Incumbency and political compromises: opportunity or threat to sustainability transitions?

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10 Citations (Scopus)


Studying the role of incumbents is central to understanding transformation dynamics. Existing studies have largely focused on incumbent firms, their corporate, technological, and political strategies within a given sector. Whilst insightful, viewing incumbency as a more open concept could allow research to better examine the blurred boundaries across sectors and between sectors and the polity. The plurality of relationship could also result in more tensions and legitimacy problems for incumbents. We ask how can incumbency maintain legitimacy under such pluralistic context? We conceptualise ways contradiction may be managed through political responses and tested our hypothesis in a case study of an urban water initiative in Indonesia. Crisis events, governance messiness, social conflicts, and cognitive contestations are identified as important and interrelated contradictions, which have deep roots in the broader polity. Incumbents also appear skilled at placating tension using piecemeal compromises to survive multiple legitimacy problems, thereby undercutting overall transformative potential.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)680-698
Number of pages19
JournalEnvironmental Innovation and Societal Transitions
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


  • incumbent actors
  • institutional pluralism
  • institutional contradiction
  • socio-technical regimes
  • system transformations

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