Projects have become vital in initiating urban sustainability changes. In this study, we address the research gap regarding the dual role of a project in advancing change in public organizations and helping them to adopt roles in initiating and steering urban sustainability transitions. From a practice-theory perspective, we present longitudinal participatory action research on the activities of a project management team in a city organization. Our results show how praxes of a project team without hierarchical authoritative power to give orders or delegate change-related activities in the host organization create organization-level outcomes in the city's organization and urban living lab contexts amongst external stakeholders. We contribute to project management studies by increasing the understanding of how short-term project activities foster long-term strategic changes in siloed and departmentalized host organizations while at the same time creating outcomes in the external urban living lab context. This provides novel insights into the evolving intermediary roles of projects that support city organizations in acting as leaders in urban sustainability transitions.
Projects have become vital in initiating urban sustainability changes and there is a call for project studies focusing on sustainability transitions. Increasingly, cities and other host organizations use projects to become credible actors for sustainability. Sustainability transitions research (Köhler et al., 2019) has developed approaches to analyse the systemic nature of transitions, including the multi-level approach (MLP) and other, more horizontal approaches applied particularly in research on urban sustainability transitions (von Wirth et al., 2019). In project research, there is a rising orientation toward sustainability transitions. Most recently, Winch (2022) envisaged that projects in sustainability transitions will begin a new era in project research, Daniel (2022) developed an integrative framework between MLP and project research, and Bos-de Vos et al. (2022) studied system transformations through context dynamics, albeit not using the transition vocabulary. We contribute to the rising research orientation on projects supporting sustainability transitions with a focus on sustainability projects in city organizations.
Cities are key organizations in urban sustainability transitions. These transitions are multi-actor, multitemporal and multi-regime societal transformations coordinated by the city (Frantzeskaki et al., 2017). Niches that can instigate transitions in urban areas include urban living labs (ULL), in which sustainability innovations are created and experimented in collaboration between the city, companies, citizens, research institutes and other actors (Jørgensen, 2012, von Wirth et al., 2019). The transition accelerates when the niche innovations are translated and scaled up within and across cities to increase their transformative capacity. When they challenge the unsustainable regimes with the support from incumbent actors, they can gradually turn urban development into more sustainable pathways (Frantzeskaki et al., 2017). We recognize that sustainability transition in cities requires attention to two parallel directions. First, while cities are expected to be enablers of ULLs and the main leaders of urban sustainability transitions, they are not unitary actors, but rather divided into siloed bureaucratic departments in city administration. Each department tends to defend its own interests, conventional mindset, and budgetary status quo, and if these fragmented interests and practices are not aligned with the promotion of sustainability transitions, the city administration will lack the motivation to support multi-objective ULL projects and their continuities. Second, because experiments and projects are central to ULLs and essential to wider urban policy agendas for sustainability, it is questionable whether these short-term activities can support the long-term trajectories required for urban sustainability transitions (Torrens & von Wirth, 2021). While only the second challenge is in the focus of sustainability transitions research, the challenges are independent and create a dual-context problem in which a city organization has both internal and external barriers that hinder the promotion of urban sustainability transition.
Urban sustainability transitions that involve changes both in city organizations and the urban context represent a topical yet sparsely researched subject. By using project-as-practice approach and based on in-depth longitudinal action research to study a sustainability transition project in a city organization this research elucidates the ways in which a project enacts a dual role as both a niche intermediary in the urban context and an endogenous change facilitator within the city organization. Thus, the temporary short-term project increases the city organization's transformative capacity to strengthen the city's role as a leader in urban sustainability transitions in the long term. We show that the project practitioners’ enactment of sustainability transition in situated and emergent practices created favourable conditions for people to engage in sustainability change, challenged organizational boundaries and created commitment to sustainability transition across departments. This is evidence that the praxes in a sustainability project constitute and instantiate a macro-level sustainability change in the internal organizational context and the external ULL context.
The results of this paper have theoretical implications for the ongoing discussion of the roles of projects in sustainability transitions (Daniel, 2022; Winch, 2022; see also Winch et al., 2023). Daniel (2022) and Winch (2022) emphasize that projects with their teams and individuals are necessary on the level of technical execution, whereas host organizations promote the transition on the meso‑level through projects, portfolios, and programs. In terms of key aspects of project management (Pich et al., 2002), this division is based on instructionism (project using detailed, directive project planning and risk management) and selectionism (host organization putting several projects to work and then selecting the most promising results).