Adaptive Capacity Within a Mega Project: A Case Study on Planning and Decision-Making in the Face of Complexity

Mendel Giezen*, Luca Bertolini, Willem Salet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


There is a tendency in policy to reduce the complexity of planning and decision-making by simplifying both the process and the scope of projects. However, by framing a planning project's scope or process in a narrow way at an early stage, the possibility of adapting to changes in the context, and thus dealing with unexpected challenges, is limited. This paper explores the mechanisms that enhance or limit the adaptive capacity within the process of decision-making and planning. We develop the concept of adaptive capacity using organizational learning theory and use empirical data from a mega project in The Netherlands to identify the moments of adaptation and to discern these mechanisms. Mega projects are especially useful objects of analysis as the complexity of their planning and decision-making is extreme, with characteristically very long and controversial processes dotted by recurring deadlocks. In this empirical research we find that incremental adaptations such as mitigation measures are the initial response to deadlocks, but that for deadlocks caused by strong opposition, radical adaptations are needed. A more proactive approach to enhancing adaptive capacity is desirable and might paradoxically even lead to cheaper and more relevant projects and faster planning and decision-making.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)999–1018
Number of pages21
JournalEuropean Planning Studies
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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