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Sustainability through institutional failure and decline? Archetypes of productive pathways

Jens Newig, Research Group Governance and Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Pim Derwort, Research Group Governance and Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Nicolas W Jager, Research Group Governance and Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg


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Although current literature on sustainability governance and institutions 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 toward and to achieve sustainability. However, although failure, crisis, and decay have been treated extensively, the link toward their productive potential has remained underdeveloped in the literature. Using a systems perspective, we described five archetypical pathways through which crisis, failure, deliberate destabilization, and active management of decline may facilitate sustainability transformation through adaptation, learning, providing windows of opportunity, and informed choices regarding stability versus change.

We sought 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. We started out by describing five archetypical pathways and their conceptual underpinnings from a number of different literatures, including evolutionary economics, ecology, and institutional change. The pathways related to (1) crises triggering institutional adaptations toward sustainability, (2) systematic learning from failure and breakdown, (3) the purposeful destabilization of unsustainable institutions, (4) making a virtue of inevitable decline, and (5) active and reflective decision making in the face of decline instead of leaving it to chance.

These archetypical pathways were illustrated by a number of sustainability-related empirical case studies. In developing these archetypes, we have sought to move forward the debate on sustainability transformation and harness the potential of hitherto overlooked institutional dynamics.

Key words

collapse; creative destruction; dismantling; experimentation; policy transfer; policy window; renewal; systems thinking

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087