Lessons learnt from three years embedded researchers project

The Mistra Urban Futures Cape Town platform has been engaged in a Knowledge Transfer Programme (KTP) for three years, exploring how urban sustainability policy is made and implemented in the City of Cape Town.


The conclusion of this “embedded researcher” programme was recently celebrated with a workshop and panel discussion, reflecting on the experiences made during these years, and in particular the development of co-creation and co-production of knowledge.


The first aspect of the day saw the embedded researchers, their City counterparts and other core members of the Cape Town team participating in a workshop that aimed to consolidate the lessons of this first phase. In this smaller group, facilitated by external evaluator Sue Soal, the team looked back at the first KTP workshop held in 2012 where issues of co-production were discussed, and reflected on how their understandings of co-production have shifted over the course of the programme. The workshop surfaced some of the key factors that have supported this successful experiment in knowledge production, including in particular the importance of building relationships and trust; aspects of this partnership that will endure beyond the official timespan of the programme.

A panel discussion between the four embedded researchers, facilitated by Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) followed the workshop. Attended by a wider audience from the University of Cape Town, the City of Cape Town and other interested parties, Gordon Pirie, deputy director of the ACC, opened the panel discussion with some brief thoughts based on the discussion in the workshop. Posing questions such as what is knowledge? Who produces it? How is it produced? What capacities are there in the academic system, the public administration system are there to generate and produce knowledge?  How is that knowledge validated?  How do we apply that knowledge and to what ends?, he opened the session by bringing together some of the philosophical and methodological debates that the CTLIP has grappled with over the past three years.

Edgar Pieterse introduced the programme and the researchers. Rob McGaffin outlined his niche as an embedded researcher in the City of Cape Town. His research focus was the space economy, in particular trying to help the City get a better understanding of its economy and related property market so that the City’s spatial planning processes would be more effective. Responding to the question ‘does a co-production model assist in making a city more sustainable?’, he suggested that it does, but not in the ways we think. He argued that there are four things required to address the issues that the city faces. First, you have to identify the area of research that you’re going to look at; second, you have to ask the right questions about that area of research, and this is often done better by City officials who understand what research needs to be prioritised; third, once you’ve done that, you have to define the problem properly and understand the underlying causes of the problem, and this is where academics can add value to the research; and fourth, understanding the institutional and broader contexts in which any interventions are to be implemented. He noted too that addressing issues of sustainability are contingent on changing the nature of cities, and to do that requires interfering with power and resources, and thus there is a need to ‘raise the argument’ when taking on political forces and vested interest groups.

KTP Learning Event in Cape Town

Top photo: Anton Cartwright, Saul Roux, Anna Taylor, Rob McGaffin, Edgar Pieterse (photo Zarina Patel); bottom left: Rob Mc Gaffin (photo: Zarina Patel); bottom right: Gordon Pirie, Amy Davison (photo: Saskia Greyling)

Anna Taylor worked on questions of adapting to climate change in Cape Town, and managing climate related risks in the City, focussing particularly on how these issues were being framed as a problem in the City and, given that these challenges are cross-cutting, how to position the problem from a policy perspective in order to be more effective in generating change. In responding to the question of generating knowledge collaboratively could contribute to urban sustainability in Cape Town, she highlighted the more quick and effective move of ideas, and through that movement, the building on, hybridising and changing of those ideas. This movement happened (to varying degrees) in a multidirectional way across a number of boundaries, including between the academic domain and the policy and planning domains; across disciplines; across sectors; and between the technical and political domains. The embedded model of undertaking research has thus helped to break down some of the organisational, disciplinary and departmental siloes that typically exist, and this was achieved through the fostering of relationships. Anna pointed out how enriched her research experience has been as a result of her time spent in the City, and added that she now has a network of collaborators and colleagues that has come from building up a mutual understanding and trust from working alongside City officials. She noted too, however, that changing a City’s sustainability trajectory is a very slow process, and it’s very difficult to say whether or not Cape Town is any more sustainable now than it was three years ago.

Saul Roux focussed on urban energy governance, essentially the governance and regulation of change from one energy system to a more sustainable system. One of the most interesting benefits of the KTP was that interdisciplinarity was celebrated, and value was added by sharing research interests across different disciplines. He added that the term knowledge co-production is a mechanical term for something that in practice was a fluid concept; in reality, the KTP was a community of people working on interesting topics, and that this space for engagement allowed him to create bridges between people that wouldn’t always have the opportunity to meet. Saul reflected that the KTP provided him the opportunity to embody and capture the knowledge of officials.

Anton Cartwright’s theme was the green economy. On entering the City, his project was to link the idea of the green economy into economic theory and translating this into a request for budget, having been told by a City mentor that one of the ways of gaining traction in the urban system is in the budget, and that ‘if you don’t exist in the budget, you don’t exist in the City’. Anton wanted the green economy to be reflected as a concept in the budget allocation, and in doing this, be able to spend the money to address real problems of the City of Cape Town, focussing particularly on addressing the notion of ‘unemployability’, a term used by the private sector to describe the 400 000 people who are deemed to be unemployable. Using this green economy budget allocation, Anton and his City counterparts sought to disrupt the notion that the natural environment is a luxury good, and to promote access and real benefits from the natural environment in terms of risk reduction and work opportunities and material benefits for people who don’t fit easily into the city’s labour market. In reflecting on his time working on the concept of the green economy at the City of Cape Town, he noted that knowledge was not so much co-produced as shared.

Following the short presentations from each researcher, the audience was invited to ask questions. Engaging and fruitful discussion followed, exploring the ethics and positionality of such research; the tension between maintenance as one of the City’s key roles in society and demanding change of the institution; the need to partner with other organisations who have different mandates; the significance of the embedded researchers’ presence in the City in bringing in new concepts; the importance of generating questions and relationships which can be seen as indicators of success even if they are intangible; that spaces of innovation exist in the City; and that some questions are seen to be more legitimate if asked by the embedded researchers than if they had been asked by City officials.

Edgar wrapped up the session by reflecting on the fact that the questions that were discussed during the course of the afternoon are not unique to Cape Town. Figuring out how to work with institutions within profound constraints but with capacity to innovate and sustain the work of change is necessary to understand and address pressing issues of our time. We also need to build knowledge with more marginalised groups who are different to the institutions of the University and the City, who are often the subjects of urban policy, but aren’t in the room to surface the politics. He thanked everyone involved in the project, and lauded the partnership’s commitment to being reflexive throughout the process.