Cities are booming as the world is becoming increasingly urbanised. Over half of the global population currently lives in urban centres and this is expected to rise to two-thirds by 2050. Cities are often vibrant places of leadership and experimentation for moving towards a more sustainable and equitable world. Many critical sustainability and development challenges converge at the scale of cities. For example: providing urban water and wastewater services; preparing for extreme events (such as floods, droughts, and storms); ensuring water, energy and food security; reducing poverty and inequality; and protecting and enhancing ecosystem services. The need to adapt to climate change adds another layer of urgency on top of these existing challenges, as well as introducing new pressures, uncertainties, risks, and future changes.

How can cities develop appropriate forms of decision-making and strategies for action to address these challenges? How can cities be better prepared to make decisions and take action in their particular contexts within an uncertain and changing future?  How does institutional innovation occur to enable more adaptive governance of urban water systems. This project aims to address these kinds of questions.


The research project will address the problem of the currently insufficient level of institutional innovation in water governance systems in the context of climate change. This is a critical problem because the single most significant way that climate change will be felt by human society is through impacts on water systems. Climate change creates an urgent need for adaptive water governance that can anticipate and respond to increasing pressures on water systems within human society. Specifically, the project focuses on the urgent need for institutional innovation to create sustainable and resilient urban water supply-demand systems.

Institutional innovation might include policy change, new organisational setups, and new inter-organisational arrangements. However, the specific types of institutional innovation required, and why and how they emerge, is poorly understood. Therefore, we address the question: What types of institutional innovation are required for adapting to climate change in water governance within cities, and how can we better understand why and how they emerge? Even though institutional innovation and change is increasingly called for in order to adapt to climate change, it is difficult to achieve and remains under-studied and not well understood.


The project will study ‘innovative’ cities across the world through a global survey and comparative case studies. The objectives of the project are:

1. To identify the types and patterns of institutional innovation that are occurring in water governance in cities across the world. This will involve building a database of at least 30 cities in different global regions to provide a broad picture of types and patterns of institutional innovation occurring. It will be achieved through a survey/questionnaire and review of secondary materials (academic literature, policy documents, plans).

2. To analyse mechanisms by which institutional innovation emerges, with a particular focus on its dynamic and political nature. This will involve comparative case study analysis in at least 3 cities across 3 continents to provide in-depth insight into why and how institutional innovation emerges. It will be achieved through interviews with key stakeholders and in-depth review of secondary materials (academic literature, policy documents, plans).

3. To provide research and policy recommendations for municipalities, city networks, and other relevant actors at the city scale on how to enable institutional innovation in water governance in cities. This objective integrates the results of Objectives 1 and 2 by identifying key theoretical and practical implications of the research, and finding effective ways to share the results with policy and practitioner communities. It will be achieved through collaboration with practitioner organisations (such as city networks) to distill the key messages arising from the research, and the best opportunities for communicating these findings in meaningful and useful ways.

Project structure

The structure of the project is shown in the figure below:

An invitation

We extend an open invitation to interested organisations (e.g. municipalities, city networks, other decision makers) to discuss how we can maximise the value of this work to your existing needs and priorities. If you have any ideas or suggestions, or would like to be kept in the loop with new developments and research results, please don’t hesitate to contact the project leaders.

Project flyer

Click here to download a project flyer.