City Hall in Cape Town. Photo: Felix Gottwald.

Researchers and City Staff Change Jobs, Creating New Knowledge

Having an “embedded researcher” in the city administration of Cape Town has had significant benefits. The opportunity to focus on one area and to comment on national and local policies, has been very helpful. At the same time, city officials have had a chance to write academic papers – thus having an opportunity to reflect on and analyse their work – not a process for which officials usually get any time.

Sarah Ward is the Head of Energy and Climate Change in the Environmental Resource Management Department for the City of Cape Town.  One of the University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD  students  is “embedded” in her department, doing both research and practice through the Mistra Urban Futures CTLIP.  Some City officials have also had the opportunity to take mini-sabbaticals with the University, although these have not been from Sarah’s department.

Q: Can you give some specific examples of results that have come from combining academia and practice?

A: Quite a lot of the work we do is backed up in some way by academia – and by NGOs which often work with academics. Cape Town has a greater ability to address energy and climate change issues and implement programmes because we have academic institutions engaging with the City.  Our training needs are also supported by the university, in collaboration  with NGOs.

For example, the solar water heater program economic analysis was done by Graduate School of Business associates. A household energy survey is under way right now of low-income households by the Energy Research Centre (ERC) at UCT. Sustainable Energy Africa and ERC are training us in energy futures modeling.

With Saul Roux, an embedded PhD student, it has been helpful to have a person dedicated to focusing on commenting on policy and strategy coming from local, provincial and national government  which city staff often do not have the time to do: from the National energy efficiency Strategy, to the National Climate Change Response policy, to the proposed  carbon tax and so on. This ensures that the local government voice, and the city-scale voice in particular, is heard – national government has a tendency to ignore/forget/suppress the voice and role of local government.  National government often asks for Cape Town’s comment because they know other cities won’t comment.

Q: What are the benefits and challenges to having researchers working with practitioners?

A: I feel it is important that the researcher is properly engaged in the work of the City – ie. Not be an outsider/observer – this can be tricky if the PhD does not have ‘job or work’ to do; I also think that the way the PhD system is set up academically does not lend itself very well to being ‘embedded’, significant changes are needed in academia to better accommodate this process of obtaining a doctorate. An associated question is how the work gets communicated into the City – this is where leadership needs to play a proactive role. Fortunately Saul had done a year’s internship in the City so already had an established presence and role.

Q: Are there other advantages, anything in particular for the City staff?

A: We realised we need to get the City’s administrative data out of the city data system and into a system that is much more researcher-friendly. We are working with a data curatorship at UCT provide access to City data for researchers, which will improve the data itself as well as improve the quality of research on Cape Town.  It is also a means to managing access to researchers work on City data.

The opportunity for city staff to have a ‘sabbatical’ to write papers on their work is a very good one. I’m keen that staff have access to that.  It should be for management staff as well (this has not really happened) as managers don’t get time to think or to download everything going on in their brains and it often gets lost. Engaging in such a process allows one to engage much more proactively with strategy and has the potential to create a shift in thinking.

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