What does sustainability research mean in Africa

Op-Ed by Professor Cheikh Mbow, 14 June 2021, University World News What does sustainability research mean in Africa? (universityworldnews.com)

As the first international Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress (SRI2021) takes place with the purpose of discussing and defining sustainability research and what it comprises, Africa has an opportunity to deliberate on what sustainability science means for the continent.

Also, what is the optimal approach for achieving sustainability, given the play of complex and interconnected issues such as food, water, health, governance and energy?

With increased species extinction due to the human footprint, rapid urbanisation and the flow of resources as well as the serious impacts of climate change, addressing these questions requires ‘business as unusual’ in consumerist societies.

Trends in addressing sustainable development demonstrate an increasing interest in harnessing innovation beyond the technical and engineering realms to embrace more social considerations.

Building social capital from the other development pillars requires ongoing leverage to achieve rapid transformation of the continent.

Technology is taken for granted, given all the advances in IT, the internet of things, big data under the Fourth Industrial Revolution, futuristic responses to energy, food production, water use and health, as well as other factors.

The success and failures of all these innovations will depend to a large extent on the human dimensions, aspirations, culture norms and values that vary across geographies.

What innovation means and implies will depend on numerous social and cultural backgrounds. What innovation means to sustainability will depend on how to produce knowledge, and for whom.

These are aspects bound to surface when the Africa Panel SRI2021 of the international conference, hosted in Brisbane, Australia, meets virtually on 14-15 June.

How to put innovation into practice

In consideration of what innovation means to people, I believe that there is a big misunderstanding. Common wisdom considers innovation from the angle of technology and new ways of dealing with emerging challenges.

To us, in this field, innovation is also about bringing back neglected knowledge that has been overlooked by so-called modern solutions.

For instance, the agroecological concept and nature-based solutions adopted various forms of ‘green stimuli’ to support in-situ biocentric development pathways based on genuine practices established and used by local and indigenous communities for centuries.

These practices have been weakened and even banned by imported models that were imposed during colonial times.

Any innovation is a convergence of findings that are packaged to address a purpose. For example, improved yield in agriculture cannot be a single-pronged solution.

Depending on the context, the focus should be on seed improvement, water-use efficiency, sustainable energy-use efficiency, soil management practices, agrobiodiversity and land management, food products transformation and market, and value chain optimisation.

The plurality of interventions in each sector requires mapping each outcome area with relevant sources and user knowledge. In that sense, sustainability research is context-specific and user-oriented.

It applies systems thinking, which is intrusively apparent when dealing with challenges, yet in practice very onerous to create, requiring collaborations without watering down the perception of research excellence that has been, and is up till now, mono-disciplinary in essence.

Improving sustainability science in Africa

Sustainability science is an important consideration for sustainable development but, on its own, not enough. Thinking along the pragmatic implications of the science generated to trigger integrity and equity – and convincing governments and private sectors to implement that science – is not a trivial challenge.

In the context of Africa, where countries are resource-poor, building a new positive narrative about unlimited opportunities is possible if improvements are made on enabling conditions such as governance systems and countering weaknesses in infrastructure.

The potential in Africa to thrive in this dimension of new development concepts must be connected with a vision of new job opportunities for the youth and women; the possibility to shift the economic model and build on existing (local) knowledge.

There is no easy way to achieve this goal, but there are certainly several levels of actionable areas. These include the need for embedding sustainability innovations into current development policies as inspired by African regional policies that include the environment, agriculture, social inclusion and integrated market opportunities.

Changing ways to develop and deliver science through sustainability research in Africa is pulled by two main forces.

Firstly, to consolidate the noble intention of promoting transdisciplinary science and co-design, in which various stakeholders’ engagement is valued for inclusive development pathways.

Secondly, to dovetail what technology can bring in building social capital and the sense of people-place interactions. Innovation driven in this context must be non-exclusive to trigger long-term social transformation and environmental sustainability in Africa.

Rethinking Africa’s development to advance resilient infrastructure, quality global health, clean energy and clean water, productive agriculture with limited ecological impact, and so forth, requires applying advanced learning methods, development approaches and collaborative frameworks to generate clear implementation options for sustainable development.

This need to harness sustainability science for innovation can, therefore, be facilitated by complementary actions from business, policy, and science.

What can we expect from SRI2021?

It would be great if we could address the following questions:

Who are the intended beneficiaries of the research?

Local issues of global concern such as agriculture, urbanisation and industrialisation often compete for the same resources such as land, water and energy, among others. Progress in one sector may involve trade-offs for others. Understanding the equilibriums of development pathways will help emphasise synergies and minimise side effects and other negative externalities.

Where will sustainability research as new knowledge be used?

Obviously, the main target is policy change (such as improved processes, public procurement and private investment) at national and regional level, using a co-production approach.

Hence, a big issue will be the development of socioeconomic scenarios that identify any policy processes where the sustainability science results will be relevant, and to identify the relevant scope of socioeconomic drivers that can lead to environmental degradation.

How will sustainability research and innovation be used?

Knowledge brokering, the translation of science, and the mainstreaming of discoveries into practical actions will require accurate markers for plausible implementation options. Science outputs can only lead to step change if similar ‘willing of change’ happens in the decision-making arena.

The ambition to accelerate development must start from local gains and from knowledge that increases smallholder resilience. From adequate knowledge application to local conditions, we need fundamental changes in skills and the physical infrastructure that allow for sustainable application of innovations.

Professor Cheikh Mbow is the Director of the Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria.

The Future Africa Institute, in collaboration with the Future Earth Regional Office for Southern Africa hosts the online Africa Panel SRI2021 of the international Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress 2021 on 14-15 June.

The event, under the banner, ‘Innovation for Sustainable Development: Perspectives from the Global South’, forms part of a series of Future Africa Science-Policy Dialogues, which promotes new sustainability science and transformative knowledge that offers scalable solutions, policy interventions, regulatory and governance frameworks and sustainable financial systems.