Multi-Actor and Cross-Border Collaboration in Complex Projects
: The Case of the PlastiCity Project

  • Virginie Litaudon

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Complex, ill-defined, dynamic and highly interrelated, “wicked problems” - such as climate change and plastic pollution in the oceans - involve multiple stakeholders, often from different countries, with competing interests and no clear solutions. To solve them, we need to collaborate, primarily through multi-actor and cross-border collaboration that transcends organisational and political barriers. In today’s rapidly transforming world, where complex issues are on the rise and organisations operate in a highly interconnected economy, effective multi-actor and cross-border collaboration are becoming increasingly important for success, necessitating a new approach to problem-solving that embraces complexity and change. However, our knowledge of how to improve multi-actor and cross-border collaboration is hampered because current collaboration research still lacks a solid theoretical framework to understand better which conditions of the collaboration process are essential for success. There is a crucial need to delve inside collaborative groups to gain insights into current and specific collaborative mechanisms and processes. Collaborative mechanisms are the underlying patterns of behaviour and interaction that enable collaboration, while collaborative processes are actions or strategies taken to work towards a collaborative advantage.
In the linear economy, collaborative approaches are often limited to a small group of stakeholders and are based on control and hierarchical systems constraining inter-organisational collaboration. Traditional collaborative tools and methods are based on mechanical and reductionist processes that do not address the fundamental causes of “wicked problems”. Mechanical processes involve following predetermined steps in a linear fashion without allowing for flexibility or adaptability. This may include decision-making processes that do not allow much input or deviation from the agenda. In contrast, the setting of the circular economy can provide insights into a more radical type of collaboration, which could lead to a greater understanding of collaborative processes and mechanisms that could aid in solving grand challenges. Collaboration in the circular economy involves many stakeholders, often from different countries, and moves from firm-centric to ecosystem-centric perspectives by adopting alternative governance, a systemic perspective, and a collaborative attitude.
Through collaborative projects, public and private organisations can share resources and make progress in addressing “wicked problems”. However, projects can be complex and often prone to external and internal challenges that must be considered when studying collaboration. Nevertheless, there is a limited understanding of the collaborative mechanisms and processes used to address collaborative challenges at different levels (regional and cross-border) in complex projects. Similarly, despite renewed interest following the Covid-19 pandemic, we still lack an understanding of collaboration’s role in managing crises affecting complex projects. Extant research suggests that robust entrepreneurial ecosystems may enhance collaboration and facilitate response to crises, but it is unclear how these ecosystems emerge in complex projects. To address such gaps, this thesis investigates: a) how complex projects address multi-actor and cross-border collaborative challenges,
b) how a disruptive crisis influences collaboration patterns, and c) how entrepreneurial ecosystems supporting collaboration emerge in complex projects. This research explores these questions in the case of PlastiCity, a European project aiming to use circular economy solutions to address an urgent “wicked problem”: the ever-increasing amounts of commercial plastic waste. PlastiCity is an Interreg 2Seas project aiming to increase plastic recycling rates in urban environments through technical innovations, circular logistics and behavioural change.
The philosophy of this thesis is interpretivism applied to an inductive action research qualitative methodology. The data collected are from observation and participatory action research within the three years of the PlastiCity project and 29 semi-interviews with the PlastiCity partners. The data were analysed using an inductive method to build a process theory. Based on complexity theory, this thesis makes three key contributions to the literature. The first contribution is to the literature on collaboration by a) defining four collaborative mechanisms (banding, bonding, binding and boundarying) used in multi-stakeholder projects, b) identifying antecedents, moderators and barriers of these mechanisms, c) analysing these mechanisms in different circumstances: regional and cross- border collaboration and during a crisis. By identifying these mechanisms, this research contributes to a better understanding of all types of collaboration in different contexts and levels of analysis. Second, this research expands the project management literature’s growing topic on crisis management by identifying boundarying as a crucial collaborative mechanism in adapting and responding to a crisis. Third, this thesis adds to the ecosystem literature by determining the antecedents to the emergence of new entrepreneurial ecosystems to enhance multi-actor collaboration in the circular economy context. The results indicate that a self-organised and co- evolved team helps to create a self-organising ecosystem. Finally, this study also offers practical implications for organisations to consider when collaborating with other organisations, including adopting participatory approaches, fostering trust and open communication, being flexible and adaptable, involving the appropriate stakeholders, and embracing change.
Date of Award27 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorDiego Vazquez-Brust (Supervisor) & Regina Frei (Supervisor)

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