Reflections from Tuesday the afternoon session “Power, Frames and Fortunes: Polycentricity Uncovered”

This session focused on the role of power in polycentric governance. It was a popular session, with many people queuing to get in! Luckily there was tweeting from inside the room to help share insights and keep people in the loop until the moment when people outside could join the session. The packed room (including people sitting on all available floor space) is a good indication of the popularity of this topic.

The first speaker was Tiffany Morrison (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies) who spoke about recent work theorising about power in polycentric governance, as well as an in-depth longitudinal study of changes in a polycentric regime in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Morrison discussed the challenges of dealing with power from a polycentric perspective, and the need to better theorise this aspect. A typology of forms of power was presented, which include power by design, pragmatic power, and framing power.

Morrison also discussed different patterns of polycentric regimes, ranging from strong to weak degrees of polycentric ordering. In the Great Barrier Reef region, these forms have evolved over decades, associated with the type of problem at hand (e.g. dealing with the relatively “well-understood” issue of water quality, or the relatively “poorly understood” issue of climate change), as well as broader political dynamics that influence or disrupt the form of the governance system.

The second speaker was Dave Huitema (Open University of the Netherlands, and VU Amsterdam) unpacked and questioned the current state of theorising on polycentric governance. Prof. Huitema began by pointing out the need to distinguish between descriptive-analytical vs. normative approaches to studying polycentricity. This is thought to have key implications for how you approach the topic.

Drawing on insights from a book in preparation on polycentricity in climate governance, he discussed the state of theory and empirical evidence for polycentricity to stimulate the further development of this idea. An interesting observation is that polycentric thinking in political science parallels the idea of emergence in resilience thinking, because expects that smaller dynamics cumulate into some sort of broader macro level order and effects. Another interesting observation is that polycentricity implies a ‘state-centred’ view of order, whereas if you are within a community that is working to self-organise it might seem a lot less ordered, and a lot more like hard work!

The third speaker was Louisa Evans (University of Exeter) who discussed a case study of UK small-scale fisheries to critically examine the implications of polycentricity when applied to a tangible governance dilemma. This was particularly timely, as the case study explores fisheries governance in the context of changing governance through Brexit.

Fisheries became a significant issue during the Brexit debates, as fishers criticised perceptions of unfair EU quota arrangements. There were many poignant quotes from fishers shown in the presentation. Yet the reality is complex, and there are questions about whether the outcomes from Brexit will be for better or worse for the fishers. This fascinating case provides an opportunity to explore empirically the analytical and normative aspects of polycentric theory, as outlined in the previous two presentations. Evans discussed an ongoing collaborative project between the fishers, research, and arts to explore fisheries futures.

The discussion picked up on the challenge of understanding power in polycentric governance, considering how power can be measured/assessed in a way that is somewhat objective, stepping back from the immediate perceptions of actors involved. In other words, how to really understand power disparities and their effects.

Another observation from Victor Galaz (Stockholm Resilience Centre) questioned how conceptualisations of polycentricity can better link to key insights from resilience literature about the dynamics of social-ecological systems. For example, what are the capacities of polycentric systems to deal with tipping points, surprise, and cascades, and how does that change power relations? This seems to indicate a key need to ensure that polycentric governance theory is connected to the ecological dimensions of the problems at hand.

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:
James Patterson is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Vrije
University Amsterdam, working in the area of environmental governance. His current research focuses on climate change adaptation in cities, with a particular focus on institutional innovation and change. He also has a keen interest in sustainability transformations, collective action, and science-policy interactions.

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