Sustainability transitions in Los Angeles’ water system: the ambivalent role of incumbents in urban experimentation

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Growing urban populations, climate change, drought, and ageing infrastructures increase pressure on water delivery. This prompts the search for innovations, with incumbents increasingly attempting to enable and steer ‘experimental’ approaches. Historically, incumbents were assumed to be largely resistant to potentially disruptive innovations. However, their strategic orientations may be changing due to the urgency of sustainability challenges leading to increased experimentation. This change raises a question about how incumbents influence experiments in particular directions while neglecting or discouraging others. This research centers on the ‘La Kretz Innovation Campus’, and three experiments therein, partly established by the incumbent water utility in Los Angeles. It explores how creating an internal ‘protective space’ for experimentation generates struggles over institutional changes necessary for such experiments to thrive. Conceptualizing ‘incumbent-enabled experimentation’ as a set of practices nested within novel institutional, organizational, and political arrangements reveals the internal tensions incumbents face when seeking more sustainable directions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)368-385
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Environmental Policy and Planning
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • experimentation
  • water
  • incumbencies
  • incumbent
  • sustainability
  • Los Angeles


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