People and practices : fostering transitions toward sustainability through transdisciplinary inquiry and individual, social and organisational learning

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The goal of this thesis is to take people and practices as the primary focus in analysing past and emerging case studies of transitions in sanitation. ‘Transitions’, as structural changes in the way societal systems operate, are increasingly acknowledged as necessary for meeting sustainability goals. Uncertainties such as rapid population growth, the emergence of new pollutants, changing hydrological conditions, climate change impacts, global economic instability and declining phosphorus reserves are driving innovation and transitions in sanitation. Integral to the process of transitioning toward sustainability are ‘people and practices’ and yet the tendency of innovation scholars is to focus on technological factors and systems of supply. This ignores the importance of the human dimensions of technological change. In light of this knowledge gap, the objective of this thesis is to investigate how ‘people and practices’ are involved in technological change and in the emergence of sustainable systems of sanitation. Practices in this thesis are discussed at the level of using novel technologies (implicating end-users) and the level of planning, designing and managing the installation of novel technologies (implicating project teams). Complementary to the overarching framework of transition management, this transdisciplinary perspective of ‘practices’ draws on literature from practice theory, social and organisational learning and communities of practice. Six case studies of transitions in sanitation, over three cycles of research, provide insight into how transitions have historically occurred, are occurring at present and might be more readily facilitated in the future. The diverse range of cases span temporal (historical and real-time cases), geographic (local and international cases) and spatial (community and city scale cases) scales with a primary focus on the emergence of urine diversion (UD) in Sweden and Australia. The sociological perspective adopted to study transitions in sanitation revealed the complex relationship between sanitation technologies, and the users/consumers and managers/providers of these systems. Contributions to new knowledge resulting from this research span praxis and methodology. This has included identification of principles for designing experiments to support social learning in transdisciplinary projects inclusive of end-users, processes for engaging end-users in adopting new practices through social learning, and methods for translating individual learning into organisational learning and change by organisations trialling sustainable innovation. Methodological contributions include the identification and application of a cumulative staged approach to case study research on transitions and demonstration of the value and validity of qualitative social research in facilitating and supporting the emergence of new and fragile practices.
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