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How do we tackle nexus governance?

How do we tackle nexus governance?

The Magic Nexus team

The nexus between water-energy-food can be defined in many ways, as a matter of interconnections, trade-offs and linkages. But perhaps one of the most important ways it should be conceived is as a governance issue. The institutions, coordination and rules concerning sustainability problems across the nexus are crucial to its effective governance. This issue explores some of the questions that arise from the understanding of the nexus as a policy challenge: how do water, energy and agricultural policies impact each other? How can policies be coordinated and harmonized at the European level? Which type of evidence can be used to govern the nexus? How are statistical indicators linked to governance? With this issue, we will be sharing with you some first-hand insights gained from our conversations with European policy makers.

The first article asks: “Where do we govern the nexus?”. Although decisions made in distinct policy areas affect each other, there  is no single European Commission (EC) body that governs the sectors of water, energy, food and the environment together. In this article, we share with you the information we learnt talking with policymakers from the EC and related agencies as part of the MAGIC Nexus project.

In the second article, we explore the role of numbers in governance. Numbers matter. Achieving robust quantitative analyses to measure policy effectiveness requires a great deal of time, money and institutional support. But are we paying enough attention to how metrics are influencing governance processes? This article takes a look at quantification through a governance lens to understand how our choices of quantification may affect governance outcomes and what we need to think about to ensure quality metrics when it comes to the nexus.

In our third and final article, we elaborate on one of the main themes of the MAGIC project: Governance In Complexity (the “GIC” of MAGIC). Everybody agrees that the nexus is complex: but what does complexity mean for governance? This article presents some reflections on what it means to govern when knowledge is incomplete, contradictory or even contested. A model of governance that expects to apply “solutions” to clearly identified “problems” assumes that the world is simple. Complexity means letting go of the ideal of command and control.

These articles are aimed at initiating a discussion on the governance challenges of the nexus. We welcome any comment and contribution to the discussion. You use our discussion forum, write to us or follow us on Twitter.


WHERE do we govern the Nexus?

WHERE do we govern the Nexus?

Kirsty Blackstock, Kerry Waylen, Alba Juarez-Bourke and Keith Matthews

In Europe and beyond there is a growing interest in how we might manage and govern the water-energy-food nexus. The nexus is complex, contested, and difficult to resolve with existing solutions. Therefore, understanding and intervening in the nexus not only requires new diagnostic methods and combinations of technical innovations, but also needs decisions to take account of its many interconnections.  This is a challenge, as most policies deal separately with different aspects of the nexus.

To address this challenge, within the Horizon 2020 MAGIC-Nexus Project, we are assessing how policy-making at the level of the European Union may create opportunities to allow people to ‘govern the nexus’. Policies made by the European Union are a central influence on how we first perceive and then govern the nexus. In MAGIC we focus on five policies which have a direct link to the nexus: the Circular Economy, the Common Agricultural Policy, Energy Efficiency Directive, Natura 2000 – the Habitats and Birds Directives, and Water Framework Directive. These provide the greatest opportunity to ensure that ‘nexus-thinking’ shapes how land and waters are managed across Europe in the context of climate change and delivering sustainability.

Based on initial analysis of policy documents and interviews with those in the European Commission, it is clear that there is interest in the nexus approach. Yet, the nexus is a concept that no single entity has a direct mandate to deliver.  Therefore, coordination will be needed. There are several structures set up to encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas between Directorate General (DGs), to ensure that policies are coherent (in other words, there are no direct conflicts or unintended consequences that prevent policy objectives being met). These include the ‘Inter-Service Steering Groups’ (ISSGs), which ensure internal consultation across the Directorate-Generals within the Commission and these ISSG consultations inform the impact assessment of any policy proposal.  Furthermore, the role of Vice Presidents has also been created to encourage working across DGs at the highest level. There are also other potential venues for promoting a nexus approach, such as the Commission’s in-house think tank – the European Policy Strategy Centre, whose mission is to “innovate and disrupt”.

The policy formation and revision involves organisations outside of the Commission.  Could these help introduce the nexus concept into policy? Unfortunately, again, the nexus is relevant to many, yet central to none of them. Policies proposed by the European Commission are scrutinised by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union as co-legislators; and the Committee of the Regions, and European Economic and Social Committee as consultees. Within each of these structures, there are multiple committees, councils or sections, which tend to mirror the division of policy between agricultural, environment and development, so issues related to the nexus might be split across several committees. Likewise, these bodies are informed by Civil Dialogue Groups (CDGs) and at least three of these (CAP, Rural Development, Environment and Climate Change) are relevant to the nexus but there is no specific CDG with a focus on the nexus. Finally, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has an important role in informing policy making across the nexus through its European Environment - State and Outlook reporting. However, the EEA does not initiate policy and can only advise and support.

Overall, our initial analysis reveals that the space for governing the nexus is ‘everywhere and nowhere’. The formal procedures for development, evaluation and revision of policies at the EU level do ensure some coordination and a cross-fertilisation of views. However, at present no existing formal procedures drive a nexus-first approach to policy making. There is resilience in having multiple spaces from which interconnections can be considered, but there is also the danger of fragmentation and marginalisation especially if there is no influential body or formal process to which the nexus is central.

As previous editions have noted (see Nexus and the CAP) the policy process offers opportunities for both change and maintaining the status quo. Further research with those working within the European Commission will be required to understand under what circumstances we can shift to taking a nexus perspective. Would it be useful to create a new process that starts from a nexus perspective, with direct link to existing policy processes that shape our environment? Or would this become confusing given the already complex and crowded landscape of policy processes? As the project moves forward, and we start to discuss the results of the Quantitative Story-Telling approach with those responsible for the five main policies of interest, we will also explore strategies for using existing spaces, or developing new spaces, to help ‘govern the nexus’.

The idea of governing the nexus is still quite new, so it is exciting to be at the forefront of trying to overcoming these challenges.

Governing by numbers?

Governing by numbers?

Thomas Völker & Zora Kovacic

Governing by numbers?

Thomas Völker & Zora Kovacic

The use of quantification in governance processes is widespread and rarely questioned. Several authors have attributed the attractiveness of numbers to their ability to travel. In this way, quantification can be seen as a positive tool or technology that enables policy actors to govern and understand phenomena from a distance (Scott, 1998). Although it may seem trivial at first glance, this issue reaches the very core of how European society works and is governed – because how one calculates and knows something is just as important as the what that one calculates. To make governance through numbers possible considerable investment in capacity is needed to establish infrastructures of ‘knowing’ – the processes of knowledge gathering and sharing. This includes technical infrastructures and institutional environments, but it also refers to the development of methods and training a skilled workforce.

On the other hand, once quantification infrastructures, or “machineries” (Edwards, 2010) are put in place, they become reactive. In other words, the processes and choices inherent in quantification become performative and can influence society and the way that it is ordered. For example, the way national surveys are conducted affects the way  nations are seen (Porter, 1995). Environmental metrics such as ecological indicators, carbon stocks and CO2 emissions create particular natures that may emphasize some environmental aspects over others and, in turn, become the basis upon which decisions are made (Turnhout, Hisschemöller, & Eijsackers, 2007).

What’s more, this performativity of measurement leads to further complications down the line. This is due to the difficulties in introducing novelties and making changes to long-established accounting procedures. The critical question here is: Is it the policy goals that define which indicators are needed or do the available indicators define which goals can be attained? The assumption would be that the goals that determine the choice of indicators, but in practice, often the direction of causality between policy goals and indicator development is more complex. One can think for example about difficulties of measuring waste and the role of waste in Circular Economy indicators.

Armed with an understanding of how particular ideas of quantification become stabilized and reinforced through institutional frameworks, the next question then becomes, what elements of quantification do policy-makers take for granted that they should not? Processes of measurement and categorization have been associated with outcomes of both emancipation and persecution throughout history. Today, the enlightenment ideals of rationality, human agency, planning, control and progress are deeply inscribed into modern institutions of governance. They are central to evaluative practices, to processes of categorization, legitimation, standardisation and the production of hierarchies or ‘grammars’ or ‘orders’ of worth (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006; Welch, Keller, & Mandich, 2017). For example, studies have shown that school administrators adapt their curriculums to the rating and ranking systems of schools in order to achieve high scores (Espeland & Sauder, 2007). In this case, quantification practices are transformed in ordering practices.

When it comes to policymaking, research has found that the use of evidence for decision making is a process that is far less linear then commonly assumed. In fact, in many cases the link between evidence and policymaking may be disconnected (Waylen & Young, 2014). Evidence does not necessarily inform policy making. Instead, evidence may be used after policy priorities have already been established, through target setting negotiations and in monitoring progress towards targets. Quantified evidence plays an important procedural role in policymaking. Numbers as quantified evidence give a sense of authority and legitimacy. In a situation in which the authority of politicians is questioned, trust is transferred to the ideal of “mechanized objectivity” (Porter, 1995). In other words, quantification can render issues apolitical and therefore non-debatable.

A principal challenge that surrounds nexus policymaking is described as methodological and disciplinary “silos” through which policy relevant evidence is produced (Stirling, 2015). Silos in this respect denote a lack of communication and coordination among institutions, much like a sealed-off concrete silo where grains are kept untouched for long periods of time. Although there are active channels and interconnections among different sectors - for example, water and energy departments work together in the cases of desalination and hydropower -  there are great challenges in understanding the nature of these connections on a systemic level. The challenge of modelling the nexus as a whole is not just one of changing the models used. This then requires changing the procedures and technologies of producing quantitative evidence. In this respect, we query how might institutional and organizational orderings change with a nexus approach?

Using these observations as a starting point, the MAGIC project explores – through focusing on narratives and their quantitative basis - how alternative modes of environmental governance might open up paths for a more productive and effective use of quantification in governance.


Boltanski, L., & Thévenot, L. (2006). On justification: Economies of worth: Princeton University Press.

Edwards, P. N. (2010). Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming, 1-518.

Espeland, W. N., & Sauder, M. (2007). Rankings and reactivity: How public measures recreate social worlds. American journal of sociology, 113(1), 1-40.

Jasanoff, S. (2003). Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science. Minerva, 41(3), 223-244.

Jasanoff, S. (2007). Technologies of humility. Nature, 450(7166), 33.

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Sloan, S. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male (Vol. 1): Saunders Philadelphia.

Porter, T. M. (1995). Trust in Numbers. The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed: Yale University Press.

Stirling, A. (2015). Developing ‘Nexus Capabilities’: towards transdisciplinary methodologies. University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.

Turnhout, E., Hisschemöller, M., & Eijsackers, H. (2007). Ecological indicators: between the two fires of science and policy. Ecological indicators, 7(2), 215-228.

Waylen, K. A., & Young, J. (2014). Expectations and experiences of diverse forms of knowledge use: the case of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 32(2), 229-246.

Welch, D., Keller, M., & Mandich, G. (2017). Imagined futures of everyday life in the circular economy. interactions, 24(2), 46-51.


Complexity in Nexus Governance

Complexity in Nexus Governance

Roger Strand

Whatever the water-energy-food-environment Nexus is, everybody tends to agree that it is complex. Unfortunately, nobody agrees what it means to be complex. In this piece, I claim that more time ought to be spent on serious discussion about what complexity is and what it entails for our possibilities to achieve some kind of governance of the Nexus. By serious discussion I mean not only that current knowledge on complexity theory and other relevant sciences are taken into account but also to be willing to admit when things are difficult and not going well, for instance when policy goals are far from reach or seem mutually contradictory.

Definitions of complexity abound. A useful approach to complexity is to define simplicity, which is easier (Strand 2002). A simple system consists of identifiable parts that interact with law-like regularity. The parts are stable and have a limited number of measurable properties, and their interactions are linear. There is no controversy on what counts as the borders of the system, the number and identity of their parts, and the number and identity of their relevant properties. This allows scientists and citizens to believe that the knowledge is objective. You may get to different concepts of complexity by negating different parts of the concept of simplicity, focussing on features such as nonlinearity, stochastics, fuzziness, radical openness or contextuality (Chu et al 2003). In post-normal science, one has often focussed on “emergent complex systems”, defined as systems that include intentional, sense-making agents (such as humans). Funtowicz and Ravetz (1994) showed how such systems in general are cannot be predicted and may have multiple legitimate descriptions that are in contradiction with each other.

When one tries to know something, one approach is to perform two conceptual partitions – literally, two mental operations. The first is to distinguish between “I” or “we” on one hand and everything else, “the external world” on the other. The second is to divide the external world into a “system” of interest and everything else, “the environment” on the other (Rosen 1994):

If the world were simple, this approach would have allowed us to obtain perfect, precise and objective knowledge of the external world. Indeed, this approach is known as “Modern Science” or the “Scientific Method”, celebrated in Europe and beyond for centuries. The only mystery that remains for it, is ourselves. Ever new sciences try to mentally externalize and objectify aspects of the “I” – body parts, genes, neural circuits, mental processes – to smoke the genie of out of the bottle and eliminate the mystery. Such a perfectly known world can also be perfectly governed. Francis Bacon (1620) famously pointed this out: “Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, for where the cause is not known, the effect cannot be produced.” A philosophical problem is the question of where that “I”, that human subject, resides, and if it can be trusted. When finally fully objectified, no human subject is left to rule the world and governance must be left to God or to a self-evolving Artificial Intelligence. Francis Bacon’s contemporary, René Descartes (1641), tinkered on the Christian (and Platonic) solution to this intellectual problem and located the immutable human soul (res cogitans) outside the physical universe and therefore beyond the scope of the Laws of Nature.

The Nexus, whatever it may be, is not simple. Some people think of the Nexus as something physical: The Nexus is the socio-ecological natural system of waterways, soils, aquifers, mountains, villages, acres, roads, food stores, kitchens, sewages, animals, plants and humans all interconnected in nonlinear ways, exchanging energy and matter but also information and meaning, as when episodes of water scarcity leads to political measures that again lead to anger, protests, conflict or perhaps even war, all with its own feedbacks into air, water and soil. The Nexus in this sense is nonlinear, stochastic, fuzzy and radically open and accordingly its future trajectory cannot be precisely predicted or governed by a command-and-control type of logic. It is also clearly an emergent complex system. However sophisticated the science, the Nexus will have multiple legitimate descriptions that depend on the framing of the system and its relevant and valuable properties. Accordingly, one should not expect consensus about the knowledge base. Indeed, as nicely demonstrated by the piece by Blackstock et al. in the Nexus Times, there is no “point of nowhere”, no neutral stance or position from which to observe and govern the Nexus. Both knowledge and action depends on the place (country, region, institution, location in the ecosystem) of the knowing and acting subject.

This leads us to a central insight: We are inside of the so-called external world and we are part of it. It is an illusion to believe in governance of complexity, or governance of the Nexus. What we actually can achieve, is governance in complexity (Rip 2006). It is to be expected that things don’t go well and that policy targets are not met. Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, Bacon insisted, and in complexity, inside the Nexus, there can be no perfect knowledge and hence no perfect power.

The lack of perfect power of a command-and-control type is not the same as powerlessness. We all know that, in our own lives as private individuals and family members. In the political institutions in modern states, however, the acknowledgement of imperfection is sometimes accompanied with a sense of disbelief, disempowerment and a peculiar type of dishonest, desperate optimism: If we only do some more research and some more expert groups, we are going to know what to do (Strand 2002). One pretends that scientific knowledge allows us to predict the consequences of public decisions and that things are “under control”. When things then go wrong, this is explained away with reference to external disturbances (which are ubiquitous, because the Nexus is radically open), or calling for more research, or more action. This is why I called above for a serious discussion on complexity. Over the years, I have talked to so many serious and reflective individuals inside of governmental institutions who are well aware of complexity but still find little room to articulate its implications within the institutional setting in which they work. Instead, they feel compelled to take part in policy discourses and practices that implicitly assume that the world is a simple system.



Bacon, F. (1620/1994) Novum Organum; with Other Parts of the Great Instauration, Chicago: Open Court Publishing.

Descartes, R. (1641/1971) Discourse on Method and the Meditations, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics 1971.

Chu D, Strand R & Fjelland R. (2003) “Theories of Complexity”, Complexity, 8:19-30.

Funtowicz, S & Ravetz, JR. (1994), “Emergent complex systems”, Futures, 26, 566-582.

Rip, A. (2006) “A co-evolutionary approach to reflexive governance - and its ironies” in J-P Voss, D Bauknecht, R Kemp (eds), Reflexive governance for sustainable development, pp 82-100, E Elgar.

Rosen, R. (1991), Life itself: a comprehensive inquiry into the nature, origin, and fabrication of life, New York: Columbia University Press.

Strand, R. (2002) “Complexity, Ideology and Governance”, Emergence, 4:164-183.