Urban experiments led by early-career African scientists

The International Science Council has published a new report on the collaboration between science, policy and society carried out through transdisciplinary research in a range of African cities. All the featured projects are being implemented under a research programme known as Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA 2030 Africa).

The report sheds light on what it takes to co-produce knowledge on sustainable urban development in Africa through collaboration among scientists, policy actors, urban practitioners, the private sector and communities, and what opportunities and challenges this engaged process of knowledge production creates. It suggests options for creating enabling environments and for enhancing the capacity of African scientists to undertake this type of research.

Key messages and recommendations

  • Urban challenges require novel methods of knowledge production. These should cut across sectors, disciplines, and cultures, and acknowledge the complexity, uncertainty and contested nature of urban development. Knowledge co-production is an enriching process. It provides space for dialogue, learning and collaboration between different stakeholders. Research teams that combine scientists from different academic disciplines with non-academic stakeholders are better equipped to manage the complexity of the real world. This approach also offers new possibilities for engaging within and across institutions, helping to break the silo mentality and stimulating the transformation of existing institutional structures and processes in universities and other partners. Through knowledge co-production, scientists from different disciplines undertake research with practitioners and policy-makers across sectors and geographical scales, and create and test local solutions jointly to bring about transformative change in cities.
  • Knowledge co-production offers benefits for implementing the SDGs in African cities. Working with different stakeholders helps researchers to have a better understanding of local needs and interests, to gain a holistic understanding of problems, and to co-produce locally grounded knowledge and solutions. By fostering new place-based partnerships across different sectors, knowledge co-production helps anchor SDGs in the local context, and increases the responsiveness of communities to the global agenda. By providing a space for stakeholders to express their constraints and aspirations, it promotes better participation of groups that are usually silenced and formally excluded in the implementation of the SDGs. This makes the knowledge production process more inclusive. By bringing contending actors and sectors together, it helps identify interconnectedness between the SDGs, and ways to achieve them. Finally, knowledge co-production helps to leverage the expertise, skills and resources required to implement the SDGs.
  • Realizing the full potential of knowledge co-production process requires researchers:
    • To be strategic and realistic about the engagement with policy and society, and to think carefully about whom to engage and at what stage of the research process. Based on the LIRA learnings to date, there are three main phases of knowledge production. Each helps to bring together different types of knowledge, foster learning across institutions, and build cross-sectoral partnerships. These phases are the joint framing of research agendas; co-designing methods for knowledge generation and use; and the co-creation of policy options and action for change.
    • To spend time early in the project on identifying ways of working together, understanding individual interests in the project, and building trust.
    • To create space for the project team and partners to reflect about research methods and processes and adapt them, if necessary, to evolving conditions.
    • To listen attentively to those who will act upon research findings, in order to understand their concerns and aspirations and create knowledge products that are useful in the real world.
    • To manage adequately the expectations of stakeholders, especially those of local communities.
    • To critically reflect on existing power dynamics, on each other’s positions and experiences, and on ways of interrupting the reproduction of unequal power relations.
  • The complexity and uniqueness of African cities means that more scholarship on African cities from Africa is needed. Urban issues in Africa are distinctly different from those of other regions, more attempts should be made to support the development of African research theories and framing, to grasp the problems and solutions in their specific context.
  • Academic institutions, and international and national funding agencies, should consider creating enabling environments in Africa for knowledge co-production involving different societal actors. Global policy processes such as the 2030 Agenda call for stronger contributions from science. But knowledge co-production is still poorly rewarded by funding mechanisms and academic structures. Committing to transdisciplinary research can be risky for early-career scientists. There are very few opportunities for transdisciplinary career development within discipline-centred institutions. To address this issue would require structural changes within the institutions but also within the prevailing system of academic incentives and the ‘publish or perish’ culture. Acknowledging and rewarding the non-academic outcomes of knowledge co-production work, such as social and institutional learning, capacity development, engagement with policy and the public, and relationship-building, would encourage solutions-oriented research. Creating more peer-reviewed journals that are focused on publishing transdisciplinary research would be also beneficial. Furthermore, administrative barriers that prevent funds transfers between institutions and across borders need to be removed if the benefits of collaboration, knowledge exchange and learning across universities and cities in Africa are to be fully realized.Funding mechanisms should also include resources for activities that may not be directly linked to research. These might include capacity-building for transdisciplinary research, public and policy engagement, communication, and network – and community-building. Courses on knowledge co-production, on putting research into use, on building communication, as well as on facilitation and negotiation skills, should be considered as part of undergraduate and postgraduate studies. This would prepare the next generation of scientists to act as knowledge brokers and to lead engagement with different stakeholders, bridging the divide between science, policy and society and fostering cross-sectoral collaboration around urban challenges.
  • Building scientific capacity – especially of next-generation scholars – to co-produce knowledge on sustainable urban development is a sustained long-term process. However, the current approach to funding research and capacity-building is short-term and project-based. It does not support the accumulation and application of knowledge on sustainability. Nor does it allow the outcomes of co-produced knowledge to be tracked. It also prevents the relationships and partnerships created between science, policy and society from being sustained over time. This diminishes the impact of investments made in building trust and partnership, and leaves participants with the sense of not fully accomplishing what they intended to do. Without longer-term funding for transdisciplinary research, researchers and other stakeholders may go back to their disciplines and domains once a project ends. This makes an integrated approach to solving challenges in African urban development difficult to achieve.