Governance of infrastructure transformation

The entrenched character of infrastructure systems makes it very difficult to introduce deliberate change in order to achieve a new 'configuration that works' (Rip and Kemp, 1998), including both technological and institutional elements. Evolutionary perspectives (after Dosi, 1988) on innovation processes highlight the role of the institutional and technical 'selection environment' into which new technologies must fit. Governance that seeks to change or transform infrastructure systems cannot solely focus on the technological components. It must also address institutional issues and the system culture, while at the same time acknowledging that these governance processes are embedded within the existing system. This has been well described by Hughes (1983, p. 465):

'As cultural artefacts, they [technologies] reflect the past as well as the present. Attempting to reform technology without systematically taking into account the shaping context and the intricacies of internal dynamics may well be futile. If only the technical components of systems are changed, they may snap back into their earlier shape like charged particles in a strong electromagnetic field. The field also must be attended to: values may need to be changed, institutions reformed, or legislation recast.'

Three governance challenges for system transformation, and corresponding strategies, are identified by Vofi and Kemp (2006). First, the consequences of policy interventions are not clearly predictable, being the result of complex interactions between various actors and system components. The liberalisation of electricity markets provides a topical example. In an analysis of reform-processes worldwide, Sioshansi (2008) concludes, 'even when the initial design of the reformed market is sound, the implementation and transition process can go astray, sometimes with serious consequences'. Second, a clear-cut definition of goals is problematic since these are subject to transformation themselves, and conflicts of interest are inherent to the process. To address both of these challenges it is necessary, as a first consideration, to include a broad range of different actors with diverse interests in the process of system analysis so that subsequent governance strategies are as robust as possible.

To deal with uncertainty regarding system behaviour, a portfolio of experiments to explore different approaches should be used. Goals should be re-examined on a regular basis to see if they are still valid. Moreover, strategies and institutions should be designed so as to be adaptive and capable of responding to new insights or objectives. As the long-term development of the system will be shaped by today's actions, it is necessary to anticipate the long-term effects of governance mechanisms.

The third governance challenge is linked to the fact that central control over the steering process is unrealistic in liberalised markets. Many actors pulling in different directions influence the transformation process. Liberalisation opens the door for new (and new kinds of) actors who can influence the future development of the electricity system. Even if a centralised technical structure is largely maintained, moving back to central planning is typically not seen as a real option. Rather than directing change, it becomes necessary to coordinate and encourage the various actors to make long-term system transformation happen.

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