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Policy Change for Sustainability through Institutional Failure and Decline?

Environmental Policy
Governance
Institutions
Policy Change
Jens Newig
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Pim Derwort
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Nicolas Jager
Carl Von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg
Jens Newig
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg

Abstract

While current literature on policy change for sustainability is preoccupied with innovation, novelty, success and ‘best practice’, there is an emergent tendency to consider decline and failure as opportunities and leverage points to work towards and to achieve sustainability. This paper seeks to provide a basis for further conceptual and empirical inquiry by formulating archetypical pathways that link aspects of failure to productive functions in the sense of sustainability. Conceptual underpinnings to describe the five pathways draw on different literatures, including socio-technical transitions to sustainability, social-ecological systems, historical institutionalism, structural functionalism, and policy change. We describe the way each pathway works, discuss the roles and capacities of the institutional and policy system and consider the scope for agency within institutional regimes. Each pathway is illustrated by real-world examples. The first pathway examines how crises may trigger institutional adaptations towards sustainability – either through learning or lesson drawing in that a crisis presents a test-bed to the functioning of the institution (an unwanted experiment with a negative outcome), or through the creation of a window of opportunity for institutional change, taking advantage of a crisis as a focusing event. The second pathway concerns systematic learning from failure, rather than ad-hoc learning once something goes wrong. We distinguish learning from own experience (endogenous learning) and learning from others (exogenous learning) and contrast learning from failure with the common trend for ‘best practice’ examples. The first two pathways describe how existing institutions can be improved by adapting to or learning from failure. This presupposes that these institutions are generally functioning and also normatively desirable in the sense of sustainability. At times, however, more fundamental institutional change towards sustainability is required – beyond the mere improvement of existing systems. The third pathway, therefore, describes the purposeful destabilization of unsustainable institutions to pave the way for alternatives. We discuss what we term the ‘problem of unlocking’ and the ‘problem of re-stabilization’, both of which bear specific implications for governance. Different from the previous ones, our fourth pathway is concerned with situations in which decline is inevitable because of external or internal factors. It describes how to make a virtue of inevitable decline, discussing opportunities that can arise either through a new and innovative re-deployment of existing structures, or through a full institutional redesign in the face of inevitable decline. The fifth pathway comes into play in constellations where an existing institution has started to decline, but where decline can still be halted. We discuss the opportunities of an active and reflexive decision-making in the face of decline instead of leaving it to chance. We demonstrate that the five productive pathways are not unrelated, and therefore propose that they ought to be discussed in conjunction (which has not been done in the literature so far): First, there are a number of ‘meta-topics’ shared by many pathways, namely learning; innovation; and stability versus change. Moreover, in reality different pathways may serve as building blocks for typical sequences. We close by discussing aspects of politics, conflict and normativity.