B) Embrace flexibility in project design and implementation

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Examples from real world governance interventions:

General ambition

Embracing flexibility in project design and implementation requires a willingness to accept uncertainty and to keep open possibilities for modifying over time in which ways a project’s overarching vision is pursued. Such flexibility allows adaptation to changing (political, social, ecological and economic) conditions in a particular local context.

Being flexible about initiative design and about the path to reach goals

Rather than strictly sticking to a present agenda and detailed goals; project designs may have to be adapted to specific local contexts and new developments during implementation. This can even mean that goals are added according to new political circumstances, or giving local actors responsibilities to act on their own and making them responsible for certain parts of the project, while ensuring that the overall direction of the project remains stable. This governance arrangement is very closely connected to the will to engage in extensive public participation.


Carnisse neighborhood, Rotterdam

Project proponents (mostly local organizations) had an overall vision of the project development but it was not set in stone. The idea was to translate an existing methodology about transition management and to make it custom fit to the local context. For instance, the creation of a community center was not planned in advance and was envisioned and initiated by local stakeholders (Q.27 & 28).

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Superblocks, Barcelona

After resistance against original plans to implement a Superblock in Poblenou (mostly because of missing participation) the municipality changed the way Superblocks should be installed in the whole city and formalised local working groups (where all kinds of local stakeholders can participate in) that are in charge of adapting the concept of the Superblock to the respective local context. (Q13).

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BürgerEnergy Berlin, Berlin

BEB applied for a Berlin grid concession directly. However, the government decided to provide the license to a city-owned public utility and a court case is pending. Consequently, BEB reinvented its plans for achieving a sustainable energy system in Berlin. They have, for example, started implementing solar power projects. An interviewee representing BEB stated: ‘Having an overarching goal, a vision and being able to adapt that to the circumstances is very important because overtime ... circumstances change a lot. You have to constantly reflect whether your vision is still relevant and up to date and do we need to adapt and can we carry on’.

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Relation to justice in urban sustainability governance

It is key for initiatives to regularly (re-) define shared understandings of sustainability and justice according to the values of those involved. Such willingness to adapt needs to be well balanced (between dogmas and arbitrariness). This governance arrangement attempts to address Unfit institutional structures. The “unfit institutional structures” that were identified as a ‘driver of injustice’ refer to the strict top-down approaches which limit knowledge generation and exchange, and to rigid bureaucracies and regulatory barriers which often result in sustainability policies that fail to address the realities of vulnerable residents.

Critical reflection

Calls for flexibility can help to pursue other agendas under the disguise of vague commitments to sustainability and justice. Due to flexibility in the design and implementation also unanticipated costs and challenges may incur. It may furthermore raise doubts about how and to what extent specific goals can be achieved.

Covid-19 connection/How does this enabling arrangement play out under the conditions of a pandemic?

This governance arrangement appears to best suit COVID-19 situations. It embraces uncertainty and encourages projects to always leave some space for changes during the implementation phase. Often project implementation takes years and over those years it is very likely to encounter social, political, economic and ecological changes. COVID-19 is one such example.