International Institute for Innovation in Governance

Mapping institutional work

This paper investigates the potential of mapping institutional work in communities as a method for both analyzing and formulating local development strategy. Twelve Canadian case communities experiencing dramatic ups and downs (‘boom and bust towns’) serve as the empirical base. Analytically, it finds that institutional work for strategy takes on very diverse forms, some of them not described in the literature, and further identify a special class of institutional work associated with leadership. Normatively, it demonstrates that mapping institutional work can be a structured process of self-reflection underpinning strategy. For the Canadian case study, it finds that lack of local autonomy is often a stumbling block for strategy. More broadly, the paper conclude that mapping institutional work for strategy works best when governance evolutions are grasped as context, and when strategy itself is understood in its complex, multifaceted nature: a narrative, a way of linking institutions, and an institution in itself.

Van Assche, K., Gruezmacher, M., & Deacon, L. (2018). Mapping institutional work as a method for local strategy; learning from boom/bust dynamics in the Canadian west. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 1-21.

The paper is part of a special issue that explores the concept of institutional work in the context of environmental governance. It aims to develop a better insights in the actions that underly plannend and unplanned changes in evolving governance contexts.

The difficulties in co-creating institutional change in urban planning

This paper analyzes the institutional work that underlies the attempt to institutionalize a more active role of citizens in urban planning. It draws on a case in which a group of citizens aims to redevelop a brownfield site into a vital urban area. This citizens’ initiative is co-creating a new form of urban planning with the municipality, private organizations and individual citizens. The study shows how citizens’ initiatives can be a driver for institutional change, but that uncertainties about new institutions tend to reinforce the maintenance of existing ones. This paradox explains why even if the ambition for a new form of planning is widely shared, actually realizing institutional change can still be difficult and time-consuming.

Bisschops, S., & Beunen, R. (2018). A new role for citizens’ initiatives: the difficulties in co-creating institutional change in urban planningJournal of Environmental Planning and Management, 1-16.

Land for food or power?

This paper uses the concepts of riskscapes and risk governance to analyze the tensions between land use for food (farms) and energy (dams) in South West Ethiopia. It analyzes the linkages between risk perception, risk assessment and risk management for local and non-local actors. The paper distinguishes, after empirical analysis, as main riskscapes the riskscapes of landlessness, food and energy insecurity and siltation. For the Ethiopian case, and more generally, it reflects on the potential of spatial planning as a site of risk governance, where risk perception, assessment and management can be discussed in their linkages, where different actor-related and topical riskscapes can encounter, can be deliberated and result in policy integration. Finally it reflect on the ethical implications of its perspective and reconsiders the idea of social cost.

Legese, G., Van Assche, K., Stelmacher, T., Tekleworld, H., & Kelboro, G. (2018). Land for food or power? Risk governance of dams and family farms in Southwest EthiopiaLand Use Policy75, 50-59.

The reality effects of policy and planning. Spatial Planning Lecture by Prof. Kristof van Assche

By Ciska Ulug, March 9th, 2018 | from:

Despite attempts by policy makers and planners, there is always a discrepancy between what is laid out on paper and what is translated into reality. While the unrealistic expectations of this technical rational approach are, perhaps, old news for planners, how to actually cope with such effects, leaves much to be learned. Kristof van Assche, professor of Planning Governance and Development at the University of Alberta, addressed potential management strategies of these so called “reality effects” in the Academy building on Wednesday afternoon.

Beginning with a historic overview (and a reference to his “good friend” Machiavelli), van Assche set the scene, by introducing the romanticized trust in the power of bureaucratic policies, characteristic of modernist thinking. This fantasy is often trodden upon from all sides of the political spectrum, whether it is neoclassical economists critical of state intervention, constructivists suspicious of a “planned” reality, and even (my personal soft spot) participatory “localist” planners on the lookout for potential injustices. Nevertheless, when executed, policies often have unintended results and the potential to change reality. Understanding the context of governance processes is therefore necessary to gain a broader illustration of how policies actually materialize.

Van Assche continued to outline six distinct points necessary to consider in order to optimize and manage reality effects of policy and planning, from a government and planning perspective. Highlights included understanding the starting point and histories of community actors, observing and adapting on one’s own self-transformation, managing expectations from the public, and crediting informal institutions and the beliefs and values they might represent.

While these points are meant to assist policy makers and planners in addressing the multiplicity existing in our cities and regions, the lack of a “one-size-fits-all” prescription can be troubling for those wondering how to apply this knowledge to the real world. How can planners know when they are sufficiently reflexive? How does one know and define their role in the community? Perhaps a cop-out answer for spatial planners: depends on the context. Van Assche’s illustrious examples (thankfully none from his homeland of Belgium, noted a Dutch PhD in the audience) highlighted how this flexibility can occur in practice. The renowned Dutch landscape architects, a favorite case of the speaker, redefined their practice for themselves by applying their work to Dutch regional landscapes and setting an example for the world. This demonstrates how planners and policy makers can be inspired by the existing circumstances and opportunities to craft spatial interventions and locate their place in the community.

The speaker concluded that policy and planning are what he calls “productive fictions”: neither real nor fake. Ultimately, there is no true way to blueprint change, and even if policies are expected to do the impossible, knowing their limits is necessary.

Wednesday’s lecture (impressively delivered sans PowerPoint), fits nicely with my personal existential confusion of planning as a discipline, and my role in it. Planners are expected to straddle the boundary between citizen and bureaucrat, while simultaneously juggling varying degrees of transparency, flexibility, formality, and participation. Being a “good” planner is, perhaps, less about being the “expert” in the room, rather about reflecting and balancing communication suited to the destined community.

Van Assche’s post-structual prose reverberated the multiplicity of our modern world, noting “if you want a perfect world, the worst you can do is assume there’s a perfect world”. You cannot plan reality, but you can manage it.

Tags: Lecture; Spatial Planning; Policy

Power and Knowledge in the post-truth society | APRIL 3, 2018 | 15.00-17.00 | WAGENINGEN FORUM BUILDING C0658

Power and Knowledge in the post-truth society

APRIL 3, 2018 | 15.00-17.00 | WAGENINGEN FORUM BUILDING C0658

Your talkshow host is Martijn Duineveld | Starring: Noelle Aarts, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Peter Tamas & Fons van Overbeek, Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen, Daan Boezeman and Guus Dix

In this seminar, we rethink and discuss the relation between power and knowledge by providing a series of examples from planning, nature management to academia and climate change to illustrate how scientific knowledge is produced and disrupted, used and misused, and highlighted and forgotten.


1. The power of words. How conflicts over wildlife comeback in Europe are intensified through rational argumentation | By Noelle Aarts

The return of several wildlife species across Europe has led to heated debates over how to deal with them. I will focus on the rhetorical work of gaining the upper hand in these debates. I use the classical theory of stasis as a systematic method for locating the points of contention within a debate and understanding participants’ rhetorical efforts at these points. Drawing on diverse discussion forums – including mass and social media, expert symposia and parliamentary meetings – results show how opposing groups engage in a continuous alternation between the construction of a suitable logic in support to their own viewpoint and the dismantling (and rhetorical disempowering) of the logic of the counterparty. We will then explore if and how the points of contention could serve as points of connection, especially by making the discursive power play explicit at the moments ambiguity is created, and contradictions can be transcended.

Van Herzele, A., N. Aarts & J. Casaer (2015). Wildlife comeback in Flanders: tracing the fault lines and dynamics of public debate. European Journal  for Wildlife Research, 61(4), 539-555.

Van Herzele, A. & N. Aarts (forthcoming). Arguing along fault lines: a stasis analysis of public rhetoric over issues of wildlife comeback.

2. Power and knowledge: the case of manure and ammonia | By Jan Douwe van der Ploeg

Van Der Ploeg, J.D., Verschuren, P., Verhoeven, F., & Pepels, J. (2006). Dealing with novelties: a grassland experiment reconsidered. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 8(3), 199–218.

3. Suffering the contradictions of a domesticated Foucault: reflections on the production of programmatically useful knowledge on the shores of Lake Kivu | By Peter Tamas & Fons van Overbeek

The role of research and researchers in maintaining the viability of international development assistance has been well documented. Since the mid-1980s, such inquiry has often drawn on the work of Michel Foucault. Portions of the work of Foucault have also been taken up in and found useful for the production of knowledge in maintaining the viability of international development assistance. This paper reflects on ethnographic fieldwork whose purpose was to trace some of the working and consequences of the overlap of these two uses of Foucault. In its reflection on the production of knowledge on land tenure in peri-urban Bukavu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the present essay finds evidence consistent with the impossibility of development knowledge and identifies some consequences of this impossibility for development researchers.

4. Community as productive fiction and the possibilities and limits of reinvention: Canadian experiences | By Kristof Van Assche

In our presentation, we dwell on the necessarily fictitious yet productive character of ‘community’ and try to link up systematically with the discussions on community reinvention. Often, in tough circumstances, communities try to cling to an identity, or think of changing completely, yet neither of those is likely to work. Diversification is only a narrow subset of reinvention options, and nevertheless is often too simply understood. The same applies to innovation, to branding, to ‘development’ as such. We distinguish rerooting, reinvention and reconstructing as broad strategies of change, and introduce the notion of reinvention paths. Using Canadian examples, we notice that the forms of learning, adaptation and transformation necessary for reinvention are not always possible and wanted, and when they happen, not always democratic. We reflect on layered obstacles for reinvention [as in the case of Newfoundland], yet also on the positive openness of a situation where assets cannot be easily discerned, where conflicts can be positive, where shocks might be useful, where path dependencies can become valuable at some point

Van Assche, Kristof, Deacon, L., Gruzmacher, M., et al. (2017): Boom & Bust. Local strategy for big events. A community survival guide to turbulent times, Groningen/Edmonton: InPlanning& University of Alberta

5. Power/knowledge and institutional change | By Raoul Beunen

The evolution of environmental governance is driven by a huge diversity of knowledges. Increasingly, however, the different understandings of the world create intensive conflicts and deceptions that not only hamper sustainability transitions, but also profoundly disrupt and weaken existing environmental policies and practices. I’ll argue that a more profound understanding of the way in which power/knowledge dynamics influence institutional change and exposing the growing discrepancies between expectations about particular institutions and their actual working and impact, are key to bringing governance systems on a more sustainable track.

Beunen, R., Patterson, J., & Van Assche, K. (2017). Governing for resilience: the role of institutional work. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 28, 10-16.

Beunen, R., Van Assche, K., & Duineveld, M. (2013). Performing failure in conservation policy: The implementation of European Union directives in the Netherlands. Land use policy, 31, 280-288.

6 | By Daan Boezeman

7 | By Guus Dix

Governance arrangements, funding mechanisms and power configurations

Implementing strategic spatial plans is a complex task. The process involves strategy formation, institutional capacity building, funding mechanism establishment and governance arrangements, which take shape within complex power configurations. Based on empirical evidence gathered by interviewing regional planning experts, this paper focuses on the role of governance arrangements and funding mechanisms in current practices of strategic plan implementation in 14 European urban regions. This investigation was completed bearing in mind power configurations, which shape and frame governance arrangements and funding mechanism in planning practice. A cross-case comparison provides evidence that, among the governance arrangements influencing plan implementation, negotiation and interest groups involvement are pivotal. Negotiation involves private interest groups, such as real estate agencies and environmental non-governmental organizations. The paper shows that in some case studies private interest groups have a substantial bargaining power to negotiate, for example, the development of a new housing settlement or a retail facility, while other groups struggle to safeguard natural areas. It is also during negotiations that plan implementation intentions are prioritized, strategic urban projects are formulated and funding mechanisms are established. The paper demonstrates that to truly grasp plan implementation praxis it is necessary to go beyond multi-actor involvement and inter-scalar government cooperation. It is necessary to scrutinize the funding sources, investigate who wins and who loses while negotiations are happening, and how plan implementation decisions are actually made.

Oliveira, E. & Hersperger, A.M. (2018) Governance arrangements, funding mechanisms and power configurations in current practices of strategic spatial plan implementation. Land Use Policy. Online first:


A coevolutionary perspective on the adoption of sustainable land use practices

Cotton export substantially contributes to Uzbekistan’s economy. To produce cotton, the state imposes output targets on farmers which results in intensified cotton production practices, and consequently in land degradation. Improving degraded croplands via afforestation is an option explored through research experiments in the region, yet is currently not practiced by farmers. Using the example of the Amu Darya River lowlands of Uzbekistan, we analyze afforestation and its implementation constraints, by developing a coevolutionary socio-ecological systems framework that leans on evolutionary economics and evolutionary governance theories. Our study shows that farmers’ perceptions and rationalities, in close association with governance configurations of actors, institutions and knowledges, make them unreceptive towards afforestation. Altering relations between agricultural institutions and actors that are currently present in the cotton-centric configuration is difficult given the path-, inter- and goal dependencies. To change rural sustainable development paths, we conclude that the adoption of innovations requires a tailoring of knowledge and technology fitting local situation, as well as the reassembling of relations between actors, institutions and knowledge.

Djanibekov, U. , Van Assche, K., Boezeman, D., Villamor, G.B. & Djanibekov, N. (2018) A coevolutionary perspective on the adoption of sustainable land use practices: The case of afforestation on degraded croplands in Uzbekistan. Journal of Rural Studies 59: 1-9

The contingency of landscape design interpretations

To address visual communication issues in landscape planning and design processes, an analytical framework that enables the study and possible anticipation of the interpretation of visual design representations is presented here. This framework consists of a hybrid theory of Peircean social semiotics and Laclaudian post-foundational discourse analysis (PDA). The semiotics of Peirce, through the concept of the interpretant, enable the conceptualization of the discourses that make up the socio-political contexts of design projects as so-called ‘interpretive habits’. This framework is demonstrated by partly reconstructing the socio-political context of Rebuild by Design, a design competition organized in the wake of hurricane Sandy in New York. It is suggested through this demonstration that the sign systems and discursive networks that influence the interpretations of design images by different stakeholders can be partially uncovered during the design process itself. By recognizing these interpretive habits during specific phases of the design process, planners and designers could potentially better anticipate the productive and counter-productive interpretations of their design representations.

Raaphorst, K. (2018) Knowing your audience: the contingency of landscape design interpretations. Journal of Urban Design. Online first

Informal institutional change in De Achterhoek region


As in other European countries, the formal planning task of Dutch governments is subjected to devolution and austerity measures. Not only did these developments lead to outsourcing planning tasks to lower-level governments, also citizens are increasingly ‘invited’ to take responsibility for providing public facilities and services. In De Achterhoek, a Dutch region, these shifts are amplified due to population change and traditional active citizenship, and led to institutional change. Since a decade local governments stimulate citizen initiatives, under the umbrella of participatory governance. This process of institutional change did not alter formal institutions, but was the result of an informal and dialectic process between local governments and citizen organizations. In this paper, we will demonstrate the process of change and how it affected planning practices in De Achterhoek, building on theories of informal institutional change and its driving forces. The empirical part of this paper draws on the results of three focus group meetings, in which a diverse set of local stakeholders discussed the effects of change they observed and how it shaped planning practices. In the final section, we reflect on the degree of institutionalization, by examining the robustness and resilience of the observed change.

Meijer, M., & van der Krabben, E. (2018). Informal institutional change in De Achterhoek region: from citizen initiatives to participatory governance. European Planning Studies, 1-23.

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