Adaptive Intermediate Structures and Local Sustainability Advances 1

Article excerpt


This article reflects on the growing recognition of local interdependencies and the inadequacies of the current administrative state in responding to cross-jurisdictional issues such as environmental management. The article reviews three kinds of locally derived approaches and the use of intermediate structures in their potential for both expanding participation in solution making and providing system-wide benefits or global advantages. While locally focused, these advances are viewed as "adaptive" structures that add to metropolitan system complexity with system-wide effects.


It has become more apparent that many of our human problems are complex and cross-jurisdictional in nature, requiring interdisciplinary approaches and research (Meek, 2001; Meek & Newell, 2005) as well as cross-jurisdictional administrative collaboration. This understanding means that traditional forms of inquiry or administration alone are not likely to fully address current issues by themselves. There is a need for continuously innovative forms of interaction. These innovative forms are likely to evolve as networks operate alongside the existing traditional more formal and bureaucratic structures, adding complexity to our current patterns of interaction.

With the advancement of technology and communications, we more easily recognize our interconnections and interdependencies (Friedman, 2005). How well Brazil manages its rain forests and how the United States manages its consumptive practices in energy affects the world. Events that used to seem far away and distant are now very close, or what James Rosenau (2003) refers to as "distant proximities." How well we manage our resources and our environment does not only affect our local quality of life but will also influence the quality of life of other, even distant, lands and people. These themes reflect a kind of interdependence that our existing governmental systems find difficult to respond to because of their jurisdictional and representation limitations.

The argument advanced in this paper is that locally derived environmental actions offer enormous potential for contextualizing solutions that can involve deeper participation than existing institutions while creating system-wide effects and promote a way of learning that would help us better adapt to our changing environmental needs. After a comment on the current nature of the administrative state, the paper offers complex adaptive systems framework as a way to interpret emerging local sustainability responses. The article then describes locally driven metropolitan system adaptations (administrative conjunction, citizen-centered public management, and local strategy development) and the creation of intermediate (third-party) structures. Finally, the potential of these adaptive approaches in expanding participation in generating environmental solutions, system-wide benefits, and global advantages are discussed. It is suggested that these adaptive approaches have the potential for evolving into of new patterns of interaction.


Environmental management presents a complex condition for us to study and to administer. In our political response to the environmental challenge, we rely on a species of representative public systems that were designed to be responsive only to electoral feedback and representative directives. These structures are often characterized by narrow participation and limited discourse. In addition, these bureaucratic systems lack the ability to adjust to deal with cross-jurisdictional problems for various reasons. They lack the ability to collaborate, adjust, and re-organize to address problems that cut across boundaries. The prominent scholar Frederickson (1999) refers to this condition as the "disarticulated state."

The central assumption behind the emergence of innovative structures is that our current representative governmental systems (republics) and their corresponding administrative systems, by themselves, may not be the best or only mechanisms for generating good practices for environmental management. …