Sustainability through institutional failure and decline? Archetypes of productive pathways

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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 sustainabilityrelated 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.
Original languageEnglish
Article number18
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number1
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 03.2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We acknowledge funding by the Volkswagen-Stiftung and the Niedersä hsisches Ministerium für Wissenshaft und Kultur through the project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation: Institutions, People and Knowledge” (grant number A112269). We thank Rebekka Balsam for helpful discussions in an early phase of this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 by the author(s).

    Research areas

  • Sustainability Science
  • Politics
  • collapse, creative destruction, dismantling, experimentation, policy transfer, policy window, renewal, systems thinking