The diffusion of sustainable practices within the Australian housing industry

Implications for future change management
04 Jun 2009

A substantial barrier to sustainable change arises from reliance on positivist, disciplinary science and neo-classical economic theory to create the new knowledge that underpins policies intended to deliver such change. This barrier is particularly evident within the core focus of this research, change strategies to reduce or eliminate adverse net lifecycle environmental emissions and depletions by the cost sensitive, risk averse built environment sector. While recognising the role and importance of traditional disciplinary knowledge in this field, this thesis suggests that such knowledge creation processes are self-defeating in terms of creating sustainable futures because the only truly positivist proof of a threat to sustainable futures is the irreversible failure of biospheric life support systems.

Accordingly, an alternative, transdisciplinary (TD) approach to knowledge creation is adopted. An Action Research (AR) methodology applied within a social constructivist epistemological stance is used to generate ‘temporary knowledge’ to inform the change agendas of AR partners in their attempts to apply the ‘precautionary principle’. This temporary knowledge is created through AR monitoring and explanation of sustainable change strategies being implemented in the Australian Housing Industry (AHI) and is framed within Diffusion of Innovations theory (DoI). The knowledge is temporary in that it provides useful insights and understandings that are valid or relevant at specific stages of an evolving change process. In successive cycles of AR and reflective practice, multiple case studies and examples drawn from a variety of change agendas are used to test and refine hypotheses and develop arguments that explain successes and failures.

AR observations and temporary knowledge are ‘retrospectively’ analysed through an innovative combination of DoI and Actor Network Theory (ANT) to develop deeper or more ‘permanent’ understandings of effective processes of sustainable change in the AHI. These explanations are presented as a series of generalisations to inform the subsequent ‘prospective’ analysis that underpins concluding recommendations for future management of sustainable change within the AHI. The generalisations also form the basis of theoretical contributions with potential for adaptive application in other sustainable change agendas.

This thesis makes contributions to knowledge at several levels. Key industry recommendations address the need for: fresh approaches to regulation, skill and information provision drawn from DoI and ANT; a shift in focus from new to existing housing stock; strategies to engage the finance and marketing sectors; greater emphasis on the role of networks in change planning and management and a shift in regulatory focus to encourage innovation and technology transfer between the custom and volume housing sectors. Additionally, the research contributed to the significant, practical, sustainable change outcomes that occurred during its currency. Finally, theoretical contributions are embodied in the evolution of ANT and DoI through their application as complementary analytical frameworks.

Key words: Change creation, Action Research; sustainable change; Diffusion of Innovations; Actor Network Theory; epistemological pluralism; transdisciplinary; Australian Housing Industry.

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