Systems Transitions Applied Research Initiative

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Tackling humanity’s biggest challenges will at times require redesigning important complex social systems, leading to the transition of their architecture and behaviors. RAND is pioneering a new science of system transition through innovation across theory, methods, and practice of systems analysis.

The Systems Transitions Applied Research (STAR) Initiative is focused on developing concepts, strategies, and practical tools for dealing with systemic problems of health, climate, energy, and environmental sustainability, education, prosperity, and national security. It builds upon RAND’s pioneering work in systems analysis, complexity, and Decision Making under Deep Uncertainty (DMDU), and the strength of its multi-disciplinary, problem-oriented approach to develop applied research programs and contribute toward a community of practice.

This initiative is a collaboration between RAND Social and Economic Well-Being and the RAND Pardee Center.

See related RAND work in robust decision making, complex systems analysis, and transformational system change, below.

Redesigning Systems for the Public Good

Complexity is an increasingly salient feature in society. Failing to account for complexity can result in policy interventions that don’t work, or are counter-productive and harmful. Policy researchers now have expanding capabilities for recognizing and dealing with complexity, from how problems are structured to analytic tools and methodologies accounting for large amounts of data, interconnectedness, and systemic uncertainty.

By combining these new tools with RAND's history in systems analysis, researchers are pushing beyond prior constraints to address critical problems by improving the design of complex systems.

Transitioning Systems Through Adaptive Approaches

Redesigning complex systems requires a multi-faceted, adaptive process that progresses incrementally toward a set of system objectives. The figure below outlines a collection of tools and methodological approaches that are reinforcing and complementary.

Capabilities for System Transformation

Vision and Broad Objectives

These provide the direction for a systems progression. Research, design studios, or stakeholder engagement can be used to identify the vision for the future and the role a system might play. After beginning with broad objectives and identifying outcomes of interest and measures, additional objectives may be added as issues are better understood.

Research and Synthesis

These provide scientific support for the system change process. This begins with clarifying a vision for the system and identifying desired outcomes and measures to track progress. Research from a range of disciplines and modalities can enable insights into system behaviors and problems. As the system becomes better understood, stakeholders are engaged, interventions are designed and tested, and findings synthesized into the research process.


Proposals for new system structures and interventions to current systems may need to be designed to generate ideas, structure systems, and create mechanisms for steering change. Proposed policy designs should be rigorous, using the best available science and evidence to align a design with goals, and factor in implementation and opportunities to assess and manage tradeoffs as they arise.

Engaging Stakeholders and Immersion In a System

Stakeholder-based approaches to learning, developing strategy, and modeling change enable broader understanding of the “systems” view among stakeholders. The process may include two-way learning, as data and information about a system and its context are provided to the participants, who provide their own local expertise.

Adaptive Experiments

An adaptive experiment is a portfolio of small to large interventions in a system, conducted in stages, engaging a variety of partners, and changing in response to feedback. Clear experimental designs should be based on the goal development process to ensure that experiments are pursuing, testing, supporting the right system objectives.

Each of these areas are mutually connecting. Research provides inputs into the process of design, which generates ideas and focus for further research. The research and design processes benefit from immersion in a system and from stakeholder expertise. The design of experiments is informed by research, and can arise from studios. The process is ongoing, iterative, and evolves as the system adapts.

RAND Research in Systems Transitions

RAND has multiple projects in adaptive systems change under way.

RAND Research and Commentary

Systems Transitions Seminar Series

Through this initiative, the Pardee Center invites experts in understanding, managing, and shaping complex adaptive systems to participate in the Systems Transitions Seminar Series. This internal speaker series and related discussions are part of an ongoing initiative at RAND to identify key issues for the future practice of policy and systems analysis.

Rooted in RAND's History

Creative design and assessment of new systems has a long history at RAND, originally with systems analysis in the 1950s and 1960s, and then some aspects of what has come to be known as policy analysis. Policy design for complex systems requires a renewed sense of innovation in the field, and RAND is contributing to this through its work with sponsors and a redesign of graduate education.