Reading the future : constructing low-carbon imaginaries in urban institutions

DOBSON, Julian (2017). Reading the future : constructing low-carbon imaginaries in urban institutions. Doctoral, Sheffield Hallam University.

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Link to published version:: 10.7190/shu-thesis-00004


A central paradox of environmental sustainability is that the institutions that bring stability to society must become agents of transformative change. In an urbanised world characterised by fossil fuel dependency, the stable ‘anchor institutions’ in major cities are likely to play a central role in transitions towards a low carbon economy and society (Coenen, Benneworth & Truffer, 2012; Goddard & Vallance, 2013). However, the nature of institutions both enables and militates against sociotechnical change, constraining the futures that are imaginable and achievable. This paradox has received little empirical attention. This thesis asks how actors in urban institutions imagine and interpret low carbon transitions. It presents case studies of strategic institutions in three northern English cities: a university in Manchester, a local authority in Nottingham, and a housing association in Sunderland. Each has publicly positioned itself as a leader on environmental sustainability. The research examines how actors’ engagements with the institutional logics or frames of reference embedded in an organisation (Thornton, Ocasio & Lounsbury, 2012) determine or divert potential pathways of change. Using Paul Ricoeur’s futureoriented hermeneutics (1988, 2008) as a guide, the study explores institutional change as an interpretive process, recasting institutional logics to serve new purposes. Through qualitative interviews and documentary analysis it uncovers this process of interpretation and scopes out its possibilities and limits. The research finds that actors’ use of institutional logics has a recursive effect, bending organisations back towards their original positions when challenged by crisis or conflict. However, this is countered by the forward motion of interpretation and reinterpretation. The interpretive process is critically catalysed by knowledge networks that are not coterminous with the urban spaces where transitions are enacted. The study finds such epistemic networks to be a necessary, though not sufficient, factor for transitions to take effect. Building on these findings, it proposes a model that integrates an interpretive approach and attention to institutional logics with the multi-level perspective previously advanced by transition scholars (Geels, 2002, 2004, 2010; Grin, Rotmans, & Schot, 2010).

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Additional Information: Director of Studies: Prof. Peter Wells. Supervisor: Will Eadson
Research Institute, Centre or Group: Sheffield Hallam Doctoral Theses
Identification Number: 10.7190/shu-thesis-00004
Depositing User: Hilary Ridgway
Date Deposited: 21 Feb 2018 14:46
Last Modified: 21 Feb 2018 16:00

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