Co-producing knowledge for tricky transitions

Urban experimentation and innovation in Cape Town

The Cape Town platform hosted and participated in a panel discussion at the Southern African City Studies conference, held at the University of the Witwatersrand from 27-29th March 2014. With the objective of creating a space for debate on urban issues in Southern Africa, the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies (CUBES) at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the African Centre for Cities jointly host an urban studies conference every second year. The panel discussion focussed on understanding the project of knowledge co-production in the Cape Town context and how this methodology is used to “aid the process of policy development and decision making and to further our academic understandings of the motivations and murky spaces within which local government makes decisions to foster sustainable outcomes”, as expressed by Zarina Patel, ACC and Coordinator Cape Town platform, Mistra Urban Futures.

The panel discussion allowed for a reflection on the progress of the Knowledge Transfer Programme to date. The panellists focussed on four issues: firstly, methods, and why co-production was selected as the method to generate policy and academic knowledge; secondly, practice, and what opportunities and constraints have been experienced through the partnership; thirdly, outcomes and impact, and the influence of co-production of knowledge on policy development and approaches to research; and finally, transitions and the implications of the lessons learnt through the Knowledge Transfer Programme.

Panellists included representatives from the City of Cape Town and the African Centre for Cities, who spoke to the four themes above. Saul Roux, an embedded researcher working on energy governance at the City of Cape Town noted that one of the opportunities of doing research in such a manner has been that he has “gain[ed] access to very, very in-depth, rich empirical data and knowledge, and you really become quite integrated in local government”. While this presents an almost unprecedented opportunity, it also raises questions around the ethics of such research, and the complicated positionality of the researchers, as neither insiders nor outsiders.

Despite this, Amy Davison, City of Cape Town coordinator of the Knowledge Transfer Programme noted that this relationship of mutual learning challenges more traditional University-City relationships, “which really [haven’t] produced lasting relationships and lasting outcomes… [and they] didn’t give either of us the opportunity to make the most of the other in terms of that relationship”. Rather, the Knowledge Transfer Programme has provided for “an informal, long-term interaction between researchers and City officials… [which has] allowed the researchers to develop a deeper understanding of the issues facing the City, while also allowing officials to really start to take on board and internalise some of the academic debate and theoretical underpinnings that are emerging as part of the work that’s taking place”.

Catherine Stone, Director of Spatial Planning at the City of Cape Town and co-chair of the Project Steering Committee, added that “the beauty of this opportunity is that it gave us an opportunity to mine a whole lot of evidence and to test assumptions” using the skill sets that the embedded researchers brought to the City.

Graeme Gotz of the Gauteng City-Region Observatory was a discussant on the panel, and he highlighted that “things are not devoid of thought in the state”, adding that the municipality is “not a dull beast, but there are moments of inertia”. Zarina Patel noted that it is for these reasons that “understanding how the local state operates and responds is becoming more and more urgent; [and understanding] how different parts of the state interact, and how in turn the state interacts differently to different constituencies” is imperative for addressing the wicked problems that afflict urban areas such as Cape Town.

Read more about the Knowledge Transfer Programme

Read more about the Southern Africa City Studies Conference