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Bridging the Different Interests Around Synthetic Drugs

Initiating Value Creators

Our initial week as value creators revolved around the fascinating subject of recreational synthetic drugs. The team, brought together by a shared interest, delved into the complex system surrounding this topic. The week kicked off with a practical workshop on the 4E-model and complex systems. This model served as our guide, leading us through four insightful reports to gain a better understanding of the intricate problem we were dealing with and how we could add value. A key activity during this workshop was a board game focused on the 4E-model, where we explored the phases—Explore, Engage, Elaborate, and Evaluate.

As we progressed through the workshop, we identified the different phases and gained valuable insights on where to focus and which stakeholders to involve. Cause-and-effect discussions and actor analysis brought us closer to comprehending the complexity of the system. The outcomes were documented in a mapping exercise conducted online, further elaborating on the findings.

The four rounds of the game mirrored the stages of the 4E-model, helping us grasp the broader picture and the path we needed to take. In the final round, we pinpointed the values of the 5P's, realising that our system and value were predominantly grounded in peace, people, and planet. These values became the focal points where the challenges intersected between actors and systems.

Our first week set the stage for an insightful journey into the intricacies of synthetic drugs and the value we aimed to co-create. It wasn't an over-the-top experience, but a practical and enlightening start to our exploration.

Dealing with Uncertainty

In week 3 we dove deeper into the topic of dealing with uncertainties during a workshop, this is one of the main topics through the Value Creators journey. In the workshop about uncertainty, we learned that uncertainties are multi-levelled and embracing "safe uncertainty" can be more fruitful than futile attempts to eliminate it. The key takeaways included recognising and steering clear of common pitfalls, oversimplification or the pursuit of control, which can overlook unexpected opportunities. Through exercises, we reflected on our personal encounters with uncertainty and devised strategies for stakeholder engagement. The workshop introduced 'liberating structures' like messy mapping to aid us in crafting coherent team narratives—essential tools for navigating the complexities of project management. The journey isn't about avoiding the unknown but learning to traverse it with confidence and agility.

Furthermore, we worked on the topic of networking, refining the rubric to specify "affected parties," breaking them down into organisations and individuals. We validated these stakeholders' roles and gathered their views to articulate the network's collective stance on the issue. Our review acknowledged the robustness of the written content, alongside enriching the knowledge report with a detailed table. We aligned the project with the complexity of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), stepping away from activity-based assessments. We examined Trimbos Institute's strategic plans, current projects, and future goals, contemplating how we could augment their efforts.

Theory U

During the workshop in week 4, we delved into the relevance of Theory U in navigating the complexities surrounding synthetic drugs within our value creators' sphere. This exploration aimed to facilitate a shift from ego to eco-system thinking, recognising the need for heightened collaboration to effectively address the multifaceted challenge at hand. Theory U guided us in overcoming internal barriers such as fear, judgment, and cynicism, creating a conducive environment for generative dialogues and building trust. This shift in mindset proved to be invaluable, allowing us to approach the intricate issue of synthetic drugs with a holistic and intentional focus, thus enhancing the overall quality of our ongoing discourse. The workshop commenced with a reflective individual exercise where each participant silently identified their perception of the complex system. Subsequently, we engaged in a collective discussion, sharing our individual perspectives and exploring how our personal views could coalesce into a cohesive understanding. By synthesising our viewpoints, we constructed a comprehensive representation of the system.

Taking this representation as a starting point, we collectively reimagined the system to align with our shared vision. This involved visualising a scenario characterised by legalisation and collaborative efforts between producers, users, and policymakers, breaking down the barriers that traditionally separated these different facets of the system. The exercise was instrumental in fostering a unified perspective and envisioning a transformed system that reflected our collective aspirations.

Overall, the workshop provided a powerful platform for transformative thinking and collaborative envisioning. By incorporating Theory U principles, we not only gained insights into the complexities of synthetic drugs but also laid the groundwork for a more integrated and cooperative approach to addressing this challenging issue.

Messy Mapping

During the fifth week of our program, we conducted a comprehensive workshop with a primary focus on network mapping. The team engaged in a systematic three-step process aimed at enhancing the preexisting network associated with a pertinent issue. This process is often referred to as "messy mapping," encouraging the team to brainstorm and jot down all ideas to broaden the scope and step beyond known systems.

The initial step of the approach involved identifying all individual entities and stakeholders concerned with the matter. Subsequently, the team undertook the task of clustering the identified parties, creating smaller, interconnected networks within the overarching structure. This process allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the relationships and connections between these stakeholders.

The next step was to define the intricate relationships and connections between these smaller networks and stakeholders. This process resulted in a comprehensive map that expanded our understanding of stakeholders beyond our initial ideas, providing a clearer picture of the complex system associated with the wicked challenge.

Engaging in this mapping process not only broadened our perspective but also contributed to generating ideas regarding stakeholder engagement. By visualising the expanded network and their relations, the team gained valuable insights into the dynamics of the issue at hand. This approach proved instrumental in identifying potential areas for intervention and collaboration, ultimately aiding in the development of a more effective strategy to address the complexities of the wicked challenge. During this phase the team started contacting stakeholders for conversations on the topic and broadening the network for future collaboration.

Developments Scoping and Co-Creation

In the sixth week, the team did not partake in a scheduled workshop. However, this absence of a workshop did not imply a lack of tasks for the team members. The team developed a causal map, a strategic tool designed to discern and comprehend the intricate web of causes and effects within the system. This comprehensive causal map facilitated a nuanced understanding of how various elements within the network were both influencing and being influenced by one another.


On December 13, our team was geared up for our eagerly anticipated hackathon, an important moment for our project on recreational synthetic drugs. A month ago, we began distributing flyers and engaging in conversations on the street and at Windesheim to invite participants for the Hackathon. Our initial plan revolved around two guest speakers; however, at the last minute, our lineup extended to four insightful speakers. This happened mostly because we allowed them to join online, but also because they were motivated and supportive of our idea. The hackathon's agenda comprised three dynamic blocks: introduction, brainstorming, and implementation, designed to foster collaboration and innovative thinking. Participants, including students, citizens, and stakeholders, engaged in lively discussions, bridging information gaps and enhancing our understanding of the complex issue.

Content-wise, the hackathon went exceptionally well; we had three very interesting guest speakers, and organisationally everything ran smoothly. Unfortunately, the turnout of participants was disappointing. Despite eight people signing up and us emailing them beforehand, only four showed up. In the end, they did bring valuable contributions, but this forced us to actively participate in the hackathon as well. Fortunately, this led to the development of a very valuable product by our own team and by the participants. We look forward to the insights that this day will contribute to our ongoing advisory report.

4E-Model report

During the value creation process, the team adhered to the 4E-model: Explore, Engage, Elaborate, and Evaluate. As previously mentioned, we conducted two workshops to comprehend and implement this model within the process. In order to foster a deeper engagement with the model, comprehensive reports were generated to illustrate each distinct step. While the process may appear linear on paper, in practice, it proved to be iterative, with certain actions executed at later stages. For example, the ongoing task of reaching out to new stakeholders continued throughout, even though it held primary significance during the 'Explorer' and 'Engage' phases.

Relevant issues discussed earlier were incorporated into the reports. The subsequent section outlines the key insights derived from each report and their contributions to the process.

Exploring: The initial phase was characterised by a complex exploration of the system of synthetic drugs. The focal point of this phase was extensive research on the subject and early engagement with stakeholders. To organise various sub-topics, a mind map was created, serving as a visual representation of all subjects categorised under main sub-topics. This mind mapping exercise led to the identification of critical topics, including production, criminality, public opinion, public health, sustainability, and legal status. Subsequently, these topics were allocated to individual team members, with each member focusing on one or two categories.

Engage: Following desk research, the emphasis shifted to field research, involving in-depth conversations with stakeholders. The team also embarked on a field trip to a training centre operated by the police and fire brigade, engaging in discussions with police officers and viewing a recreated drug lab. Building on information gathered in the previous phase, the team observed numerous stakeholders with varying interests and thus the scope was narrowed down to address the different interest of stakeholders involved with synthetic drugs. To give an example of differing interest, while certain government parties and experts sought regulation of synthetic drugs, others (police, for instance) advocated for stricter rules. This complexity manifested in the allocation of resources by the police to combat drug criminality, despite the persistent consumption of synthetic drugs by the public.

Elaborate: This phase aimed to transition from understanding and empathising with the system to creating a positive contribution. While the decision to host a hackathon was made in the 'Engage' phase, this stage focused on determining how to leverage the results for maximum impact. Consequently, the outcomes were transformed into distinct advisory reports tailored for specific stakeholders. To assess the impact of the chosen product and the hackathon on effecting change in the system, a theory of action was formulated.

Evaluate: In the final phase, the objective was to assess the final product and the effectiveness of the entire process. Based on the outcomes of the hackathon, the team opted to slightly modify the product concept. Instead of creating several tailor-made products, one report was generated, encompassing the two ideas derived from the hackathon. The first idea involved establishing a citizen panel to provide insights on effective drug policy, while the second idea proposed testing regulation of MDMA.

Final reflection

Throughout the semester, we emerged ourselves in the controversial world of synthetic drugs. We networked with a variety of stakeholders, ranging from drug users, healthcare workers, police, policy developers on national level, the first drug tester in the Netherlands, and many more. The valuable engagement drastically improved our knowledge base and thought us of all facets of the world of synthetic drugs. Our scope has been refined and reshaped, to eventually encompass the question “How to bridge the different interest around synthetic drugs”. A hackathon was organised to generate holistic approaches to the issue, which were integrated in the advisory report, our final product. Although much more work has to- and will be done in the future to combat misconceptions, taboos, and stigmas, we believe our product served as a valuable contribution to the movement towards a more proportionate and inclusive drug policy, where more interests are considered. Additionally, we hope that our emphasis on the inclusion of members of society in policy making will combat polarisation around the issue and bridge the gap between government and citizens.

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