The role of agency in overcoming path dependence and enabling sustainability transitions is receiving increasing attention. Currently lacking are more empirically derived explanations of the co-evolutionary dynamics between actors and institutional change that could potentially provide guidance on facilitating such transitions into the future. This paper investigates these dynamics through a longitudinal case analysis of Melbourne's transition to improved stormwater quality treatment. The complex data collection, analysis and validation approach, which included oral histories, semi-structured interviews, industry workshops and documentary analysis, examined the nuances of the actor-related strategies and institutional enabling processes throughout the different phases of the transition over the last fifty years. The results revealed the importance of a small group of loosely connected frontrunners from across government, private, community and scientific sectors who, through a mix of creating and disrupting institutional strategies, managed to facilitate a growing and diverse actor-network that steered this transition over decades. The establishment of networked bridging organisations was also instrumental because they formed different types of networks and alliances over time for protecting and deepening the reach of the transition dynamics across the city. The findings suggest there is no single cause–effect relationship nor one dominant intervention or action that shifted the urban stormwater management regime. Rather, it showed that the co-evolutionary processes between the broader transitional dynamics were played into by frontrunners and their actor-networks in such a way that emerging new narratives diffused, giving meaning to the evolving scientific agendas and on-the-ground experiments, which led to new institutional structures and enabling administrative tools. It seems as though each one of these dimensions is as crucial as the other in explaining the outcomes of this successful sustainability transition.

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Last updated: 17th Jun 2016