International Institute for Innovation in Governance



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

Governance and the coastal condition: Towards new modes of observation, adaptation and integration

The conceptual framework of evolutionary governance theory (EGT) is deployed and extended to rethink the idea of coastal governance and the possibilities of a coastal governance better adapted to challenges of climate change and intensified use of both land and sea. ‘The coastal condition’ is analyzed as a situation where particular modes of observation and coordination were possible and necessary, and those observations (and derived calculations of risk and opportunity) are valuable for the governance of both land and an argument is constructed for a separate arena for coastal governance, without erasing the internal logic of pre-existing governance for land and sea. This entails that coastal governance is destined to be a place of (productive) conflict, as much as of policy integration. Policy integration will be more difficult and more important in coastal governance, as this is an arena where the effects of many land based activities and activities at sea become visible and entangled. Policy integration in coastal governance does however require deep knowledge of the governance path and existing forms of integration there (e.g. in planning), and it exists in an uneasy tension with the requirements of adaptive governance. This tension further contributes to the complexity and complex-prone character of coastal governance. Neither complexity nor conflict can be avoided, and coastal governance as an image of balanced decision- making is (positively) presented as a productive fiction.

Van Assche, K., Hornidge, A. K., Schlüter, A., & Vaidianu, N. (2019). Governance and the coastal condition: Towards new modes of observation, adaptation and integrationMarine Policy.


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.


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.

How to improve the adaptive capacity of Dutch Planning

10 proposals for change that, once implemented, will make the planning system less rigid and more adaptive.


> New book. Free download @ InPlanning.

> More information about Evolutionary Governance  @

Spatial planning is facing a paradox. The last decades have witnessed a growing number of scholars and professionals that criticize the possibilities of planning and who repeatedly show that planning fails to live up to its promises. Planning, some argue, is an ideal of the past that got dashed in the complex reality of contemporary society. Others take a more positive stance and believe spatial planning is indispensable if we want to tackle environmental and social issues, like climate change, rapid urban development, the increasing economic & social inequality in cities, food security, the decline of biodiversity and so on. Dealing with these opposite views on the possibilities and limits of planning requires us to develop novel perspectives on what planning is and how it works in different contexts, as well as new approaches that can help in realizing desired futures.

The book Spatial Planning in a Complex and Unpredictable World of Change, edited by Luuk Boelens and Gert de Roo, explores such novel perspective on spatial planning, taking into account the dynamic, non-linear, and often unpredictable nature of planning practices. It seeks innovation in planning theory and planning practices. For that reason it brings together theoretical and empirical reflections that seek to unravel and explain the processes of co-evolution that mark governance and planning. In the chapter Evolutionary Governance Theory and the Adaptive Capacity of the Dutch Planning System  by Raoul Beunen, Martijn Duineveld and Kristof Van Assche, Evolutionary Governance Theory is explained and developed to reflect on the success and failures of the Dutch planning system and its possibilities to adapt to ever changing circumstances.

Evolutionary Governance Theory is a novel framework for understanding the changing roles and forms of planning in a society. It is a theory of planning, steering and management that takes non-linearity and unpredictability into account. Therewith it offers a more refined understanding of how planning really works. Using the concepts of path, inter and goal dependency, we explore the possible pathways of planning in the Netherland. We conclude that the acceptance of complexity and non-linearity demand the planning system to embrace and enhance reflexivity and flexibility as important prerequisites for adaptation and innovation.

We end our chapter with a list of ten changes that, once implemented, will make the planning system less rigid and more adaptive. Some recommendations will necessarily be more abstract, others more concrete:

  1. Rethink the academic discipline planning. To become more applied, more useful for society in the long run, the discipline needs to become less applied and more reflexive and analytical. This would allow the discipline to produce new perspectives that can be introduced in the planning system and might strengthen it adaptive capacity.
  2. Include and accept disciplines and groups like anthropologists, geographers, journalists artists and entrepreneurs to reflect on the Dutch planning system and the many planning practices. Don’t just observe planning from the dominant planning perspective.
  3. To prevent rigidities, in the form of dominant discourses on what planning is and should be, it is important to become aware of the contingent nature of the ‘true’ meaning of planning. Accept that things always could have been different and that they might be different in the future. Once this is understood and accepted, one can allow different views, different perspectives to impact planning.
  4. Planning is a means, a form of spatial coordination that can be effective and bring forward something good. But one has to recognize that other forms of spatial coordination are possible. Planning might emerge without the label planning. That however, should not lead us to abandon the project of planning; it is just that some of the assumptions regarding the power of planning and planners are metamorphosed remnants of a modernist ideology.
  5. Accept that the life of organisations should be subject to the planning system not the other way around. Reform or, if necessary, get rid of the planning organisations and research centres that are no longer required in a planning system that embraces the notions of complexity and non-linearity.
  6. Besides planners many other actors, individuals and organisations, affect spatial organisation. Make these more explicit and include them in the planning system and its embedded perspective. There are all kinds of actors performing roles that have traditionally been ascribed to planners or designers. Many of these actors are not recognised as planners and designers, yet they plan, they design, they mould landscapes. A reflection on how the roles of planning in society have evolved over the last few decades could bring to the fore many other existing and possible roles that remained unnoticed within the dominate planning perspective. Think of art school students working on temporally roof top gardens, citizens taking care of their back yard, cultural heritage or health care. Think of civil servants who dare to think beyond the normalised and juridical reproduction of restrictions.
  7. Creativity, flexibility, and diversity are pre-requirements for adaptation and innovation. Avoid the pitfalls of tight delineations of roles. Strong role expectations delimit the possibilities for the reflection on and transformation of roles. Unwanted rigidities can be created if too much emphasis is given to core-curricula or professional registers.
  8. Try to untie the strong links between government, companies and scientists that are created via funding constructions and innovation policies. Most of these strongly restrict innovation since they reduce the space for diverging perspectives. Provide scientist with space for critical reflections and allow planning practitioners the option not take the advises of scientist into account. Leave aside the idea the science can legitimatise planning decisions; planning decisions, in whatever form, will always be politics, not science.
  9. Recognise the same rationales under the seemingly new approaches and theories. Many of the planning policies and approaches that emerged as an answer to perceived problems failed because they didn’t fit the particular context and mainly reproduced old practices. Either they emanated from perspectives that did not grasp the present manners of coordinating policies and practices, or, conversely, because they did see new situations too much in the light of old stories.
  10. Foster experiment and allow diversity. Diversity can be found if new and different actors are involved in the planning processes. This will increase the chance that new ideas and approaches will emerge, but be aware that it is unlikely that these can easily be copied to other places.

The complete book can be downloaded from the website of InPlanning. Our chapter Evolutionary Governance Theory and the Adaptive Capacity of the Dutch Planning System can also be downloaded from Researchgate. More information about Evolutionary Governance Theory and innovation in governance can be found at the website

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