The sustainable development of cities is threatened by a worldwide water crisis. Improved social learning is urgently needed to transform urban water governance and make it more integrated and adaptive.

To date, empirical studies have been few and fragmented. This article helps to fill this gap by analysing how social learning has supported or inhibited sustainable transformations in urban water governance.

On the basis of multiple case studies conducted in urban, flood‐prone areas in Colombia, the Philippines, South Africa, India and Sweden, the authors study learning processes related to different aspects of water management and governance. The results show that transformations in water governance are often triggered by crises, while other potential for transformation remains untapped. Furthermore, learning is often inhibited by “lock‐ins” created by powerful actors.

The authors conclude that there is a need for more proactive design of governance structures for triple‐loop learning that take into account the identified barriers and supporting principles.