Finding the gaps

Rob McGaffin, PhD candidate and Lecturer, University of Cape Town

Working in the City of Cape Town as an embedded researcher gave Rob McGaffin a clearer view of the gaps in his own and his colleagues’ research. His conclusion: you have to actually be there, to collect the data and hear what people are talking about.

Rob McGaffin is a fulltime lecturer at the University of Cape Town and doing PhD research while embedded in the City of Cape Town as part of the Mistra Urban Futures CTLIP. He focuses on Cape Town’s ‘space economy’ and the relationship between the space economy and planning – in other words, the property market.

Q: Is there a difference in being a practitioner versus an academic and the lenses you bring to this research?

A: I’ve got two master’s degrees and I worked with the city when I first graduated, and then I worked for an organization called Urban Landmark which looks at property markets. I brought that experience with me into the university for my PhD. Then with the Mistra program, there was just an incredibly good fit.

As a researcher, you wear different hats. The benefit we bring to the city is that they often need a theoretical framework to identify what the problem is and then to devise policies or interventions. So there’s quite a good synergy there and it isn’t actually a problem to wear both hats. However, from time to time, we might say something theoretically that may not sit well with, for instance, some of the political policies of the day.

Q: From your perspective, what are the benefits of having PhDs working in the city and city officials working jointly with researchers? Any disadvantages?

A: I don’t think it’s a given that better or more robust policies from a theoretical perspective or evidence base automatically result in better decision making. But it helps. If someone makes a different decision, it’s more difficult for them to defend a bad decision.

From an academic point of view, to ensure that your research is relevant, and grounded in the issues of the day.  More pragmatically, you just get access to information and data, both actual data and tacit data – you have to be physically in the space to listen to the conversations. The only real disadvantages that I have struggled with are time-management and focus. Council meetings happen when council meetings happen.

From the city’s perspective, they get access to a person who is looking at something from a theoretical basis. A lot of professionals have come out of the academic system – they are happy to have a way to express ideas academically. For example, I am writing an article with my counterpart in the city, which has been great. It’s actually allowing us to clarify a lot of our thinking. The city has given them the time off.  The downside is that they are losing capacity while that person is away. The fact that the city has been willing to do that is perhaps a very good indicator of the value they place on the process.

Q: How has being part of the city influenced or impacted your research? Good or bad?

A: I have a much clearer sense of where the gaps are in the research and I’m a lot more focused.  My research has got an economic slant to it, but if one had to look at the broader program – improving decision making to create more viable cities – you have to bring in a political science lens. Strong economic theory can identify a lot of problems quite quickly. I personally would get a political science person if I had to do this again. 

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