A diagnostic framework of strategic agency: Operationalising complex interrelationships of agency and institutions in the urban infrastructure sector

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In developed cities legacy infrastructures tend to lock future development pathways and investment decisions into perpetuating itself, presenting barriers for sustainability transformations. In contrast, the lack of physical infrastructures in developing cities hints at greater opportunities for fast-tracking transformations. To examine the potential capacity for overcoming barriers and exploiting opportunities for transformations, a more nuanced operationalisation of strategic agency—than is currently offered in sustainability scholarships—is needed. Mainstream perspectives provide quasi-evolutionary explanations of system transformation, which, to date, tend to emphasise agency as a capacity to navigate niche-regime interactions specifically by charting institutional works along a functional model of socio-technical innovation or transition trajectory. Against this background, this paper sets out to develop a diagnostic framework of strategic agency that contributes to the under-explored question of how agency might lead transformation in various contexts by fine-tuning their works to windows of opportunities. More specifically, the framework adopts a practice lens to reveal the (a) type of interaction dynamics that agency can give rise to in reproducing and, by extension, transforming institutions, and (b) reflexive capability as entwined with the exercise of power. In doing so, it facilitates a balanced inquiry that interrogates actions to expose their various embodied forms and patterns within a set of real-world contexts. The framework draws from new-institutionalist studies and practice theory, which lend perspectives for unpacking actions as embedded and institutions as mutable. It operationalises this duality by taking institutional reproduction processes as the core unit of the diagnostic. The framework is illustratively applied to an example case from the developing Indonesian water sector.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-21
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • Indonesia
  • Practice theory
  • Strategic agency
  • Urban transformations

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