Reflexively stumbling towards sustainability: understanding social learning in regional governance networks

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Current sustainability challenges are regarded as very complex and even wicked in that they are contested and ambiguous with respect to their underlying knowledge, values and causes, as well as with respect to the pathways that might help in addressing them. In order to meaningfully engage with such challenges, a so-called transition perspective is increasingly advocated in both science and society. Transition here is seen as a delicate composition of entangled non-linear processes of social change by which a societal system is structurally transformed towards a state that is deemed more desirable, here more sustainable, than the current one. A transition perspective suggests that, rather than optimizing existing systems, practices and routines (continue doing the things we do, but only better), there seems to be a need to radically reconsider the assumptions and values upon which these systems have been build (doing better things altogether).  A transition perspective implies new ways of ‘doing’ policy, new behaviour, new relationship building (trust) and new ways of knowledge creation and learning. Here a shift from ‘governmentality’ to reflexive governance and a shift from individual learning, personal development and competition to joint learning, community building and solidarity, is emphasized.

These proposed new ways and shifts call for the active seeking or inviting of pluralism in situations where old routines no longer suffice in light of complex sustainability challenges. Governance networks are networks where many actors are involved, such as municipalities, entrepreneurs, educational institutes, NGO’s, citizens and other actors. These networks have a relatively stable character and provide so-called discursive spaces where analyses, diagnoses, and solutions can be debated, negotiated and, under certain circumstance, even be co-created. . Within such networks there is a high degree of interaction and interdependency. Reflexive governance networks can help communities respond to complex problems, when they aim to co-create new knowledge, new relations and new policy. For this, a process of collaborative learning is seen as core to the transition process.

The concept of social learning is promising in this context, because it takes the diversity of actors, knowledge, perspectives, languages and interests, as a starting point for the creation of new-shared knowledge. The concept of social learning has also been developed to understand processes of social transformation as learning processes. Through this lens, social learning can be seen as a double-edged process: where individual learning and interactive learning take place simultaneously in a process of social change with effects on wider social-ecological systems. As there are many different definitions and approaches of social learning social learning is defined in this thesis as ‘an interactive and dynamic process in a multi-actor setting where knowledge is exchanged and where actors learn through dialogue and the co-creation of new knowledge through on-going interaction’. In this sense, a social learning process can contribute to system innovation by providing a collective knowledge basis for action. Assumed in this thesis is that through social learning effective use of the diversity of actors can be made, by looking at possible root causes and possible solutions for complex and wicked problems. However, although social learning provides a powerful theoretical, in practice it faces some challenges, in part due to the diversity of actors. This thesis represents a journey to better understand these challenges in the context of localised and/or regional development in which multiple stakeholder jointly seek to become more sustainable in one way or another. The overarching research question is:  What fosters social learning processes in regional governance networks for sustainability transitions?

By applying a constructivist actionable methodological approach and using a mix of methods (e.g. retrospective analysis, reflexive monitoring, semi-structured surveys , open interviews and learning histories), the research was able to reveal that in the hybrid and discursive space where actors interact, they may encounter lack of trust, and/or a lack of commitment and/or lack of willingness to reframe underlying assumptions about both the root causes and possible solutions to sustainability challenges. When this happens, the social learning process can come to a hold, which is also referred to as lock-in. The interactions become less open, or even stop and become hostile, as if the discursive space becomes a battleground. This moment can be regarded as a significant moment or a tipping point, from where the social learning process can revitalise and start up again, or where the network starts to fall apart (a make-or-break moment). When governance networks are self-governing in social learning, they can manage the lock-in situation by becoming reflexive. Reflexivity is an expansive way of learning, by making underlying assumptions and frames explicit and reorienting them by asking: are we doing the right things or should we do something completely different? Reflexivity has the power to change perceptions and intentions - in order to do better things.

When the networks are facilitated networks, which is often the case, they might need some skilled facilitation from change agents in order to become reflexive. Other actors or objects can behave as change agents or boundary spanners, between the different perceptions, interests and cultures contributing to the governance networks. The interventions from the change agents support the reflexivity of the actors and the network. The actors become able and willing to reorient their current values, knowledge, roles and actions. When these so-called ‘reflexive turns’ take place, an increase in trust, commitment and reframing can be seen as emergent properties of social learning. These properties are interrelated; changes in one property will likely induce changes in the others. For example, when trust increases, also the commitment seems to grow and vice versa. When these dynamics take place during the social learning process, indicators of effective learning are the changes in knowledge, relations (including roles), values and assumption, and, indeed, actions (including decisions). These changes are seen to contribute to sustainability transitions in regional development, such as the creation of local food initiatives, local energy cooperatives and new participative policy on these issues.                                            

Four studies were carried out in this thesis. They will be described here in brief. 

Study 1. Action research in a regional development setting: students as boundary workers in a learning multi-actor network.

The aim of this first study (Chapter 2) is to investigate whether regional development can be supported with action-oriented research. The sub question is to find out more about the role of boundary spanners in this process. The hypothesis is that action oriented research might foster social learning and the co-creation of knowledge, for regional development. The area under research is the Western Quarter region in the province of Groningen, where issues about maintaining the landscape and economic vitality of the region bring many actors together in new regional networks. Methods used are an action oriented research approach, and a retrospective analysis of the first year of this process. The action-oriented approach is expected to contribute to better interactions, better collaboration and more shifting roles in order to bring about more valuable and legitimate impact of research. The retrospective analysis supported the understanding of the dynamics in the process, and proceeded insights in the changing roles of all actors and especially the roles of boundary spanners in this. It is found that boundary spanners are valuable and necessary for action-oriented research, because they provide bridges between divergent values, languages, interests, and viewpoints of the actors engaged. Boundary spanners seemingly create opportunities for building new relations between different actors. This in turn seems to stimulate the interactive character of social learning and to support the expansion of new shared knowledge, which is needed for regional and sustainable development.

Study 2. Social learning in regional innovation networks: trust, commitment and reframing as emergent properties of interaction.

The second study (Chapter 3) is a deeper reflection on the social learning process that took place in the first study. There were some interesting changes in behaviours of actors that could be interpreted as dynamics in trust, commitment and reframing. The research question therefore was: what is the role of trust, commitment and reframing in social learning dynamics in multi-actor innovation networks? The sub question here was whether trust, commitment and reframing are interrelated. Main methods used were; a retrospective analysis and an ex-post analysis. The retrospective analysis delivered a learning history of the network’s social learning dynamics, the interactions between the actors at significant moments and the behaviours of the actors according to trust, commitment and reframing. Findings are, that in social learning processes trust, commitment and reframing can be regarded as emergent and interrelated properties of social learning. In these dynamics, the fostering of the social learning process seems important. These findings have been integrated in a hypothetical framework, which is grounded theoretically in grounded theory and empirically in the case study.

Study 3. Strengthening ecological mindfulness through hybrid learning in vital coalitions.

In this third study (Chapter 4) the concept of reflexivity within a Dutch Policy Framework on Biodiversity is explored. Child city, a day care system, explores the possibilities of developing ecological mindfulness for young children, by offering them challenging playgrounds in natural environments. A small and active hybrid actor network of board members, nursery teachers and NGO-actors, was closely followed during one year through reflexive monitoring, and interviews, to see what kind of learning took place among the stakeholders and what kind of involvement in social learning and decision making took place. The main conclusion of this study is that understanding the social learning dynamics enhances the anticipation of tipping points as significant moments where the social learning needs to be fostered. In this study change agents are important at these moments because they are able to foster reflexivity using specific interventions. The increase of trust, commitment and reframing is seen as the effect of these interventions.

Study 4. Reframing the future: the role of reflexivity in governance networks in sustainability transitions.

Study 4 (in chapter 5) is oriented on the relation between social learning dynamics and outcomes and a better understanding of the role of reflexivity in governance networks. The sub-question here is: which actors and roles can foster the effectiveness of social learning processes in regional transitions? The Dutch national ‘Duurzaam Door’ (Moving Sustainably Forward) Policy Programme regards these regional sustainability networks on circular energy, food and economy as generative governance arrangements where new knowledge, actions and relations can co-evolve towards sustainability transitions. In order to understand the dynamics of social learning, three Dutch regional networks have been monitored on emergent properties of social learning between the years 2014 and 2016. Methods used were surveys, reflexive monitoring in action (RMA) workshops and learning histories with key actors. The focus in this study is particularly on the interrelated role of trust, commitment, reframing and reflexivity. Reflexivity and reflexive turns of the network are found to be a critical property at lock-in moments that can make or break the process of social learning. The study shows that change agents can support and facilitate reflexivity which in turn can lead to an increase of trust, commitment and reframing, and, ultimately, improved social learning in regional governance networks.

All studies in this thesis point to the role of reflexivity in social learning dynamics, and the relation with emergent properties such as trust, commitment and reframing. Moreover, the role of change agents in lock-in situations seems to be important for the occurrence of reflexive turns, which foster the effectivity and outcomes social learning process towards new knowledge, relations and actions (including decisions) in governance networks. These types of change and agency are expected to contribute to sustainability transitions at the regional level considering energy, economy and food systems.

The theoretical contribution of this thesis in the field of social learning can be seen as supplying the ongoing debate with deeper insights about the dynamics of social learning, the role of reflexivity, trust, commitment and reframing; and the possible interventions in them. The empirical contribution of this thesis is the increased effectivity of social learning processes in different Dutch regions, and the tangible outcomes in new relations, knowledge and actions.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Wals, Arjen, Promotor
  • Feindt, Peter H., Co-promotor, External person
  • Beers, P.J., Co-promotor, External person
Award date8 Jun 2018
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463432818
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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