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The transformative potential of experimentation as an environmental governance approach: The case of the Dutch peatlands

LOSS researchers Mandy van den Ende, Dries Hegger and Peter Driessen published a new paper in Environmental Policy and Governance:

Governance of societal transformations toward sustainability is needed to address the fundamental system failures responsible for environmental problems. Possible transformation pathways range from radical shifts to more incremental change. Experimentation is seen as a form of incremental change, but its actual transformative potential is debated. The transformative potential of experimentation is especially questionable for environmental problems characterizing a “creeping crisis” because this problem type is not particularly a lever for social change. Our empirical research contributes to this debate by systemically evaluating the significance (degree of change) and sufficiency (reach of change) of experiments relating to an environmental problem characterizing a creeping crisis that appears to be predominantly governed through experimentation: land subsidence in Dutch peatlands. We found that experiments have indeed proved to be significant for local regime actors because most have tested technical innovations that kept the overall land use system intact. However, experimentation was less significant in terms of reflecting the complexity of environmental problems; that would require a more diverse set of technical, social, legal, and planning experiments from which the strategy most suitable for specific landscape contexts could be determined. We also found signs of accumulation of outcomes, but whether this eventually initiates transformative change or creates a technological lock-in can only be determined with longitudinal research. To enhance the transformative potential of experimentation, particularly as a governance approach for creeping crises, attention must be paid to actor and institutional features since they shape experiments. Hence, we conclude with design principles for transformative experimentation.