An analytical framework for uncovering lock-in dynamics in complex policy systems – Applied to climate change adaptation
Climate change has been widely described as a ‘wicked problem’ for public policy, characterised by complexity (multi-scale dynamics, problem interconnectivity) and considerable uncertainty, which is seen as ill-suited to current governance regimes and has led to widespread calls for transformative change. However, policy systems themselves are notably complex and subject to multi-scale dynamics, feedback processes and path dependencies that can reinforce certain trajectories and make leveraging change problematic. In particular, political scientists have become increasingly interested in the notion of ‘policy lock-ins’ – a specific type of stabilising dynamic that preserves incumbent regimes and creates resistance to change.
The concept of lock-ins is gaining prominence, particularly within the field of climate mitigation (and the study of ‘carbon lock-ins’) and more recently within climate adaptation, as scholars seek to uncover deeper, systemic stabilising dynamics through which policy inertia is constructed and sustained, and transformative change impeded. However, there remains a lack of conceptual clarity, with scholars referring to lock-ins in terms of processes and/or outcomes, while failing to clarify the relationship between mechanisms, feedback processes and dynamics, and at times referring to these terms interchangeably. Absent from the literature is a holistic, systematic framework for i) identifying and characterising where lock-in dynamics exist within/between policy (sub-)systems, ii) how these interact with contextual conditions and ‘trigger’ mechanisms, and iii) qualifying their intensity and influence upon policy (sub-)systems.
Addressing this gap, this paper establishes an analytical framework for systematically uncovering policy lock-in dynamics. While the foundations of the framework are grounded in the literature (bringing together complexity theory, evolutionary economics, science and technology studies etc.), it was developed iteratively and refined through empirical research and analytical reflection performed as part of the Adapt Lock-in project (https://adaptlockin.eu/). The project examines the policy lock-in dynamics restricting climate change adaptation in three selected countries in the North Sea Region, including the UK (England), the Netherlands and Germany, and three sectors therein, namely water, nature conservation and health.
The framework outlines a step-based approach to guide inductive inquiry and identifies the key features of mechanisms and feedback cycles that structure and drive different types of lock-in dynamics. Several lock-in archetypes are presented and demonstrated through empirical examples drawing from the Adapt Lock-in project, with consideration given to the various intensities with which these dynamics are created and sustained. Although rooted in climate adaptation, there is considerable transferable potential to the study of policy lock-ins in other policy domains, and practical value for informing ‘un-locking’ strategies and policy interventions to dissolve lock-in dynamics and leverage change.