International Institute for Innovation in Governance



The social, the ecological, and the adaptive.

Based on biological insights, Ludwig von Bertalanffy coined general systems theory (GST) and later expanded his perspective, exploring what GST could mean for other disciplines and other types of systems. We make a case for the relevance, or rather, the importance, of GST for coming to a new understanding of the resilience of social‐ecological systems and the possible forms of adaptive governance that might increase such resilience. After analyzing the conceptual structure of the resilience paradigm and of GST, we identify concepts in resilience thinking where GST provides new confirmation or modifies the perspective: complexity, evolution, self‐organization, and adaptation. We discuss post‐Bertalanffy developments in the interdisciplinary and twinned fields of systems theory and complexity studies that can provide bridging concepts between GST and resilience thinking. In conclusion, we emphasize the need for both cognitive and institutional resilience to foster adaptive governance. We highlight the management of couplings between systems and the switching between forms of understanding and forms of organization, where self‐organization and more centralized forms of steering can alternate and combine.

Van Assche, K., Verschraegen, G., Valentinov, V., & Gruezmacher, M. (2019). The social, the ecological, and the adaptive. Von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory and the adaptive governance of social‐ecological systems. Systems Research and Behavioral Science.


An evolutionary perspective on experimental local governance arrangements

Population decline, welfare state reforms and austerity measures pressurise the liveability of rural areas in the Netherlands and call upon local governments and communities to adapt and renew their mode of governance. This paper reports on three Dutch experimental governance arrangements which are analysed through the lens of Evolutionary Governance Theory. The study focuses on how decision-making roles change while these arrangements unfold and how the three municipalities institutionalise these changes in the course of time. The study produces three main conclusions. First, the readiness and preparedness of local governments to shift decision-making roles with citizens proved to be of main influence on governance change. Second, local residents’ commitment importantly affected the progress of the experiments, while social cohesion and tangible outputs strongly influenced the extent and continuity of such commitment. Third, although the arrangements took place in the same period of time and abovementioned context, the level of institutionalisation of shifting roles between government and residents differed among the cases. Certain pathways of evolving decision-making roles seem to be more stable than others. It is in this area that the extent of both formal and informal institutionalisation seems to play an important role.

Ubels, H., Bock, B., & Haartsen, T. (2019). An evolutionary perspective on experimental local governance arrangements with local governments and residents in Dutch rural areas of depopulationEnvironment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 2399654418820070.

Institutional Work in Environmental Governance

In this Special Issue of the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, we interrogate and evaluate the concept of institutional work in the domain of environmental governance, by bringing together diverse papers spanning a range of substantive and theoretical approaches. The papers apply the concept of institutional work across fields of regional development, water governance, climate change adaptation, and urban planning, and disciplines of planning, sociology, political science, geography, and anthropology. As a whole, the Special Issue contributes to a growing body of literature exploring the role of agency in processes of institutional change. This has implications for environmental governance scholarship, which emphasizes the role of institutions across all scales from local to global and to understanding transformations in governance systems within which institutional change plays a central role.

Papers in the Special Issue

The special issue begins with a paper by Raoul Beunen and James Patterson titled “Analysing institutional change in environmental governance: exploring the concept of ‘institutional work’”, which critically reflects on the notion of institutional work and its potential for contributing to understanding institutional change in environmental governance. It elaborates on the intellectual background of the concept beginning with its use in the domain of organisational studies, but then extends into some of the particularities of the domain of environmental governance. This leads to recommendations about how institutional work should be reconceptualised to encompass both purposive and non-purposive actions, and the effects of these actions.

Lotte Bontje, Sharlene Gomes, Zilin Wang and Jill Slinger, in their paper “A narrative perspective on institutional work in environmental governance – insights from a beach nourishment case study in Sweden” study the different narratives through which actors link discourses with institutions. These narratives reflect ideas about social-environmental issues, the relevance and impact of existing institutions, and the need for alternative ones. It shows how these different narratives function as institutional work.

Kristof Van Assche, Monica Gruezmacher and Leith Deacon, in their paper “Mapping institutional work as a method for local strategy; learning from boom/bust dynamics in the Canadian west” explore the theoretical and the practical relevance of institutional work for analysing complex landscape dynamics. They show that institutional work can be a useful analytical tool for researchers and practitioners alike, to inform strategising for institutional change.

Saskia Bisschops and Raoul Beunen, in their paper “A new role for citizens’ initiatives: the difficulties in co-creating institutional change in urban planning” apply institutional work to analyse how different forms of institutional work interact and how these interactions are shaped by various contingencies. They show that both purposive and non-purposive actions matter, and that attempts to change institutions might lead to a series of actions through which institutions are in fact maintained, rather than changed.

Emmy Bergsma, Mendel Giezen, Bart Schalkwijk and Chris Büscher, in their paper “Adapting to new realities: an analysis of institutional work in three cases of Dutch infrastructure planning” explore different institutional environments in which Dutch infrastructure planning organisations try to shape institutional change. Their paper points to the nested nature of institutions and shows how a focus on institutional work can increase the reflective capacity of both researchers and organisations.

Tanya Heikkila and Andrea Gerlak, in their paper “Working on learning: how the institutional rules of environmental governance matter” build on the idea of reflective capacity by exploring how rules structuring an environmental governance arena can enable or constrain institutional work. They analyse how formal and informal rules shape learning processes, and point to forms of institutional work that can help to foster learning.

Monica Vasile, in her paper “The enlivenment of institutions: emotional work and the emergence of contemporary land commons in the Carpathian Mountains” places emphasis on the role of emotion in institutional work. This shows how institutional changes emerge from the complex relations between actions and actors, in which institutional work is often non-purposive. It also brings attention to the histories of specific places and to the interplay between institutions and encompassing flows of narratives.

Chris Riedy, Jennifer Kent and Nivek Thompson, in their paper “Meaning work: reworking institutional meanings for environmental governance” further explore the importance of meaning making processes. They draw on two cases studies, one about local democratic innovation employed by Noosa Council in Queensland, Australia and another about the international campaign to divest from fossil fuels, to analyse the narratives that actors create and mobilise in order to promote institutional changes. They show that institutional work may in practice centre on ‘meaning work’.

Lastly, Jeremy Pittman, in his paper “The struggle for local autonomy in biodiversity conservation governance” explores the multi-level context of institutional work, focussing on actions through which local actors aim to create and maintain local autonomy. Analysing biodiversity conservation in the Canadian prairies, it shows how local actors struggle to find a balance between higher level rules and local practices. This brings attention to the multiple sets of (formal and informal) institutions that matter in a particular context, and that institutional work may involve actors within a single arena or across different levels.

Patterson, J. J., & Beunen, R. (2019). Institutional work in environmental governance. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.

The special issue was edited by Raoul Beunen and James Patterson from the Open Universiteit, the Netherlands. It is part of the research project Learning and Innovation in Resilient Systems.


Social learning in smallholder agriculture

Ethiopia operates a large agricultural extension service system. However, access to extension-related knowledge, technologies and agricultural inputs is unequally distributed among smallholder farmers. Social learning is widely practiced by most farmers to cope with this unequal distribution though its practices have hardly been documented in passing on knowledge of agriculture and rural development or embedding it into the local system of knowledge production, transfer and use. The purpose of this study is, therefore, to identify the different methods of social learning, as well as their contribution to the adoption and diffusion of technologies within Ethiopia’s smallholder agricultural setting.

Leta, G., Stellmacher, T., Kelboro, G., Van Assche, K., & Hornidge, A. K. (2018). Social learning in smallholder agriculture: the struggle against systemic inequalitiesJournal of Workplace Learning.

The Persistence of Tightly Coupled Conflicts. The Case of Loisaba, Kenya

Contributing to the debate on the multidimensional nature of resource-based conflicts in political ecology, and building upon Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory, we have studied the persistent and shifting nature of conflicts as well as their dependencies on other conflicts in and around Loisaba conservancy. This private conservancy is situated in northern Laikipia (Kenya). For a long time, its management was focused on wildlife conservation, high-end tourism and commercial ranching. Developments and events at neighbouring ranches and community conservation areas shifted this focus. Decades of more or less peaceful regional co-existence has recently transformed into conflictual, sometimes even violent situations. At first sight, these emergent conflicts seem related to recurrent droughts, competing resource dependencies, national elections, or incitements by wealthy and influential politicians. For this study, however, we conceptualise conflicts as particular kinds of discourses that emerge, exist and change. This happens not only according to their own internal logics, but also through their dependencies with other conflict discourses. In this paper, we characterise the relations between conflicts on a range from tight to loose couplings and introduce three related forms of coupling (overpoweringresisting, and resonating)to provide a more detailed understanding of how conflicts may interrelate.

Pellis A, Pas A, Duineveld M. The Persistence of Tightly Coupled Conflicts. The Case of Loisaba, Kenya. Conservation & Society 2018;16:387-96

Social licensing and mining in South Africa: Reflections from community protests at a mining site

Mining companies are increasingly being required to adhere to the requirements of a social licence to operate. Although this licence is largely seen as an informal agreement, the South African government is increasingly looking to formalise it. Social and labour plans and community trusts to ensure local ownership are two policy approaches used to foster the idea of a social licence to operate. We consider a case in which much conflict has been experienced. Based on 10 in-depth interviews and an assessment of court documents and media reports, our case study shows that community trusts should not be viewed as automatically ensuring a larger degree of local buy-in. They are problematic in many ways. In practice they could increase community conflict. They do not address historical concerns about dispossession and exclusion, and formalising local ownership in law will not necessarily resolve local conflicts. To create a community trust it is first necessary to identify a community, and communities are not necessarily unified structures. And finally, governance requirements complicate community trusts.

Matebesi, S., & Marais, L. (2018). Social licensing and mining in South Africa: Reflections from community protests at a mining siteResources Policy.

Social networks, collective action and the evolution of governance for sustainable tourism on the Gili Islands, Indonesia

This article examines how social networks among actors in the tourism sector have facilitated the evolution of self-organized institutions for governance on the island of Gili Trawangan, Indonesia. Increasing tourism for SCUBA diving and nightlife is driving rapid social-ecological change and challenges for sustainability in relation to waste management, social-political cohesion and conservation. While strong social networks were a sufficient means to initiate governance among the island’s few early businesses in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, an increasing number of actors (i.e., new SCUBA businesses and hotels) and more tourists are challenging the ability of social networks to be the foundation of effective governance, where there is now an evident need for the evolution of governance to more effectively address sustainability challenges. This article combines quantitative social network analysis with the qualitative analysis of interview data, participant observations and an ethnographic examination of the island’s changing social-political sphere of cooperation to examine the evolution of governance. Our results can be separated into two parts. (1) From past to present, examining how governance institutions and collective action have emerged from strong social networks. (2) From present to future, how these social networks are being undermined as the foundation for the island’s governance institutions that they created, due to growth and changing social-ecological conditions. This article draws on Evolutionary Governance Theory (EGT) as an overarching frame to examine the linkages between social networks and collective action, looking specifically at the role of multi-level governance, institutional change, path dependencies and discourse analysis.

Partelow, S., & Nelson, K. (2018). Social networks, collective action and the evolution of governance for sustainable tourism on the Gili Islands, IndonesiaMarine Policy.


Speculation, Planning, and Resilience: Case studies from resource-based communities in Western Canada

This paper investigates the linkages between speculation and resilience in resource-based communities (boomtowns) susceptible to economic swings (boom/bust) and reflect on the actual and possible roles of spatial planning to stabilize communities under conditions of boom, bust and speculation. The findings are based on a nested case study method, where the Western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia are investigated more in detail through semi-structured interviews (N = 145) in 12 case communities. The paper shows that spatial planning must be understood broadly to discern its effects on community resiliency, with resiliency understood as the coordination of spatial organization. Planning, then, is crucial at two stages of development: in the choice of a settlement model and afterwards in the spatial embodiment of that model. The paper further highlights the importance of expectations and managing expectations in understanding and re-thinking the linkages between speculation and resilience, and the importance of associated ideologies in risk assessment and conceptualizations of resilience.

Deacon, L., Van Assche, K., Papineau, J., & Gruezmacher, M. (2018). Speculation, Planning, and Resilience: Case studies from resource-based communities in Western CanadaFutures.

Research Seminar: Governance of Regional Development | By Yasmine Willi 01-05-2018 12.30-13.30 @ Leeuwenborch C83, Wageningen University

01-05-2018 12.30-13.30 @ Leeuwenborch C83, Wageningen University

You are cordially invited to attend the presentation by Yasmine Willi entitled “Governance of regional development. In this seminar she will discuss the interplay between public administrations, politicians, entrepreneurs and societal actors and how this leads to the design and implementation of regional development strategies. She will analyse governance issues in regional development from what she refers to as ‘asymmetrical justification’, taking Regional Nature Parks and the New Regional Policy in Switzerland as case studies.

Yasmine Willi is a human geographer and works at the research group Regional Economics and Development at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL in Birmensdorf, Switzerland ( Her research focuses on regional governance and regional development processes, policy design and implementation as well as public decision-making processes.

Organized by the CSPS cluster: The Politics of Space & Place

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