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Adapting institutions: processes and instruments for urban water transitions

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posted on 28.02.2017, 03:06 authored by Bettini, Yvette Helena
If the twentieth century is distinguished by progress and technological advancement, the twenty-first century is becoming known for the widespread societal and environmental change following the industrial revolution. From increasing access to energy to genetic engineering, Homo sapiens have discovered multiple means of accelerating their own development. In the process, we have gained notoriety as the first species to affect the global environment. From resource depletion, pollution, population growth, globalised commerce to climate change, humans have created global change in many forms and interconnected ways. Degradation of ecosystems, biodiversity loss, a warming atmosphere and continued reliance on non-renewable energy raise the question: Does human society have the capacity to adapt to the environmental changes it has set in motion? The future may be uncertain, yet humans have coped with a changing world for tens of thousands of years. Human relationships with the environment have moved from survival, to exploitation, to management, to recognising the complex physical and sociological connections between humans and their natural and built environments. These interdependencies aside, the complexity of human society makes it difficult to coordinate will, ability and effort to adapt to new circumstances. Yet this is what the institutions underlying society do; guide social behaviour, facilitate interaction and enable collective action. Furthermore, as social constructs, institutions reflect society’s assumptions, beliefs, needs, and aspirations, and so alter and adjust as the world around them transforms. This thesis posits that if institutions allow society to function, the features by which they change contain the capacity to proactively and collaboratively adapt to global changes. The research seeks to identify these institutional adaptive capacities in the context of managing water in cities; a morally, environmentally and economically pressing field in need of societal change due to the role water plays in these highly modified landscapes of concentrated human activity. The experience of the Australian cities of Perth and Adelaide, responding to unprecedented drought, was utilised to explore the phenomenon of system adaptation, using institutional adaptive capacity as the central focus. Significant water scarcity throughout the drought exposed areas of technological lock-in and institutional inertia in the water sectors of these cities. This prompted a major rethink of the socio-technical configuration of urban water systems, and how they delivered services to meet societal needs and expectations. Exploration of these empirical examples of societal systems in transition, revealed some of the institutional roots of system inertia and mechanisms for adaptation. The research found three forms of adaptive capacity were important ingredients of system change; learning, deciding and acting. The results reveal some of the ways these capacities can be created, using a mix of institutional mechanism, to enable system resilience or transformation. With further development, such knowledge of institutional configurations and the change dynamics they generate could yield the building blocks of sustainable societies.


Principal supervisor

Rebekah Brown

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Geography and Environmental Science


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts