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Transition-oriented governance processes for enabling sustainable urban water management

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posted on 28.02.2017, 04:11 by Bos, Joannette Jacqueline
Cities continue to face increasing pressure on their water systems due to numerous global changes, escalating costs and various other risks and challenges. Recognising that the traditional approaches are no longer sustainable, scholars have asserted that fundamental change in managing urban water is required. Sustainable urban water management is an ideological approach that strives to revolutionise the traditional processes of managing urban water. While the ideology is increasingly advocated, there are numerous barriers, primarily socio-institutional in nature, which prevent its implementation. There is growing scholarship highlighting that social learning, which builds relational capacity and configures decision-making, is very important in overcoming current barriers. Innovation in governance is viewed as a potentially important instrument for stimulating social learning. However, scholars have not yet fully grasped the effectiveness and dynamics of such innovation. Employing a single-embedded case study, this thesis investigates a governance experiment aimed at advancing sustainable urban water management in the Cooks River catchment in Sydney, Australia. The experiment was a deliberate alternative to technocratic experimentation, and eight municipalities and a university were united for its execution. The research examines the experiment’s emergence, effectiveness, design and implementation. A mixed-methods research approach explores these different perspectives and illuminates the relationship between design and learning outcomes. Overall, the results revealed that governance experimentation has the ability to transform conventional socio-technical configurations. Outcomes of the experiment included changes in individual and collective understanding as well as changes in the biophysical system. The study demonstrated that the experiment facilitated the development of concurrent and embedded social learning situations, which together created an emergent network. The findings indicate that learning was highly dependent on the architecture of the experiment. The experiment facilitated formal and informal interaction among diverse actors at horizontal and vertical levels within, across and beyond organisations. This interaction was created through a range of interconnected interventions that were linked to a wider learning agenda and open to a large variety of actors. In studying the emergence of the experiment, it was found that it had derived from an earlier, smaller initiative. In turn, the governance experiment itself instigated a new, larger innovative policy process in the catchment. The results displayed a pattern where these phases of governance experimentation successively contributed to system change. This pattern showed that in an unsympathetic, conventional technical system and increasing scale of experimentation was necessary to gradually build up socio and/or political capital. This capital was pre-requisite to the next phase of experimentation and strategically capitalised by the key-actors. Through an evolving process whereby theoretical ideas obtained from literature interacted with empirical insights from data, this PhD research characterised governance experimentation and developed a framework that outlines enabling starting conditions and features for designing and organising social learning situations. Furthermore, an assessment procedure for studying the dynamics of organisations engaged in governance experimentation was developed. The findings of this research, which highlight the potential, design and dynamics of governance experimentation, provide theoretical insights and practical strategies for operationalising policy and governance reform agendas that embrace learning situations.


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