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Stakeholder mapping with the Pentahelix

Observing the crowd before getting on stage.

Stakeholders mapping is one of the first things we do after kicking off a project. In 2015 we cobbled together a model referred to the Pentahelix, which we find remains incredibly useful. Little information was available when we started to use the model, which forced us to build a theory and practice around it. This article covers the genesis of this model, present some of the main concepts and cover how we use it.

Where does the Pentahelix come from?

The Pentahelix concept builds on two previous innovation focused models: the Triplehelix and the Quadrahelix. It is useful to understand how each model works as they all remain useful means to read stakeholders.


The Triplehelix that can be traced back to post second World War technical innovation, noting the importance links between knowledge, industry and the public sector. This trilogy of actors are rather obvious and co-dependent. The public sector uses its tax base to finance knowledge institutions to develop fundamental research that is risky and poorly understood. Knowledge institutions (universities and research organisations) explore innovative technologies, materials and processes. The business sector commercialises them. To close the loop, the public sector reaps the rewards through taxes. Smart-phones would have remained a caricature on Star Trek and never revolutionised the communications industry had it not been for public research investment.


“The Triple Helix thesis is that the potential for innovation and economic development in a Knowledge Society lies in a more prominent role for the university and in the hybridisation of elements from university, industry and government to generate new institutional and social formats for the production, transfer and application of knowledge.”  University of Stanford’s Triple Helix research group*.



In other words, knowledge requires firstly the public sector to support experimentation and R+D, taking an almost blind risk that businesses would never make.  Likewise, it needs the public sector to develop the conditions or demands for innovation – particularly in terms of communications, transport and resources.  The military is a good example of this, that were experimenting with technology appearing decades later in ones smart-phone (yes Steve Jobs owes his gratitude to the military).  Once the conditions for experimentation and development are created, the natural remaining partner is business that can find a practical way to release the product to the market.


The Triplehelix is rather generic however if the innovation cares about people, then users must belong to the stakeholder list.  The problem with the Triplehelix is that the trilogy assumes they know best for the market.  Not everyone wants to have the same plates, clothes or colour television. The late 70’s brought about a wave of the ‘individual collective’ that was hard for both retailers and politicians to account for.  Evidently people (consumers) matter.  This introduced an additional stream into the helix, the users, thus creating the Quadruplehelix.


The Quadruplehelix is no longer four isolated groups but rather ‘stakeholders’ each have a valuable contribution to be made within an R+D project.  The Quadruplehelix brings these actors closer together and has brought the conversation down to the ground. However the fourth dimension, the users, appear to be treated as consumers/users for local business innovation and services rather than genuine partners for co-creation and to build on place based knowledge.  It is also a model that is very appealing to the IT industry rather than place-based issues where money and entrepreneurship pose quite different interests.

The penta: from business to complexity

A final step to reach the ‘penta’ is the distinction of capital and business — both represent quite different stakeholders. Business stakeholders are often aggressive, competitive, take risks and are prepared to fail. Capital, including finance and ownership of resources, is much more risk averse and tends to involve small incremental change.

This has meant that the Pentahelix can go far beyond R+D, technology and science and enter into a spatial dimension involving innovative business models, social networks, wicked problems and so on. The Pentahelix is thus an ideal tool for working with complexity and economic models, rather than consumer/market driven business innovation models.

The Pentahelix model as it stands was inspired by a number of tools that we had seen, however when we began to test it there was little literature to reference. More recently environmental projects have embraced the ‘Quintuple Helix’, which we have found to be a useful theoretical concept but much harder to apply in practice (see the original source to the Quintuple Helix here).

Stakeholder interest + relations

Stakeholders that are driven by too many interests can disrupt a project by not being clear about their objectives. But it is impossible to say that you are only interested a few things: we have driving interests and supporting interests. This all is relevant to context. Stakeholders generally prioritise one interest over others. Professional knowledge, career, wealth and home are generally the the strongest interests motivating stakeholders. It is useful to establish what a stakeholders’ professional motivations are and if their personal interests will play a strong role.


A second issue involves stakeholder relations. It is quite normal that stakeholders bring personal or institutional friction that can stifle building positive relationship. Opportunity always creates the most effective bargaining chip — where stakeholders have a perceived sense of gaining, then personal issues can be overlooked and revised.

Stakeholders Vs Actors

Stakeholders generally refer to organisations that are connected to a problem or project out of interest or organisational motive. Stakeholders may not have an inherent interest in a project problem. Actors are those stakeholders that actively partake (with or against) the development of a project.

Projects generally involve coalitions and constellations of different stakeholders and interest groups. Even if there is a relatively good understanding of the stakeholders, the place, problem or timing may result in different levels of interest or engagement. Mapping out stakeholders is therefore an art in curating which actors should be taken into consideration. The Pentahelix is based on five stakeholder types:

  • Public sector: including administrations and elected officials.
  • Knowledge sector: most notably organisations focused on expert knowledge.
  • Businesses: providing business services through material and immaterial goods.
  • Civil society: the NGO or third sector that is accountable to a community (excluding private lobby groups).
  • Capital (and finance): which can involve land, finance and the ownership of technology and resources (but not the exploitation).

Actors can fit into more than one category, particularly if they are a large public authority. If this is the case, it is best to define which department is responsible according to the actor type.

As there is no formal way of knowing which are genuinely interested, it is useful to run a mapping exercise during an early project team meeting, where possible with a client or the main project partners.


Stakeholders Vs Actors

The Pentahelix is highly useful, yet imperfect. It is especially relevant at the beginning of a process, as a ‘quick and dirty’ analysis tool, when little is understood about the landscape or stakeholders. It is also very useful for bring the project team together in reflecting which stakeholders are likely to be be affect or further engaged. However, the map can be very synthetic and quickly becomes redundant once the team engages with the stakeholders. Stakeholders rarely fit cleanly into a particular segment. The Pentahelix is certainly useful throughout a project as a reminder of the stakeholders that exist and need to remain engaged.

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