In the context of climate change, resource limitations and other drivers, there is growing international acceptance that conventional technocratic approaches to planning urban water systems are inadequate to deliver the services society requires. Instead, scholars and practitioners are calling for a shift to an adaptive approach that increases a system's sustainability and resilience. This shift is significant, requiring transitions in the way urban water systems are planned, designed and managed. However, there is limited understanding of how strategic initiatives can be deliberately managed and coordinated to reform mainstream policy and practice. This paper aims to develop a strategic program for this purpose. It draws on strategy literature to develop a scope and logic for a general program that can address challenges for long-term urban infrastructure management related to path-dependencies, the direction of transformative change, system complexity and future uncertainty. The content of a normative transition scenario, developed in participatory workshops by water practitioners in Melbourne, is then presented, focusing on the transition to a “water sensitive city”. The scenario comprises a problem definition, vision and strategies, which provide lessons for contextualizing the strategic program for the specific purpose of enabling transformative change in urban water systems. These lessons are synthesized in strategy goals and planning processes that form the design base of a strategic program. With tailoring for local contexts, the strategic program can provide operational guidance for planners, designers and decision-makers in strategically planning and managing initiatives to facilitate sustainability transitions in urban water systems.
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