural innovation systems. Outlook on Agriculture, 46(2) 117–124

Sol, J. Merel M. van der Wal, Pieter Jelle Beers & Arjen E.J. Wals (2017): Reframing the future: the role of reflexivity in governance networks in sustainability transitions. Environmental Education Research, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2017.1402171

Hoes, A. C., Beers, P. J., & van Mierlo, B. (2016). Communicating tensions among incumbents about system innovation in the Dutch dairy sector. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 21: 113-122.

Rijswijk, K., Bewsell, D., Small, B., & Blackett, P. (2015). Reflexive monitoring in New Zealand: evaluation lessons in supporting transformative change. Evaluation Journal of Australasia, 15(4), 38-4.

Turner, J. A., Klerkx, L., Rijswijk, K., Williams, T., & Barnard, T. (2015). Systemic problems affecting co-innovation in the New Zealand Agricultural Innovation System: Identification of blocking mechanisms and underlying institutional logics. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Science, 76, 99-112.

van Mierlo, Barbara, van Amstel, M., Arkesteijn, M., and Elzen, B. (2010). Keeping the ambition high. The value of reflexive monitoring in action for system innovation projects. SISA Workshop. 2010.

van Mierlo, B., C. Leeuwis, R. Smits and R. K. Woolthuis (2010). Learning towards system innovation: Evaluating a systemic instrument. Technological Forecasting and social Change 77(2): 318-334

Regeer, B. J., A.-C. Hoes, M. van Amstel-van Saane, F. F. Caron-Flinterman and J. F. Bunders (2009). Six guiding principles for evaluating mode-2 strategies for sustainable development. American Journal of Evaluation 30(4): 515-537

Practitioners'network activities and trainings

Past activities for sharing experiences and insights and competence building among practitioners. Those, who work with or are sincerely interested in reflexive monitoring to support multi-actor innovation initiatives seeking transformative change. Future activities will be mentioned under News. If you have any ideas, wishes, opportunities for future network activities, feel free to contact me:

  • A 2-day course on reflexive monitoring at the Transition Academy, by PJ Beers and Barbara van Mierlo, Rotterdam, fall 2018
    • Masterclass Advanced Course Transitiemonitoring, 14 januari en 4 februari 2016, for the VNG (Association of Dutch municipalities), Utrecht
    • Seminar Reflexive monitoring for transformative change, 9 April 2014.
    • Theatre debate Sustainable Agriculture Innovation, 17 April 2015