Väitös: Projectified Environmental Governance and Challenges of Institutional Change toward Sustainability

Johan Munck af Rosenschöld

Projectified Environmental Governance and Challenges of Institutional Change toward Sustainability

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Lectio praecursoria

Mr Custos, Madam Opponent, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are facing multiple, urgent sustainability challenges that confront the ways in which we organize our societies. For example, climate change fundamentally questions how we have eat, consume, travel, and produce energy that satisfies the needs of people and industries. In addition, changes to how food is produced are needed in order to decrease the environmental impacts of agriculture and accelerate conservation efforts and measures to protect biodiversity. Dealing with these challenges requires decisive, yet adaptive, measures that take into account the need for achieving timely changes toward sustainability. At the same time, we need to remain vigilant enough in order to identify new problems that emerge as a result of our interventions.

From this point of view, understanding the influence of institutions on organizational and individual behavior is critical. Institutions can be described as a set of rules, norms, cognitive frames, and routines, which provide stability to social interaction. From a sustainability perspective, institutions can include formal environmental laws and different voluntary standards that organizations adopt in the pursuit of more sustainable operations. But institutions can also include informal routinized ways of understanding the drivers of climate change, for example, and the ways in which we should confront them. The existing institutions are arguably not in line with the needed efforts to address sustainability to a sufficient degree. By creating stability to social interaction, institutions have a tendency to resist change and slow down change processes. This is often referred to as institutional inertia. We thus encounter a core dilemma: Rapid changes are needed, but institutions tend to change slowly. Institutions are, in other words, central when considering the challenges of moving toward sustainability.

My doctoral dissertation explores the role of project organizations in generating institutional change that contributes to a higher commitment to, and more decisive action toward sustainability. Projects themselves are nothing new. One can argue that the construction of the Egyptian pyramids was the first instance when projects were utilized to organize work. Some 4,500 years later, projects are still doing well and their pervasiveness in society has become unmistakable. In the private sector, many industries, such as construction, consultancy, and film, just to name a few, are essentially organized by projects. In this dissertation, however, I focus on projects that are initiated to implement public policy, that is, using projects to organize work ‘on the ground’ to fulfill broader political strategies. Projectification, or the increased use and reliance on projects, in the public sector has lately gained traction among researchers that are interested in how contemporary social and environmental problems are acted on. My doctoral dissertation contributes to this debate. It builds on the notion that understanding how projects function is crucial for making sense of present-day environmental governance and policy as well as highlighting the temporal tensions of environmental decision-making.

Projects can be defined in different ways, and perhaps due to the significance of projects in contemporary society, more or less anything can be labeled as a project. In a stricter sense, and the way I understand them in this doctoral dissertation, projects can be defined as organizations that have well-defined goals and budgets, and bring together teams of actors to create new ideas, products, and services. In addition to these traits, projects are temporary, that is, they all have an end date after which time they are dissolved. Because of these attributes, projects are often portrayed as suitable for achieving change and innovation. In addition, by being more or less disconnected from permanent organizations, in other words the organizations that fund projects or where project participants normally work, projects are also seen to induce new ways of working and breaking up existing job routines.

To understand how projects can contribute to sustainability, I explore the role of projects in generating institutional change. My doctoral dissertation sets out to answer the following two research questions: What are the central drivers of institutional inertia in the context of sustainability? How can institutional inertia be addressed through projects? I respond to these questions by relying on four original publications that are included in my dissertation and the summary chapter, or kappa, which ties the publications together.

I study the role of projects in generating change by examining two public policy programs that fund projects to implement policy pertaining to sustainability: The European Union’s LEADER program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program initiated by the United States Department of Agriculture. The data from the two cases, including interviews and central policy documents, was analyzed using qualitative content analysis. The two programs provide interesting insights into the process of institutional change in projectified governance.

I understand the process of institutional change in project-based arrangements to revolve around two main dimensions: participation and innovation. Participation refers here to the extent to which projects engage different types of actors from various sectors in society. A wide representation of actors serves the purpose of ensuring that different types of knowledge and experiences are represented in the project. The involvement of different actors is important, but so is the ways in which project work is organized and the structure by which projects make decisions. In this fashion, participation also relates to the ability of projects to induce discussion and deliberation among project participants. This provides fruitful conditions for learning and sharing experiences of how to address sustainability challenges. The other dimension, innovation, is concerned with the capacity of projects to generate new knowledge, ideas, meanings, and understandings. In order for innovations to have wider impact, and more broadly influence institutions, they need to be transmitted, or diffused, to other organizations. Especially in a setting dominated by projects, diffusion becomes imperative. As projects are, by definition, temporary, the knowledge produced in projects need to be made available to other actors to make sure that it can be sustained over time.

The results from my dissertation indicate that institutional inertia stems from a multitude of drivers, including costs of achieving change, uncertainty about the effects and drivers of environmental problems, path dependence of decisions made in the past, and struggles of power and legitimacy. The results also point to the temporal significance of institution inertia. Institutions slow down change processes, which stresses the need for a temporally sensitive approach when addressing institutional inertia. This is where projects come in.

The results indicate that projects can indeed engage a wide range of actors, including businesses, local associations, local authorities, citizens, and members of the scientific community. The results also show that the work in the projects is driven by discussion and deliberation among the project participants. These findings underline the social function of projects: Projects provide opportunities for actors to engage with one another in different constellations, settings, and localities. Projects can also introduce new players into an existing policy regime, which serves to broaden the knowledge base of work toward sustainability. The results also point to the strong influence of bureaucratic control in limiting the creation of new knowledge in projects. This shows that, in a public policy setting, projects are never completely disconnected from their environments: The boundaries of project work are set and sustained by permanent organizations. Despite of this, diffusing the knowledge produced in projects to public authorities was proven to be difficult. The results show that there is a misfit between the means of gathering project knowledge and the knowledge itself, which is a serious issue especially if we want to make sure that knowledge produced in projects is put into circulation.

Building on these findings and to better make sense of the process of institutional change in projectified environments, this doctoral dissertation presents two ideal types, or distinct ways to analytically make sense of, projectification. I call these two ideal types mechanistic and organic projectification. Mechanistic projectification relies on a strong linkage between political strategies, public authorities, and projects. From this point of view, projects are seen as implementation vehicles of existing strategies. The potential for creating institutional change stems specifically from this strong linkage, where project knowledge is expected to be easily scalable to higher levels of decision-making. The other ideal type, organic projectification, sees projects as less connected to public authorities and political strategies, thereby providing greater autonomy of projects to pursue new forms of activities. Here, the initiation of successive, localized projects that connect actors with different knowledges and experiences constitute a breeding ground for achieving change. Seeing projects as distinct instances or events of long-term knowledge accumulation processes means that the focus shifts away from the agency of individual projects toward sets, or sequences of projects.

These two ideal types highlight not only different roles that projects may play in the processes of institutional change, but also the expectations we have on projects. In a projectified context, do we emphasize centralization or decentralization? Do we favor cohesion or, perhaps, variation? Are we more inclined toward uniformity or pluralism? Do we favor accountability or laissez-faire? Steering project activities from the center allows for greater insight and supervision, but fares worse in recognizing local variation and place-specific characteristics. The extent to which we want to hold project managers and participants accountable for the activities they pursue (or do not pursue) is closely linked to level of freedom that projects have to experiment with new ideas and activities. Do we allow projects to fail, and if so, under which circumstances? I argue that these are some of the key questions in projectified environmental governance, as they define how we see projects, what is expected of project-related activities, and their potential for inducing institutional change.

With this in mind, the findings from my doctoral dissertation suggest that the ability of projects to involve various actors and stakeholders, and importantly, to create spaces for deliberation and discussion among project participants is a key concern for institutional change in projectified governance. The findings emphasize the importance of sociality in projects and direct the attention away from seeing projects as merely technical means or instruments utilized to contribute to political strategies. As is typical in common discourse, seeing projects as simply “talking shops”, producing (at best) intangible results need not always be viewed in a negative light. In fact, it accepts that not all problems that projects are set out to address can, or should, be approached in a straightforward, predetermined manner.

In conclusion, it is worth acknowledging that projects and projectification have their own limitations. Aligning long-term goals with short-term measures remains a critical issue, and relying on projects to contribute to future goals comes at a price. Projectification entails an increased short-termism, which can direct our attention away from long-term visions for desirable futures. “Give a boy a project, and he will find that everything he encounters needs sequencing”. Taking projectification seriously means acknowledging the importance of the organizational and temporal dimensions of projects as well as accepting the potential and limitations of organizing work in projects.