Similar challenges are better faced in a network

Warren Smit, CityLab Manager, African Centre for Cities, University of Capetown

Many sustainable development challenges are similar in different cities around the world. Being a partner of the Mistra Urban Futures’ network helps the CTLIP to be more reflective and enriches the understanding of problems that are shared with other cities.

Warren Smit is the manager of the CityLab programme at the African Centre for Cities (ACC), which is part of the Mistra Urban Futures CTLIP. Warren is an urban planner by training and has worked at the ACC since 2008; he previously worked as an urban researcher in the NGO sector in South Africa, starting in 1993. His research and policy work has involved extensive engagement with a wide range of government and civil society organizations and with academics from a diverse range of disciplines. 

The CityLab programme is the ACC's focus on Cape Town, the ‘home town‘ of the centre, and it rests on a close collaboration with the public sector in the city. The similarities with other Mistra Urban Futures platforms, primarily in Gothenburg and Manchester, make it interesting to compare experiences, challenges and benefits of the collaboration, on local and global scales.

Q: What would you say are the most important parts of CityLab methodology and what kind of benefits have they generated?

A: The CityLab programme has been engaging with a wide range of stakeholders in Cape Town, such as the Western Cape Provincial Government, City of Cape Town, academic researchers and civil society organizations, on a number of important policy issues. The CityLab seminars have been particularly important, as they have helped expose researchers, practitioners and students to a wider range of experiences and perspectives. The ‘policy roundtables’, where we bring small groups of officials and researchers together to discuss the terms of reference for specific pieces of policy work, and working directly with the City and Province on developing policies, such as the City’s Urbanization Framework and the Province’s Human Settlements Framework, have also been important in bridging the policy/research divide.

Q: How does this relate to the context of Mistra Urban Futures?

A: The CityLab programme was started in 2008, before we became a partner of Mistra Urban Futures in 2010. The CityLab programme was using a knowledge coproduction methodology from the start, although we didn’t call it that at the time. The CityLab programme and Mistra Urban Futures were a perfect fit. Becoming a partner of Mistra Urban Futures helped us be more rigorous and reflective in terms of our methodology, and facilitated very valuable networking with organizations and people in other cities around the world. And, although the CityLab programme has received funding from a range of sources, the Mistra Urban Futures funding for the CityLab programme has been crucial in maintaining its continuity. 

Q: How could the collaboration between the CityLab and other Mistra Urban Futures platforms be developed to even better match the challenges raised by citizens and the city of Cape Town?

A: There is enormous scope for sharing and learning with the other Mistra Urban Futures cities, and for comparative work across the cities. Many of the key challenges that we are grappling with in Cape Town are similar to the challenges faced by the other cities (although in very different contexts), such as climate change, economic decline and transformation, and growing inequities and social polarization. Exploring the challenges and opportunities across different cities could potentially help enrich all of our understandings.

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