University of Pretoria: Future Africa: Learning from science to harness development interventions

The Future Africa institute was created by the University of Pretoria to support systems thinking that addresses the complexities associated with development interventions in Africa. The institute works to generate sustainability science that offers a better understanding of the complex realities encountered in social, ecological, economic, and humanitarian interventions in Africa. Sustainability science in Africa comes with various facets. First, emerging aspirations for quality life and wellbeing require new methods of generating and applying knowledge. Second, the necessary critical mass for generating such knowledge requires better connection between African scholars. Third, a reverse model is needed where society influences the academic research agenda through the co-design opportunities offered by transdisciplinary research. Each of these obstacles come with various process challenges and new values that universities alone cannot address.

Mapping the connections between research and well-being reveals a shattered scene. The demand for new knowledge ideas for business and for motivated research-action in development policies, as well as the need to address communities’ local adaption to plural stressors all influence the design and management of research. One of the challenges to bridging science and society is the delivery processes already in place, which require some brokering, translation, outreach, and adoption of research outputs. Future Africa is investing in the development of a collective agenda, joint actions, and shared learning platforms, to leverage assets required for effective, context-specific solutions.

The approach of Future Africa is locally derived, as the general arises out of the particulars. Further, social transformation should be needs-based to generate tailored solutions that are not a projection of imported solutions, but are domestic responses that consider cultural values, types of ecosystems, and social aspirations. Thus, establishing a development agenda for Africa is intrinsically a local effort. Challenges to this effort include the multiplicity of priorities, the plurality of decision spheres, the diversity of knowledge sources, and the variety of scales and integration needs. In this context, applying targeted engagement and the inclusion of local realities, as well as coordinated learning in adaptation planning and implementation, will need unique institutional set-up – not necessarily in terms of infrastructures, but mostly in terms of strengthening links between research and society.

As a platform, Future Africa supports efforts to break knowledge boundaries by promoting interrelations, embracing different perspectives, extending possibilities for various stakeholders, and promoting new perspectives for the development of Africa through research excellence. At Future Africa, we are committed to science that positively impacts society and human wellbeing. Impactful science in this context involves influencing and being influenced by other disciplines and stakeholders, as well as stronger engagement with social actors. This is not an easy endeavour because behaviours and development dynamics can be unpredictable, unexpected, uncontrolled, and non-linear. Improved knowledge quality and greater agreement in co-designed solutions provides the desired foundation to build resilient societies.

Future Africa is also about getting better results through partnership. We nurture strong, wide partnerships in order to maintain our relevance and facilitate priority setting and baseline scoping, establish common agendas, set mentoring schemes for communities, agree on evaluation matrices and reviews, and provide leadership. Partnerships mean relationships; to achieve with partners what we could not achieve alone. Our focus is less on the structure of the relationship than on the practice of common values and behaviours. Of importance are shared benefits and engagement towards a faster pace while being more effective by pooling expertise and resources, fostering learning, and tackling common issues collectively, thus more easily avoiding duplication.

The “Africanness” of science promoted by the Future Africa institute issues from the requirement to respond to downstream and upstream knowledge needs in emergency contexts as the frequency and complexity of emergencies increase. A new set of rhetoric and narratives from African science requires that we deploy a much broader range of skills, knowledge, and approaches. This requirement for a broader approach is supported by recent tendencies imposed by COVID-19, mass migration, armed conflicts, and food deficits, which demonstrate that multi-stakeholder/multi-sector responses will be increasingly necessary.

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