Theorising the role of crisis for transformative adaptation

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Crisis as a result of global environmental change, such as extreme floods, droughts, bushfires, and planetary health issues such as pandemic, is becoming more common, seriously diminishing infrastructure integrity and undermining resilience across many urban areas. The literature conceptualises crisis in terms of a special event of exogenous origin punctuating the evolutionary dynamics of prevailing socio-technical or socio-ecological systems. Crisis has been examined in terms of its opposing functions, i.e. perpetuating the status quo, or, triggering systemic transformation. Each pathway has been studied in isolation, representing a critical gap in theorising the link between governance conditions and the different crisis pathways. In this paper, we extend this debate by developing an analytical framework that brings together the two perspectives while enriching them with institutional and practice theories. Our aim is to guide comparative studies of ongoing practices within urban governance systems that shape the two crisis pathways. Our framework is applied in two empirical case studies of Melbourne's response to the Millennium Drought and Surabaya's response to waste crisis. The framework helps clarify how a specific set of reactive responses shaped path dependency in the Melbourne's crisis, whilst in the case of Surabaya a different set of proactive responses helped trigger transformative adaptation. In linking crisis to specific institutional practices, including policy and regulatory settings, resource allocation, cognitive culture, and social mobilisation, our research shows that proactive responses for transformative adaptation require preparation and long-term commitment to be in place ahead of the onset of crisis. Understanding the conditions under which such proactive pathway may be fostered and reactive pathway kept in check is an important research agenda for advancing knowledge at the intersection between urban governance and sustainability transformation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)361-370
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020


  • Adaptive governance
  • Crisis response
  • Institutional pathway
  • Path-dependency
  • Urban sustainability

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