The Sum of the Parts - study

Sustainability agenda’s tend to overlap at the regional level. How do they converge and coalesce? What does this imply for an integrative approach?

Background and request for advice

The Netherlands must transition to sustainability. Over the coming decades our energy supply, our food system and our economy will be radically transformed. We will also have to adapt to the changing climate. All tiers of government are working on these four development agendas, but their implementation comes together in the regions. Here there are overlaps, common interests and conflicts, not only among the agendas themselves but also with specific regional challenges. The Council for the Environment and Infrastructure has explored what this means for making the transition to sustainability in the Netherlands by examining the case of the Southwest Delta region.

Early stages of implementation

In its study of the Southwest Delta the Council looked at the four sustainability agendas that will have a big impact on this region: the energy transition, the food transition, the transition to a circular economy and climate adaptation. These agendas will bring about major changes in the region, including the transformation of the industrial base, the transition to large-scale generation of renewable energy, greening the existing housing stock and the recreation sector, the construction of flood protection works and adaptation to drought, and switching to circular agriculture. Various initiatives in the Southwest Delta are already contributing to these structural adjustments. Most, however, are still small scale and the results are limited in relation to the targets for 2050. The process of realising these sustainability agendas is therefore still at an early stage.

Little sign of substantive linkages between agendas

As the sustainability agendas in the region still consist overwhelmingly of policy intentions, the substantive interrelations between the agendas and with the regional challenges remain largely hidden. This will change as soon as implementation of the agendas starts to pick up. The Council expects it will not be long before the need for a coherent and integrative approach, both substantive and procedural, will come to the fore. Unique opportunities can be created by cleverly combining elements from different agendas. An example is the construction of a tidal power plant in a flood barrier that has to be altered in line with projected sea level rise. Conversely, problems can arise where transitions converge, for example if they compete for space, money, labour or political attention. Such difficulties can be averted by devising smart combinations.

Effective regional partnerships a must

The Council observes that an impetus is needed to inject vigour and decisiveness into regional decision-making. Work on the agendas must be expedited and scaled up. Moreover, the Council observes that the regions must respond more proactively to the growing convergence between agendas. Crucial to achieving both of these things is a strong regional system of partnerships between government, market players, knowledge institutes and civil society organisations.

Conclusion: five strategies for stronger regions

The Council concludes that an integrative regional approach is needed. The Council identifies five – interrelated – strategies to strengthen this integrative approach to implementing the sustainability agendas at the regional level.

  1. Create stronger links between national government and the region: the regions will not be able to realise the sustainability agendas without the national government; conversely, national government needs the regions. The Council makes the case for a more active role for national government in the region and calls upon national government and the regions to work on the agendas as equal partners.
  2. Society should be more involved in finding solutions to the challenges: the Council is in favour of an area-based approach in which government engages the public in an active dialogue on implementing the agendas in their own areas.
  3. Turn the sustainability agendas into an opportunity to tackle regional challenges: sustainability is often seen as a threat, but the Council observes that the sustainability agendas are actually an opportunity for regions to tackle their own specific challenges.
  4. Focus efforts on innovation and knowledge building for sustainability: to take the agendas forward it will be important that knowledge building and the educational offer tie in with regional labour market policies.
  5. Use the power of design to cement the interrelations between the sustainability agendas: design can be a powerful tool in the process of visioning, policymaking and implementation to bring the linkages between agendas into focus.

Publication date: 26 March 2019

The report ‘The Sum of the Parts: Converging national and regional challenges’ was presented to Han Polman, King’s Commissioner for the Province of Zeeland, on 26 March 2019.

More information

If you would like more information about this report, please contact Tim Zwanikken, project leader:, +31 (0)6 52874404.