The paradigm of adaptive governance compared to multi-level governance

The paradigm of adaptive governance compared to multi-level governance

What is usually employed to explain institutional interactions is multi-level governance (MLG) theory, which focuses on governmental levels and responsibilities, as well as coordination. The paradigm of adaptive governance (AG) is instead thought to delve into the dynamics of how flexible certain administrations can be and, not by chance, how adaptive they can be with regards to policy changes and variations of the status quo. Conceptually, the two approaches are similar and respond to the same questions, but their objects of analysis are different, as well as their heuristic purpose.

Unambiguously, AG is not to be confused with governance for adaptation, which, together with mitigation, coincides with the two main policy domains of environmental public policies. More specifically, instead, Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern (2003) refer to adaptive governance rather than adaptive management because the idea of governance conveys the difficulty of control, the need to proceed in the face of substantial uncertainty, and the importance of dealing with diversity.

In general, AG is defined by Chaffin, Gosnell, Cosens (2014) as an emergent form of environmental governance that is increasingly called upon by scholars and practitioners to coordinate resource management regimes in the face of the complexity and uncertainty associated with rapid environmental change.

Furthermore, Termeer, Dewulf and van Lieshout (2010) clarify that scale issues in AG can be divided roughly into two categories: cross-scale issues and cross-level issues. Cross-scale issues are the result of the existence of multiple relevant scales and the cross-scale interactions between them cross-level issues are the result of cross-level interactions between multiple levels on a scale. Depending on the scale at hand, cross-level issues can take different forms, but generally problems result from the interdependence between levels. If it can be useful for making this clearer, the typical example of a cross-scale issue can be water, resources, or even climate, anything that might display a discrepancy between the scale of social organisation and the biogeophysical scale of that resource (going beyond formal borders and limits).

A critical assessment of AG may interpret it as focusing on uncertainty, variability and consequent skills that must be developed to be resilient to changes (namely, to be adaptive) but failing to effectively address institutional complexity. MLG, on the other hand, declines variability at the different levels of government and if it can be more useful for studying administrative capacity and coordination, it is nonetheless true that it might not provide the necessary flexibility in case of major changes. In this regard, Termeer, Dewulf and van Lieshout (2010) assert that while monocentric governance theories emphasise ‘effectiveness’, the ‘resilience’ norm dominates adaptive governance.

Thus, without having the intention to be normative or prescriptive, it could be useful to reflect on the desirability of either fostering effectiveness or resilience. Similarly, the question of whether MLG or AG is better to answer a research question about which role urban public policies play and maybe also which factors might be expected to vary as a result of a governance change remains open to debate, but some common ground can be found.

Huitema et al. (2009) introduced the concept of matching AG to a bioregional scale, an operational scale where ecosystems and institutional arrangements are compatible. A bioregional scale crosses administrative and political boundaries and focuses on the optimization of governance by aligning ecological goals and social feasibility. Rescaling policies at the necessary governmental level (be it urban, regional or a higher one) while maintaining the heuristic insights of AG would be a very relevant success of mutual enrichment between these theories.

However, a critical assessment of AG can be given as regards firstly the real possibility of transposing its principles into practical implementation. Bureaucracy and existing political systems usually tend to maintain stability and may more than often pose hurdles in establishing the necessary institutional structures to experiment and adapt. Together with this, the effective coordination schemes and the willingness to cooperate and increase interactions may as well be absent or insufficient.

Another objection that could be raised is the one of scaling up AG from local to higher contexts of decision-making. Coordinating and cooperating across multiple scales and jurisdictions, in particular for complex issues like climate change, displays difficulties in making adaptability concrete and in solving intricate intertwining of governing structures and the relative stakeholders with which common work is much needed.

These pieces of reasoning shed light on the challenges and limitations associated with AG, but with the help of inclusive decision-making, the design of appropriate institutional arrangements, and fostering ongoing learning and adaptation, it is possible to enhance the effectiveness of AG in addressing complex environmental and social problems, regardless of how demanding or time consuming iterative learning, monitoring and feedback gathering may be.

Undoubtedly, collecting reliable data, conducting meaningful evaluations, and effectively integrating feedback into decision-making processes can lead to very valuable results and maybe even to the concrete reconfiguration of governance frameworks, especially in environmental policy domains.





  • Dietz, T., Ostrom, E., and Stern, P. C. (2003) The Struggle to Govern the Commons. Science 302, 1907-1912.
  • Chaffin, B. C., Gosnell, H., and Cosens, B. A. (2014) A decade of adaptive governance scholarship: synthesis and future directions. Ecology and Society 19(3), 56.
  • Termeer, C. J. A. M., Dewulf, A., & van Lieshout, M. (2010). Disentangling Scale Approaches in Governance Research: Comparing Monocentric, Multilevel, and Adaptive Governance. Ecology and Society, 15(4).
  • Huitema et al. (2009) Adaptive Water Governance. In Chaffin, B. C., Gosnell, H., and Cosens, B. A. (2014) A decade of adaptive governance scholarship: synthesis and future directions. Ecology and Society 19(3), 56.
REPowerEU funds for the energy transition and some urban best practices

REPowerEU funds for the energy transition and some urban best practices

A broad context from which this contribution starts is undoubtedly the one of the energy crisis and, before that, the recovery from the pandemic with all the policy tools that especially the European Union (EU) has succeeded in activating during recent years. In particular, following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the EU has urged Member States to update their National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs) by also including the so-called “REPowerEU [chapters] to end dependence on Russian fossil fuels by saving energy, diversifying supplies and accelerating the clean energy transition”1 (European Council, 2023).

More specifically, “these funds must support a just and local transition helping local actors to act for energy sovereignty and respecting the planet’s boundaries. However, today it is not clear where these funds will land”2 (Energy Cities, 2023). A first criticality that might be highlighted is the one regarding the limits posed by governing such a complexity: the spatialisation from European decision-making, downscaling to urban public policies, would need a more thorough analysis, but suffice it to say that the intermediation of just Member States might not be proper to deal with such an amount of both funds and implementation schemes. To put it in another way, regions and municipalities are not involved in this phase, but a very relevant number of fundamental projects devised to enhance this necessary energy transition will depend on local authorities’ permission and management.

Another aspect that is worth of attention is the fact that the urban dimensions where these REPowerEU funds will land might not be ready to handle them, owing to some structural inefficiencies that many realities still display: “a clear example of this is the unsustainability of our current energy systems and how this impacts urban life. Most modern cities that historically had their own energy supply now depend on national energy grids and power plants running on fossil fuels in a liberalised market. Cities experience the effects of pollution, price volatility, and dependence upon foreign supply but often do not have the position or instruments to change this”3 (Loorbach and Shiroyama, 2016). This contribution dates back to some years ago, but it could not be more valid than nowadays. REPowerEU funds will turn out to play a fundamental role “to allow the diversification of gas supplies and to increase the pace of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, including more renewable energy in the energy mix. Member States are also expected to implement measures to fight energy poverty for vulnerable households”4 (Energy Cities, 2023). This last objective should indeed be a priority and major attention to this is paid in the next paragraphs.

Some of the tools that are at the disposal of cities regard, for instance, renewable energy communities, the creation of which is strongly encouraged at the European level by Directive (EU) 2018/2001 RED II, promoting energy use from renewable sources and Directive (EU) 2019/944 IEM, on common rules for the internal electricity market. Some very relevant urban best practices must be cited as far as these energy configurations are concerned and they are more and more widespread. For instance, the 2023 Covenant of Mayors Conference has collected the testimony of “Mayors and Deputy Mayors of Milan (Italy), Freiburg (Germany), Pedreguer (Spain), Łódź (Poland) and Grenoble (France) – who – presented the diversity of emergency measures that they put into place to face the crisis: from green taxation, to building renovation, promotion of energy communities, education and awareness, transport and mobility”5 (Covenant of Mayors, 2023).

Again on this, in Italy these REPowerEU funds are the “opportunity for the local and regional authorities to fund the creation of energy communities. Italy, which received so far about EUR 29 billion in grants, was able to invest EUR 2.2 billion for the promotion of renewables for energy communities and self-consumption. What is even more interesting is that the funds were directed toward municipalities with fewer than 5 000 inhabitants”6 (Energy Cities, 2023). The latter element could sound as surprising, but it precisely goes towards the objective of involving even the smallest towns in what has to be the widest possible and the most diffused effort to improve energy efficiency, to foster energy independence and, above all, to tackle energy poverty.

Another fundamental piece of policy-making in this sector is unambiguously the one of wind energy: “REPowerEU has already brought significant improvements. But now is the time to get serious about the expansion of wind energy in Europe. It’s time to accelerate permitting. Permitting has historically been the biggest bottleneck to the buildout of wind. 80 GW of wind energy capacity are currently stuck in permitting procedures across Europe. Bureaucratic rules, understaffed permitting authorities, and time-consuming legal appeals are holding new projects back. REPowerEU has started to tackle this issue. For the first time, the EU recognised renewables as a matter of overriding public interest in its revised Renewable Energy Directive”7 (Dickson, 2023). All these steps must be welcomed with the most favourable hope for even greater advances, for the moment the joint work in this direction is very promising.





  1. European Council (2023) REPowerEU: energy policy in EU countries’ recovery and resilience plans [Online] Available at: [Access: 26.04.2023].
  2. Energy Cities (2023) The REPowerEU funds: an opportunity for just and local transition? [Online] Available at: [Access: 26.04.2023].
  3. Loorbach, D., & Shiroyama, H. (2016) The Challenge of Sustainable Urban Development and Transforming Cities. In D. Loorbach, J. M. Wittmayer, H. Shiroyama, J. Fujino, & S. Mizuguchi (Eds.), Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions. European and Asian Experiences. Tokyo: Springer Japan.
  4. Energy Cities (2023) The REPowerEU funds: an opportunity for just and local transition? [Online] Available at: [Access: 26.04.2023].
  5. Covenant of Mayors (2023) How European cities are turning the energy crisis into an opportunity to drive Europe towards a climate-neutral and just future [Online] Available at: [Access: 26.04.2023].
  6. Energy Cities (2023) How can REPowerEU chapters make or break local transitions? [Online] Available at: [Access: 26.04.2023].
  7. Dickson, G. (2023) It’s time to get serious about speeding up the expansion of wind energy in Europe [Online] Available at: [Access: 26.04.2023].
City Science Initiative

City Science Initiative

In order to grasp an initial idea of what City Science Initiative is, it can be asserted that it is a program activated within the Joint Research Center of the European Commission which connects cities and urban contexts with science (therefore mainly universities) through a network of so-called City Science Offices (CSOs) that will be discussed in the following paragraph and that can have different configurations according to the city where they are located.

Professor Iaione explains that “a handful of European municipalities are experimenting with an organizational innovation: City Science Offices (CSOs). While CSOs are not a public-private-people partnership themselves, they are an organizational innovation that can create multi-actor partnerships, or they can be part of one. The phenomenon is still in its infancy, so it is too soon to tell, but it definitely is an innovation to keep under close observation”. (1)

In particular, it can be useful to know which cities are trying to connect innovation, technology and knowledge with urban policies to be implemented wisely, with the purpose of shortening the gap between the civil society, academia and decision-makers and to share best practices.

“Five cities lead each of the five working topics of the City Science Initiative:

– Air Quality (Paris)

– Circular Economy (Hamburg)

– Mental Health (Thessaloníki)

– Sustainable Mobility (Cluj-Napoca)

– Tech and the City (Reggio Emilia)” (2)

and major attention could be paid to the Italian case. This last example of the city in the Emilia-Romagna region can be helpful in understanding which role these offices can play: the CSO of Reggio Emilia is “a research unit in the field of urban and social innovation [also involving] three young researchers from Luiss Guido Carli University of Rome”. (3) The city is part of the broader network of municipalities “recognizing the importance of science, research and technology for the development of territories and thus implementing a structured approach to evidence-based decision-making”. (4)

Undoubtedly, such an approach to policy-making cannot avoid to consider the principle of environmental and climate sustainability: nowadays, these issues find juridical references, from the supranational level to local contexts and administrations, as well as a perceived social urgency increased by the energy crisis that has been going on for a very relevant time. In this regard, Berni, De Franco and Levi write that “the energy issue represents a fundamental challenge for the Italian public administrations as decisive players in promoting the creation of energy communities based on close collaboration with private sectors, associations and citizens. Based on previous experience focus on co-design and co-management of urban commons, Reggio Emilia has activated a pilot experimentation of renewable energy communities at neighbourhood level through the scientific support of the City Science Office, a research unit coordinated by the municipality with the collaboration of the Luiss University of Rome and the manager of the Open Laboratory at the Cloisters of San Pietro”. (5)

Furthermore, it is more and more incontrovertible that cities represent fundamental places of experimentation for the fight against climate change and to foster measures for the transition towards low-carbon economies that can achieve the fundamental objectives of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. Therefore, the assessment of the carbon impact of public policies represents a decisive challenge for local authorities which implies the search for tools of analysis useful for directing strategies and actions in territories. Certainly, science can play a role and in particular the City Science Office of Reggio Emilia can be better understood under these lenses:

“The unit is made up of three researchers mainly in the legal field with the task of developing applied research in the Reggio area with respect to three main themes:

a) administrative and social innovation, investigating the methods and tools useful for promoting collaboration between the private world and local communities in the context of activities of general interest promoted by the public body;

b) digital innovation aimed at achieving carbon neutrality through evaluation and strategic guidance tools for public policies;

c) eco-environmental transition to support the experimentation of collaborative governance models and related tools to be applied in the creation of renewable energy communities.” (6)

The ability to implement public policies oriented towards carbon neutrality will witness an essential role in the replicability of the best practices conducted in the territory, in order not to join forces for single initiatives, but to share those with the administrations that may be most in need. The purpose of cooperation and common efforts in these fields may regard many more projects:

“Other activities carried out by the City Science Office concern scientific and strategic support in the promotion of internationalization paths, in the search for funding and in scientific dissemination. The aim is to improve the effectiveness of the public administration through open innovation paths and the transversality between territorial policies and projects. The root of the experimentation lies in the experiences conducted in other European cities within the Joint Research Center (JRC).” (7)

In fact, “Reggio Emilia is part of the ‘City Science Initiative’ program promoted by the European Commission as a ‘lead city’ together with Amsterdam, Cluj-Napoca, Hamburg, Paris and Thessaloniki within an international network made up of around 35 European cities. These are initiatives capable of affecting the processes of ‘research policy gap’ in public policies or supporting the municipalities in decision-making and planning through applied research models” (8) that should regard a vast portion of the  public heritage which the Municipality of Reggio Emilia has. Buildings of public offices, schools, civic centres, working-class districts and many more represent places that, for instance, could both be made energy efficient and transformed into physical incubators of innovation.



  1. Iaione, C. F., (2022) Urban sustainable development and innovation partnerships.Italian Journal of Public Law, vol. 14 (2), 521.
  2. OpenResearch.Amsterdam (2022) City Science:
  3. Chiostri San Pietro (2021) City Science Initiative:
  5. Chiostri San Pietro (2021) City Science Initiative:
  7. Berni, F., De Franco, L., Levi, N. (2023) The City Science Office of Reggio Emilia: pathways to energy and social research and innovation. Diritto e Società
  8. Berni, F., De Franco, L., Levi, N. (2023) The City Science Office of Reggio Emilia: pathways to energy and social research and innovation. Diritto e Società
  9. Berni, F., De Franco, L., Levi, N. (2023) The City Science Office of Reggio Emilia: pathways to energy and social research and innovation. Diritto e Società
  10. Berni, F., De Franco, L., Levi, N. (2023) The City Science Office of Reggio Emilia: pathways to energy and social research and innovation. Diritto e Società.