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The role of transdisciplinarity in advancing SDG implementation across African cities

The ISC-led research funding programme “Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa” (LIRA 2030 Africa) took a distinctive approach to researching urban challenges to sustainability through transdisciplinary, and in this blog, we seek to synthesize the key benefits that transdisciplinary approach provided to the LIRA projects.

With the fastest urbanization rates in the world, African cities are at the front line of global development, and given that the bulk this urbanization has not yet taken place, African cities have an unprecedented opportunity to shape their urban futures in an inclusive, sustainable and resilient manner.

In this context, science will need to be capacitated to play a much more active role in navigating urban complexity and in engaging with urban transformation. This will require novel methods of knowledge production which acknowledge the complexity, uncertainty and contested nature of urban sustainability challenges. Therefore, the LIRA programme promoted a distinctive transdisciplinary (TD) approach to researching urban challenges to sustainability.

As the recent LIRA learning study revealed, the TD approach allowed to grasp the complexity and include diverse scientific and societal views of the issues. The main benefit of transdisciplinarity included a better understanding of community needs and sharpened research focus, generating research with impact.

Transdisciplinarity to foster trust and communities’ agency

As such, one of the most common sentiments expressed by projects was that TD research provided an important opportunity for stakeholders – policy-makers, civil society, practitioners and academia – to sit and learn together in non-formal interactions on common societal goals. These fora for critical discourse and knowledge co-production created links between society and science, helping to break prevailing patterns of working in silos and fostering learning across disciplines, sectors, institutions and cities.

“LIRA made a difference in that it helped address a major criticism of Universities – thus, a disconnect between Universities and policy makers/communities. LIRA helped me meet my community service role, a major pillar of Universities. Universities have a tripartite mandate – teaching, research and community service. LIRA helped me in the third category.”

For example, a Cape Town project created a collaborative learning platform UrbanBetter which seeks to foster shared learning, knowledge exchange, and public engagement, connecting and mobilizing individuals, communities, and organizations for healthy, sustainable urban environments. Another LIRA project in Accra resulted in the creation of a Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus Forum, which became a platform for continuous engagement of the different stakeholders involved in the management of these crucial resources in the city.

LIRA 2030 Africa: Key achievements and learnings

International Science Council/Network of African Science Academies. 2023. Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA 2030 AFRICA); Key achievements and learnings (2016-2021). International Science Council, Paris, France. DOI: 10.24948/2023.04

The investment in relationships across stakeholder groups and disciplines was valued as a means to change the knowledge and governance landscape shaping African cities. The process of implementing TD research became as important as the final outcome, with the knowledge co‑production process itself seen as an agent of change. By reinforcing the stakeholders’ agency, TD helped form strategic and long-standing partnerships with the local and national authorities, deepen social relations and foster trust, goodwill, and commitment among various groups.  And this was vital for promoting greater receptiveness from stakeholders, thus improving the acceptability of research findings and their potential for impact.

In Uganda, this shift contributed to the design of the Sustainable Housing and Urban Development Programme as a core component of the National Development Plan III (2020–2025).

Transdisciplinarity as a political and social practice

Another key benefit of TD research was the creation of synergies between different knowledge types to generate new locally-grounded knowledge in under-researched areas in African cities between different stakeholders. So much so that transdisciplinary research was gradually understood not only as a method, but rather as a political and social practice – enabling a shift of power relations in research from extractive towards more participatory practices.

Recognizing existing power asymmetries, many projects broadened participation from multiple stakeholders and to ensure an ‘equality of voice’ by hearing and recording dissenting views. Addressing existing power imbalances in response to urban challenges became explicit in projects methodologies. The projects produced outputs that reflect the different voices, and make visible (and audible) often marginalized contributions from the informal sector. This was seen by participants as a form of empowerment. In Uganda and Kenya, the project organised SDGs studios with local community groups and policy actors to translate SDGs to local context through visuals and storylines.  The SDG studios enabled the local communities to discuss meanings and interpretations of the images and storylines, and to share experiences and ideas of how the SDGs can be implemented at neighbourhood and city level. This process enabled local communities to express their values, constraints, realities and aspirations and helped to develop SDGs indicators that are relevant to local realities.

“We have … learned the value of humility, in the sense that we have had to strip ourselves of numerous assumptions we had prior to going into the ‘field’, and instead pay attention to the wisdom from the lived experiences of other stakeholders.”

LIRA 2030 Africa: Learning from Practising Transdisciplinary Research for Sustainable Development in African Cities

International Science Council. (2023). LIRA 2030 Africa: Learning from Practising Transdisciplinary Research for Sustainable Development in African Cities. Paris, France, International Science Council. DOI: 10.24948/2023.02

Transdisciplinarity for efficient solutions adapted to local contexts

Continuous reflection and the close engagement fostered through the TD approach also enriched research, helped researchers see diverse ways of knowing, made research more inclusive, and allowed for informed changes in research ambition and methods used. The knowledge co-production helped to seize the learning potential of local innovations and enabled projects to come up with more efficient designs of solutions that are fit for each local context.

While TD is often considered a slow process, several LIRA researchers stressed that the TD process was effective and time saving, as cause and effect could be identified simultaneously. Partnering with stakeholders also helped them reduce research costs by mobilizing external capacities, facilities and resources. The open process of TD also allows projects to make use of opportunities that arise over the course of the research.

While the LIRA programme has ended, at least its first phase, all grantees, without exception, stated that they would like to continue using TD approaches in their future research and that they feel galvanized to pursue a career as TD researchers.

“The LIRA programme has been beneficial to our career trajectories. Through the programme, my collaborator has been promoted to senior lecturer. We have been able to mentor students and developed their skills in TD research. Most importantly it gives me joy that we could contribute to societal transformation with both tangible and intangible outcomes.”

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