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Transforming southern African cities in a changing climate – Q and A with Alice McClure from the University of Cape Town

What can we learn about climate change from Cape Town’s water crisis and the use of the transdisciplinary research approach?

Alice McClure is the Principal Investigator for the LIRA project entitled “Transforming southern African cities in a changing climate”. She is also currently coordinating a large transdisciplinary project – Future Resilience for African ciTies and Lands (FRACTAL) – and pursuing a PhD. In her research, she tries to understand the dynamics of transdisciplinary research and its application to climate change. We caught up with Alice to talk about her LIRA project and also glean insights from her understanding of knowledge co-production and the transdisciplinary approach.

Q: Tell us about the problem that you are working on with the LIRA project.

Alice: We are trying to understand the challenges of decision makers in the cities, what their priorities are, particularly related to socio-economic issues in the cities, and how climate change intersects these. If we don’t address climate change effectively at the city level, it will undermine efforts to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

One important focus of the project is to think about transformative adaptation, a term which has become increasingly popular and has varied meanings. The first part of the project would be to unpack this term of transformative adaption particularly in a Southern African city context, thinking about the historical and political context of the cities and the sort of unjust ways that they have been set up. We will work with decision-makers to understand from their perspective what transformative adaption means and review the broad body of literature that is out there on transformative adaptation, locating the discussion within the southern African city context. And then to explore potential pathways for transformative adaption in two cities that we will be using as cases, Durban (South Africa) and Harare (Zimbabwe). Considering both cities are faced with the challenge of managing water under changing climate conditions, water service provision will be used as a case to explore transformative adaptation in these cities.

Q: Why the two cities – Durban and Harare?

Alice: We have already built relations with stakeholders in Durban and Harare through the FRACTAL project. Durban has an advanced adaptation agenda making it the “poster boy” of adaptation in cities in southern Africa. Harare is a city that hasn’t really formulated an adaptation agenda yet. They are in quite different stages of their adaptation pathways as cities, but will experience water related issues that will worsen under conditions of climate change. This would make a nice case for comparison across the two different cities.

Q: Why is adaptation hard for African cities?

Alice: Cities are very complex spaces. In Africa, there is a lot of cultural and social heterogeneity and socio-economic injustice (because of oppressive histories) that need to be factored into decisions. On top of this complexity, cities are developing very fast; it is projected that the year 2050 would see about 70% of people living in cities. This will mean rapid urbanization and increasing strain on human and natural resources. Although cities contribute a lot to the problems related to climate change, they also have the potential to contribute to solutions. The potential to contribute to solutions depends on the decisions that are made in the cities now and in the future.

Q: What kind of knowledge outputs are you looking forward to generate?

Alice: We are hoping to publish two academic outputs: the first about the transdisciplinary learning and co-production aspects of the project, and the second on the transformative adaptation process and what that means in the southern African city context. In addition, we hope to publish outputs that contribute to knowledge for decision making. From the FRACTAL project, we learnt that if you predesign the outputs for policy impacts removed from the context, often they don’t fit the context in which you are working. The form that those outputs would take depends on the learning process in each of the cities and the context that reveals itself when you begin working with stakeholders. I think the most important part of the coproduction process is the ongoing discussions it provides between researchers and decision-makers. This supports continuous learning and guidance for both sides, which in itself is equally an important output of the research process.

Q: Would you say involving stakeholders in the research process helps to design relevant research?

Alice: Yes, I think it’s incredibly helpful. Climate change is already a complex issue, there’s no one linear solution for climate change and there’s not one way to frame climate change problems, especially in an African city context. In order to prioritize what kind of things are dealt with and who is involved in that prioritization process you need to be engaging with stakeholders all the time. A researcher from outside the city doesn’t understand the nuances of decision-making priorities and socio-economic issues in the city. The information she/he produces might be useful and relevant but to be significant for decisions, contextual knowledge is required. If you have stakeholders involved from nearly the beginning of the project, you are constantly learning from each other – the decision-makers are constantly learning from the researchers and the researchers are constantly learning from the decision-makers – to produce much more contextual science. The process of learning together, understanding one another and bridging the gap between academia and society is as important as the output in the very end, though it is a very slow and long process and can involve a lot of stress.

Q: Does involvement of stakeholders help to foster the uptake of the research?

Alice: Obviously, there’s a lot of momentum that is created around these co-production processes that benefits decision makers. Maintaining this momentum after the project is always quite difficult to do. However, if decision-makers have been involved from the very beginning and have been part of an ongoing learning process, the conversation is likely to continue after the project ends. The uptake of the final “product” (e.g. a climate change policy) is not the only goal. The learning that is fostered through co-producing these outputs with researchers, decision-makers, NGOs and other stakeholder groups is also very important.

Q: What are the benefits to stakeholders in being part of the research process?

Alice: There is a lot of effort and energy directed at inviting different stakeholder groups (including NGOs and decision makers) to be a part of the learning processes in the cities and listening to these groups and understanding their needs. We didn’t arrive at each of the cities and say: “this is what we want to do, and this is how we want your inputs in the different stages of the project”. Instead we said: “we are here to listen to issues and priorities from stakeholders in the city and figure out how best we can all work together to contribute to solving them.” In Lusaka, four policy briefs on water and climate change have been co-produced and in Windhoek, the learning process sparked the development of the Windhoek Climate Change Strategy and action Plan (CSSAP). The City of Windhoek has seen so much value in the learning processes that they have committed to holding inclusive learning platforms after the project ends. I think a major benefit of the co-production process for decision-makers is that issues can be deeply explored as academia provides a more reflective, critical environment. The findings from these exercises can be fed back into co-production processes to inform decisions that need to be quickly taken up in the cities.

Q: What are some of the challenges you encounter as a result of involving stakeholders in the research?

Alice: There are very many exciting things about doing this kind of work, as well as challenges. The challenges usually involve trying to understand the context properly in each of the cities and bounding the issue of focus when there’s so much complexity. In some cities, there may be a language barrier and also the way things work in cities in terms of how decisions are made are very different. Another challenge in some cities is that stakeholders that you have built relationship with and are now champions of the project can be relocated to other parts of the country; this can be difficult. And then having people with different backgrounds and perceptions that are brought into these “warmer” research processes brings up tensions that need to be managed properly. Transdisciplinarity, with its focus on different groups of stakeholders, requires emotional intelligence.

Q: What would be the best-case scenario of the impact of the research?

Alice: The best-case scenario would be for stakeholder groups in Durban and in Harare to be joined together within and across cities to form solid relationships and set objectives that can continue after the end of the LIRA project. It will be exciting to envision development pathways or adaptation responses that chip away some of the unjust aspects of the city system in Durban and Harare.

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