Mainstreaming Innovation: Exploring Institutional Change in the Australian Water Sector
thesisposted on 13.12.2019, 03:43 by Lara Werbeloff
Urban water systems are under significant pressure in light of complex and interrelated challenges such as climate change, population growth, urbanisation and degraded water and urban environments. In response, there is increasing consensus within academia, policy and industry spheres that conventional water management approaches, typically reliant upon large-scale, centralised and highly engineered infrastructure, are ill-equipped to meet the diverse and changing needs of our cities. Urban water scholars and practitioners are therefore calling for an urgent shift towards a more integrated approach to water management in order to deliver improved sustainability, liveability and resilience outcomes. This requires transformative change in the way urban water systems are both designed and delivered. As the means through which new practices are organised, moderated and implemented, institutions are essential to this process of broader system transformation. However, there is currently limited practical or theoretical understanding of institutional change processes in the context of transformative system change.
Against this backdrop, this PhD thesis aims to explain how institutional change unfolds in a sustainability transition. Drawing primarily on sustainability transitions scholarship and institutional theory, this research is focused through the overall research question of “how does a radical innovation become institutionalised within a sector?” In answering this question, the research seeks to (1) identify patterns and dynamics of institutional change, (2) assess the type and operation of institutional change mechanisms and (3) develop a framework describing the role of institutional change mechanisms in transformative system change.
For this qualitative research project, three empirical cases of contemporary transition in the Australian urban water sector were examined. The results provide insight into the dynamics and co-evolution of institutional change to support a transition, and identify a number of institutional change mechanisms that are key to a transition effort. The findings also provide insight into the pace and speed of transformative system change, demonstrating the importance of incremental institutional change and introducing a hybrid pattern of transformative change. Finally, the results of this research have led to the development of a framework of institutional change, providing a foundation for further examination of the mechanisms of institutional change operating in the context of transformative system change.
As one of the first detailed studies of institutional change in the context of a sustainability transition, this research advances the scholarship in this area while also offering practical guidance that can support the strategic activities of transition advocates and decision makers in pursuit of transformations towards sustainability.