International Institute for Innovation in Governance



Material dependencies: hidden underpinnings of sustainability transitions

Special Issue Journal Environmental Policy and Planning

Material dependencies: hidden underpinnings of sustainability transitions

Editors: Kristof Van Assche, Martijn Duineveld, Monica Gruezmacher, Raoul Beunen & Vladislav Valentinov

Sustainability transitions bring together many different disciplines focussing on the interrelations between the social and the material. The burgeoning field of transition studies is becoming more inter-disciplinary, less normative, less modernist in nature, and more open to both discursive and material dynamics. Social-ecological systems thinking, already sensitive to ecological relations and vulnerabilities in their governance thinking, is similarly opening up to other disciplines, and considering the social and discursive with more care and open minds. In geography and anthropology, a turn to the body, to materiality and to affect preceded these developments, sometimes inspired by Deleuzian theory, sometimes simply through careful observation. Policy studies and planning, meanwhile, have picked up on the need to contribute to transitions and the pathways of sustainable development.

The contributions to this special issue explicitly aim to contribute to these inter-disciplinary debates on governance for sustainability. They explore the integration of insights from various disciplines to regain a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of material environments, both natural and human-made, on the formation and functioning of communities, their cultures, and their governance systems. The collection aims to contribute to this collective re-balancing of theories between discursive and material by highlighting how both connect: in governance, where collectively binding decisions are made to shape, exploit and protect the environment while the wider social issues and governance are simultaneously shaped by its material substrate.

Material dependencies: hidden underpinnings of sustainability transitions
Van Assche, K., Duineveld, M., Beunen, R., Valentinov, V., & Gruezmacher, M.

Infrastructural legacies and post-Soviet transformations in Northern Sakha (Yakutiya), Russia
Schweitzer, P., & Povoroznyuk, O.

Materialities, discourses and governance: scallop culture in Sechura, Peru
Kluger, L. C., Schlüter, A., Garteizgogeascoa, M., & Damonte, G.

The modern railway and the Swedish state – competing storylines about state capacity, modernisation and material dependencies in the Swedish high-speed rail discourse, 1995–2020
Haikola, S., & Anshelm, J.

New problems for assemblage thinking: materiality, governance and cycling in Sydney, Australia
Lea, T., Buchanan, I., Fuller, G., & Waitt, G.

Tackling material dependency in sustainability transition: rationales and insights from the agriculture sector
Pellizzoni, L., & Centemeri, L.

Shock and Conflict in Social-Ecological Systems

In this paper, we present a framework for the analysis of shock and conflict in social-ecological systems and investigate the implications of this perspective for the understanding of environmental governance, particularly its evolutionary patterns and drivers. We dwell on the distinction between shock and conflict. In mapping the relation between shock and conflict, we invoke a different potentiality for altering rigidity and flexibility in governance; different possibilities for recall, revival and trauma; and different pathways for restructuring the relation between governance, community and environment. Shock and conflict can be both productive and eroding, and for each, one can observe that productivity can be positive or negative. These different effects in governance can be analyzed in terms of object and subject creation, path creation and in terms of the dependencies recognized by evolutionary governance theory: path, inter-, goal and material dependencies. Thus, shock and conflict are mapped in their potential consequences to not only shift a path of governance, but also to transform the pattern of self-transformation in such path. Finally, we reflect on what this means for the interpretation of adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. 

Van Assche, K., Gruezmacher, M., & Beunen, R. (2022). Shock and Conflict in Social-Ecological Systems: Implications for Environmental Governance. Sustainability14(2), 610.

Policy Learning and Adaptation in governance

This paper introduces the concepts and ideas that frame this special issue on co-evolution in governance, and their implications for policy learning and adaptation. It offers a brief overview of co-evolutionary approaches to governance and their elementary connections with systems theories, post-structuralism, institutionalism, and actor-network theory, and explores how they are connected to co-evolution in governance. Co-evolutionary approaches differ from other influential understandings of knowledge and learning in policy and governance. It furthermore presents a typology of learning in governance and systematically discusses how each type is affected by patterns of coevolution in governance.

Van Assche, K., Beunen, R., Verweij, S., Evens, J. & Gruezmachter, M. (2021) Policy learning and adaptation in governance: a co-evolutionary perspective. Society & Administration, 2021

Flat ontology and evolving governance

This paper explores the consequences of a flat ontology for planning theory and practice through the lens of Evolutionary Governance Theory (EGT). It presents a perspective in which the ontological hierarchies assumed in planning and beyond are left behind, but also one that allows for understanding how hierarchies and binaries can emerge from and within governance and specifically planning. In this perspective planning is conceptualised as a web of interrelated social-material systems underpinning the coordination of policies and practices affecting spatial organization. Within this web, different planning perspectives and planning practices co-exist and co-evolve, partly in relation to the wider governance contexts of which they are part. We explore and deepen our understanding of the consequences of flat ontology by focusing on the interrelations between power and knowledge and the varied effects of materiality on planning and governance as materiality can play roles ranging from latent infrastructure to main triggers of change. We conclude our paper by assessing the consequences for the positionality of planning in society, stressing the need for more reflexive and adaptive forms of planning and governance, and reflection on what such forms of planning could look like. We argue that despite the abstract nature of discussions on ontology in and of planning, the conceptual shifts that result from thinking in terms of flat ontologies can significantly affect planning practices as it can inspire new ways of observing and organizing.

Keywords: Planning; Evolutionary Governance Theory; theory and practice; flat ontology

Beunen, R., Duineveld, M., Van Assche, K. (2021) Flat ontology and evolving governance: consequences for planning theory and practice . disP – The Planning Review 57 (2): 112-123.

Understanding public trust in water managers

Public trust in water managers is often considered an important precondition for the effective implementation of sustainable water-management practices. Although it is well known that general public trust in government institutions is under pressure, much less is known in the literature on water governance whether such distrust also affects general and task-specific trust of the wider public in water managers. In addition, empirical studies on the determinants of such trust seem to be scarce. To fill those gaps, this study aims to measure general and task-specific public trust in water managers in the Netherlands and to assess how a selected group of potential determinants is related to general- and task-specific trust in water managers. To this end, we employ an original survey among a representative sample of the Dutch population (N = 2262). We find that trust in water managers in the Netherlands is generally high, but that it also comes with some task-specific variations. People have more trust in the flood-protection capacities of the water managers than in the capacities to successfully manage surface-water quality, nature conservation, and drought management. Using linear regression models, we subsequently find that individual-level variations in trust in water managers are best explained by one’s general level of political trust. Additionally, we also show that both risk perceptions and self-evaluations of how informed people feel themselves about water management are important factors with (curvilinear) relations with trust in water managers. Overall, we conclude that water managers are under specific conditions able to build themselves well-established reputations and relatively high trust levels based on their performances. Nevertheless, trust development is far from entirely in the hands of the water managers themselves as we also conclude that trust evaluations of water managers are not immune from negative generalized political evaluations and public perceptions on water related risks.

Voogd, R., De Vries, J.R. & Beunen, R. (2021) Understanding public trust in water managers: Findings from the Netherlands. Journal of Environmental Management. Volume 300, 15 December 2021, 113749.

Adaptive methodology

This paper explores the possibilities and limits of changing the research approach during a project and show how an adaptive research methodology can be useful at project level, but also helps to bridge disciplinary boundaries. The paper is based on our own experiences with research projects throughout the world that often required a fair amount of flexibility due to practical reasons, such as time and budget, and spurring adaptation because new insights emerged from empirical data and inspiring discussions with fellow researchers, not seldom those from other disciplines.

With an adaptive research design, topic, theoretical framing, method, and data are in principle open to adaptation during the research process. The main premise is that adaptations in one element of the research process can trigger changes in other elements. Both positive and negative reasons for adaptivity are discussed along with various valid reasons for limiting adaptivity in particular cases. Grasping the different couplings between concepts, theories and methods is useful to discern the possibilities and limits of adaptive methodology in situ. To deepen the understanding of the adaptive capacity of methodology, we broaden the discussion to look at the embedding of methodology in academia and its disciplines. In our perspective, methods appear as devices structuring thinking and observation and are well used and placed if they enhance and enable the continuation of observation and reflection and if they allow the researcher to remain open for alternative observations and interpretations.

Van Assche, K., Beunen, R., Duineveld, M., & Gruezmacher, M. (2021). Adaptive methodology. Topic, theory, method and data in ongoing conversation. International Journal of Social Research Methdology. #openaccess

Steering in Governance: evolutionary perspectives

Steering has negative connotations nowadays in many discussions on governance, policy, politics and planning. The associations with the modernist state project linger on. At the same time, a rethinking of what is possible by means of policy and planning, what is possible through governance, which forms of change and which pursuits of common goods still make sense, in an era of cynicism about steering yet also high steering expectations, seems eminently useful. Between laissez faire and blue-print planning are many paths which can be walked. In this thematic issue, we highlight the value of evolutionary understandings of governance and of governance in society, in order to grasp which self-transformations of governance systems are more likely than others and which governance tools and ideas stand a better chance than others in a particular context. We pay particular attention to Evolutionary Governance Theory (EGT) as a perspective on governance which delineates steering options as stemming from a set of co-evolutions in governance. Understanding steering options requires, for EGT, path mapping of unique governance paths, as well as context mapping, the external contexts relevant for the mode of reproduction of the governance system in case. A rethinking of steering in governance, through the lens of EGT, can shed a light on governance for innovation, sustainability transitions, new forms of participation and self-organization. For EGT, co-evolutions and dependencies, not only limit but also shape possibilities of steering, per path and per domain of governance and policy.

Table of Contents:

Steering in Governance: Evolutionary Perspectives
By Raoul Beunen and Kristof Van Assche

Steering as Path Creation: Leadership and the Art of Managing Dependencies and Reality Effects
By Kristof Van Assche, Martijn Duineveld, Monica Gruezmacher and Raoul Beunen

Economic Transitions in South Africa’s Secondary Cities: Governing Mine Closures
By Lochner Marais, Verna Nel, Kholisa Rani, Deidré van Rooyen, Kentse Sesele, Phia van der Watt and Lyndon du Plessis

Irritation Design: Updating Steering Theory in the Age of Governance
By Marc Mölders

Social Investment Policies in the EU: Actively Concrete or Passively Abstract?
By Gaby Umbach and Igor Tkalec

Strategy and Steering in Governance: The Changing Fates of the Argentine Planning Council
By Rodrigo Alves Rolo, Kristof Van Assche and Martijn Duineveld

What Is the Role of the Government in Wildlife Policy? Evolutionary Governance Perspective
By Krzysztof Niedziałkowski and Renata Putkowska-Smoter

Mitigating Pro-Poor Housing Failures: Access Theory and the Politics of Urban Governance
By Katja Mielke and Helena Cermeño

Policy Assemblages and Policy Resilience: Lessons for Non-Design from Evolutionary Governance Theory
By Kris Hartley and Michael Howlett

Long-term perspectives & strategy

The journal Futures has published a special issue on Long-term perspectives and strategy. This special issue analyses and reflects on relations between long term perspectives and strategies in governance. While dismissing high modernist planning and acknowledging constraints to long-term policies, the different contributions in this volume, each in their own way, contend that strategy is necessary to face the challenges of our times. The fifteen articles highlight different aspects of the possibilities of and limits to strategy in governance, to turn long-term perspectives into strategy and strategy into reality. They all examine how long- term perspectives and issues are constituted by different governance practices and emerge in rather different policy contexts, which points to the need to better understand the diverse interplay between strategy, long-term perspectives and patterns of policy integration. Furthermore, the contributions emphasize how long-range governance requires careful attention to issues of temporality, the management of uncertainty and the interplay between the short term and the long term.

Strategy for collectives and common goods: Coordinating strategy, long-term perspectives and policy domains in governance

Kristof Van Assche, Gert Verschraegen, Monica Gruezmacher

Strategic openings: On the productivity of blended long-term perspectives in spatial strategy. A Dutch case study

Ferry van de Mosselaer, Martijn Duineveld

Strategy’s futures

Liliana Doganova, Martin Kornberger

There is no such thing as a short-term issue

Michael K. MacKenzie

Assessing the options for combatting democratic myopia and safeguarding long-term interests

Jonathan Boston

Breaking through the epistemic impasse: Ending homelessness with the invention of ‘functional zero’ in the Anglo-American world

Joshua Evans, Tom Baker

What makes long-term perspectives endure? Lessons from Dutch nature conservation

Raoul Beunen, Iulian Barba Lata

Governing through strategies: How does Finland sustain a future-oriented environmental policy for the long term?

Vesa Koskimaa, Lauri Rapeli, Juha Hiedanpää

Anticipating and planning for mine closure in South Africa

Lochner Marais, Anri de Lange

Shaping future perspectives in policy advice under deep, long-term uncertainty. The case of the Dutch Delta Committee

S.A. Van ‘t Klooster, S.A. Veenman

Prospects of a transition to the knowledge economy in Saudi Arabia and Qatar: A critical reflection through the lens of spatial embeddedness and evolutionary governance theory

Abbas Ziafati Bafarasat, Eduardo Oliveira

Governing technological zones, making national renewable energy futures

Shana Lee Hirsch

‘Solving for X?’ Towards a problem-finding framework to ground long-term governance strategies for artificial intelligence

Hin-Yan Liu, Matthijs M. Maas

Reinvention paths and reinvention paradox: Strategic change in Western Newfoundland communities

Kristof Van Assche, Monica Gruezmacher, Kelly Vodden, Ryan Gibson, Leith Deacon

Strategic spatial planning through pragmatic blueprints: Forms and levels of adaptivity in modernist planning of the Dutch IJsselmeerpolders

Terry van Dijk

Institutional innovation in conservation law

In 2016, the Fitness Check of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives concluded that, in order to reach their most important objectives, the implementation of both directives needed to be improved. This paper analyses the institutional changes that characterise the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives in the Netherlands. These institutional changes include revisions of the rules embedded in Dutch nature conservation law, the introduction of new policy instruments, and the emergence of widely shared concepts and additional norms and rules that are used in decision-making procedures. In the first phase of the implementation of these directives, their legal requirements were integrated into national laws. In later years, national aims and rules were gradually removed from conservation law, and new instruments and rules were added. The analysis shows that most important drivers for institutional change were a discourse focusing on ways to stretch the legal requirements of the two directives and the interpretation of key concepts and rules that emerged in assessment and decision-making procedures and court rulings. In sum, these institutional changes have not improved the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives and have made it more difficult to ensure the sustainable conservation of species and their habitats in the Netherlands.

Beunen, R. & Kole, S. (2021). Institutional innovation in conservation law: experiences from the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives in the Netherlands. Land Use Policy, Volume 108, September 2021, 105566

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