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“No time for nonsense!”: The organization of learning and its limits in evolving governance

This special issue on learning and co-evolution in governance develops the argument that learning, dark learning and non-learning are necessarily entwined in governance, moreover, entwined in a pattern unique to each governance configuration and path. What can be learned collectively for the common good, what kind of knowledge and learning can be strategically used and shamelessly abused, and which forms of knowledge remain invisible, intentionally and unintentionally, emerges in a history of co-evolution of actors and institutions, power and knowledge, in governance. Learning becomes possible in a particular form of management of observation, of transparency and opacity, where contingency is precariously mastered by governance systems expected to provide certainty for communities.

Assche, K. V., Beunen, R., Verweij, S., Evans, J., & Gruezmacher, M. (2022). “No time for nonsense!”: The organization of learning and its limits in evolving governanceAdministration & Society, 00953997221093695.

The special issue includes the following papers

Van Assche, K., Beunen, R., Verweij, S., Evans, J., Gruezmacher, M. (2022). Policy learning and adaptation in governance: A co-evolutionary perspective.
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.

Jentoft, S., Chuenpagdee, R. (2022). Interactive learning and governance transformation for securing blue justice for small-scale fisheries
In the “Future We Want,” states and non-state actors are invited to contribute to achieving sustainable development goals through various means and mechanisms. This includes securing justice for the most marginalized and disadvantaged sectors like small-scale fisheries, whose rights and access to resources are threatened by Blue Economy/Growth initiatives. While strong and just institutions are imperative to securing sustainable small-scale fisheries, they are not sufficient conditions for obtaining justice. As illustrated in this paper, justice must be secured in the daily interactions between small-scale fisheries actors and other stakeholders, including governments, by means of interactive learning and involving governance transformation.

Alta, A., Mukhtarov, F. (2022). Relationality as a lens for policy analysis: Preserving harmony in a triangular cooperation project to strengthen gender mainstreaming in Fiji
Policy has been mostly approached as a rational project of setting goals and establishing rules and roles to achieve them. Alternative approaches to policy have been referred to as post-positivist, critical-reflexive and relational. They all emphasize emergent, co-evolutionary and relational aspects of policy work that cannot be reduced to rational choice and reasoning-based models alone. A shared element of such frameworks is the focus on relationships, which are seen not just in a narrow sense of the “logic of appropriateness,” but as a force that shapes actors’ identities, interests and power. Following relational analytical approaches, we analyze a triangular development cooperation project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Government of Indonesia in order to strengthen gender mainstreaming (SGM) of Fijian government. Through attention to relationality as it shapes actors’ identities and narratives, we demonstrate how a different form of learning employed by each actor facilitated harmony in the project. A key mediating factor in the smooth project co-evolution that we observed, was the ambiguous project design and vaguely articulated goals, supported by fragmented project setup and reporting. Such ambiguity allowed formulation of multiple versions of the project’s outcomes for multiple audiences. However, it also resulted in little impact on the ground in Fiji. Our findings support persistent criticism of development aid projects in small island states for rarely addressing problems of target populations.

Landry, J. (2022). Do business-backed think tanks represent class interests? The co-evolution of policy learning and economic elites in the Canadian knowledge regime
Business-backed think tanks are often presented as representing the interests of economic elites. This article provides a more nuanced argument by using field theory to present the co-evolutionary dynamics between economic elites and other social forces. Three Canadian think tanks are examined to illustrate how different social forces can converge around business-backed think tanks, and how governance contexts and institutions shape these relationships. The paper also reflects on the kinds of learning these think tanks can enable depending on the kinds of actors that converge around them and on the forms of power that these actors represent.

De Groot, B., Leendertse, W., Arts, J. (2022). Co-evolution of organisations in infrastructure planning: The role of communities of practice as windows for learning across project-oriented organisations. 
Challenges in infrastructure planning require public infrastructure administrators, responsible for providing adequate infrastructure facilities, to be adaptive. These organizations evolve and interact with other organizations in a complex organizational landscape. This paper explores the contribution of inter-organizational communities of practice (CoPs) to collective learning and co-evolution of organizations in infrastructure planning. We conducted a case study of five inter-organizational CoPs in the domain of a typical public infrastructure administrator. The results suggest that inter-organizational CoPs enable, for example, policy and practice to co-evolve. Inter-organizational CoPs seem to provide a neutral ground where long-term sector benefits can overcome short-term organizational interests.

Gerrits, L., Marks, P. (2022). Learn and adapt, or perish: The case of the F35 Lightning II
We assess to what extent a (co)evolutionary macro level approach enhances our understanding of learning in governance processes. We ask the question: in what ways do actors learn to improve their chances of long-term survival in complex governance processes? We deploy a model of collective decision making moulded upon fitness landscapes to analyze a longitudinal case study of collective (political and administrative) decision making, namely the process of developing and acquiring the F35 Lightning II fighter jet. The study demonstrates that actors learn how to ensure survival over time but create a failing megaproject in the process.

Leong, C., Howlett, M. (2022). Policy learning, policy failure, and the mitigation of policy risks: Re-thinking the lessons of policy success and failure
Policy failures are often assumed to be unintentional and anomalous events about which well-intentioned governments can learn why they occurred and how they can be corrected. These assumptions color many of the results from contemporary studies of policy learning which remain optimistic that ongoing policy problems can be resolved through technical learning and lesson drawing from comparative case studies. Government intentions may not be solely oriented toward the creation of public value and publics may not abide by government wishes, however, and studies of policy learning need to take these “darksides” of policy-making more seriously if the risks of policy failure are to be mitigated.

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 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F00953997211059165

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2021.1964858 #openaccess

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

This paper reflects on the performance and endurance of long-term perspectives and their impact on strategies, institutional change and material effects. In the past decades, the long-term perspective of a national ecological network has been a key element of Dutch nature conservation policy. By focusing on the temporal, procedural and discursive dimensions of Dutch nature conservation, the analysis shows that long-term perspectives can function as powerful coordination tools, across government levels and due time. Conversely, their actual realization often proves vulnerable to the multiple dependencies built into governance processes, including competing claims about the future and related strategies. In the context of Dutch nature conservation policy, we witness a growing discrepancy between the long-term perspective on the one hand and strategies, institutional changes and material effects on the other. We subsequently examine the underlying conditions which enabled the long-term perspective of a national ecological network to endure through time and still play an important role in the policies and actions of public and private organisations. The network of actors, institutions and material realities emerging over time provides the long-term perspective with some critical mass, while it also explains its disposition to change over time.

Beunen & Barba Lata (2021). What makes long-term perspectives endure? Lessons from Dutch nature conservation. Futures 126 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2020.102679

Environmental governance theories: a review

This article synthesizes and compares environmental governance theories. For each theory we outline its main tenets, claims, origin, and supporting literature. We then group the theories into focused versus combinatory frameworks for comparison. The analysis resonates with many types of ecosystems; however, to make it more tangible, we focus on coastal systems. First, we characterize coastal governance challenges and then later link salient research questions arising from these challenges to the theories that may be useful in answering them. Our discussion emphasizes the usefulness of having a diverse theoretical toolbox, and we argue that if governance analysts are more broadly informed about the theories available, they may more easily engage in open-minded interdisciplinary collaboration. The eight theories examined are the following: polycentricity, network governance, multilevel governance, collective action, governmentality (power / knowledge), adaptive governance, interactive governance theory (IGT), and evolutionary governance theory (EGT). Polycentricity and network governance both help examine the links or connections in governance processes. Polycentricity emphasizes structural configurations at a broader level, and network governance highlights agency and information flow within and between individuals or organizations. Collective action theory is helpful for examining community level governance, and helps analyze variables hindering or enabling self-organization and shared resource outcomes. In contrast, multilevel governance helps understand governance integration processes between localities, regions, and states across administrative, policy, or legal dimensions. Governmentality is helpful for understanding the role of discourse, power, knowledge, and narratives in governance, such as who creates them and who becomes governed by them with what effect. Adaptive governance helps analyze the links between context, change, and resilience. IGT helps examine the interdependencies between the systems being governed and the governing systems. EGT is helpful for unpacking how coevolutionary processes shape governance and the options for change.

Partelow, S., A. Schlüter, D. Armitage, M. Bavinck, K. Carlisle, R. Gruby, A.-K. Hornidge, M. Le Tissier, J. Pittman, A. M. Song, L. P. Sousa, N. Văidianu, and K. Van Assche. 2020. Environmental governance theories: a review and application to coastal systems. Ecology and Society 25(4):19.
https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-12067-250419

Evolution of place-based governance in the management of development dilemmas

This paper reflects on the evolution of place-based governance from a long-term (15 year) study of rural development initiatives undertaken in a region of Poland as part of its accession to the European Union. It decomposes the recursive process of institutional learning arising from initiatives for heritage preservation and rural economic development. In the analysis, a typology of unavoidable development dilemmas is elaborated that must be explicitly managed in order to allow place-based governance to effectively harness the cultural value, social context, and developmental needs of certain locales or landscapes. Although creating and sustaining local value remain contingent on broader realities of governance, proactive management of these dilemmas can help prevent many of the usual contestations around goals and identity from becoming intractable in later periods. The proposed approach to enabling place-based governance emphasizes conflict recognition and engagement as important complements to more common prescriptive models of governance.

Feuer, H.N., Van Assche, K., Hernik, J., Czesak, B. & Różycka-Czas, R. (2020) Evolution of place-based governance in the management of development dilemmas: long-term learning from Małopolska, Poland, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2020.1820314

The most marginalized people in Uganda?

Indigenous peoples such as the Batwa in Uganda are predominantly seen as marginalised groups, leaving little room for foregrounding their power, influence and involvement in tourism and development. Inspired by Foucauldian discourse theory and Actor-Network Theory [ANT], we use the concept of relational agency to analyse how the Batwa contribute to conservation and tourism development, and deepen our understanding of agency in the context of the Batwa at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda). Based on this conceptualisation we analysed the dominant (academic and non-academic) discourses on the Batwa in the light of in-depth ethnographic research to seek for alternative Batwa realities. Whereas scientific, NGO and governmental literature predominantly reduced the Batwa to marginalised, poor and oppressed victims of development, our ethnographic research observed the Batwa as a vibrant community that deploys expertise on forest ecology, tourism entrepreneurship, organisational capacity and political activism. With such insights we discuss the consequences of agency reduction and the ways to take the Batwa’s situational agency into account. Highlighting the multiple realities of Batwa-ness provide a starting point of relating with the Batwa in ways that acknowledge them as agential, rather than only marginalised.

Ampumuza, C., Duineveld, M., René Van der Duim, R. (2020) The most marginalized people in Uganda? Alternative realities of Batwa at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. World Development Perspectives 20: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wdp.2020.100267

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