The primary research focus of my career can be defined as ‘societal transitions’, initially with respect to democratization and governance up until the late 1990s, and subsequently within the wider discipline of sustainability studies. The dynamics of urban change has always been a consistent theme. My published research was coupled to major institution-building collaborations – an achievement that was recognized in 2010 when I was awarded the Aspen Faculty Pioneer Award for success in introducing sustainability into leadership education. My most significant academic output is my book co-authored with Eve Annecke entitled Just Transitions: Explorations of Sustainability in an Unfair World (2012) published by United Nations Press (Tokyo) that was awarded runner-up prize for the Harold & Margaret Sprout Award in 2013 for best academic book in the environmental governance field – this being the first time African researchers have been recognized by this award since its inception in 1972. In recent years I have increased my participation in international research collaborations, particularly via UN institutions and several Scientific Committees of international conferences, including the Scientific Committee of the International Sustainable Development Research Conference for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013, as well as member of the International Review Panel of the Biennial Conferences of the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE) in 2010 and 2014. In 2014 I was appointed by the Minister of Finance as a Board member of the Development Bank of Southern Africa and in 2015 I was invited to become a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science. In 2016 I was appointed ‘advisor to the curator’ of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) and in 2017 I convened the State Capacity Research Project on the dynamics of state capture in South Africa.
I am formally appointed as Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development in the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University. I am the Academic Director of the Sustainability Institute, Co-Director of the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST), member of the International Resource Panel (since 2007), fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, member of the We-Africa Action Research Network, member of the Board of the Development Bank of Southern Africa since 2014 and Chairperson of the Board from January 2019. Since 2016 I have been Visiting Professor at Utrecht University (The Netherlands) and Sheffield University (UK). In 2018 I was the Edward P. Bass Distinguished Environmental Scholar at the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS), with a residency at Yale from March to October 2018 based in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
My career is a succession of research collaborations (mostly involving international partners) aimed at catalyzing societal transitions, with special reference to the urban context. This included the formation in 1985 of a Johannesburg-based NGO called PLANACT that eventually employed over 40 activist researchers funded by European donors to provide research support for South Africa’s urban social movements during the 1980s and early 1990s. Similar NGOs emerged in all of SA’s major cities. In parallel, my research also aimed at exposing the Apartheid state’s reform and security strategies, and I introduced into the SA context the ‘transitions to democracy’ academic discourse that had emerged in the Latin American and Southern European contexts during the 1970s/80s. To this end I collaborated with a group of WITS-based researchers to establish the Centre for Policy Studies (led by Prof Lawrie Schlemmer) funded mainly by SA companies who had realized that a democratic transition was inevitable (building up to a staff of twelve leading researchers by the early 1990s).
Starting in 1992, through 1994 until the late 1990s, my interest in transition shifted to the challenge of democratic governance, with special reference to public management. My publications during this period coincided with my role as co-founder/Director of the Graduate School of Public & Development Management at the University of the Witwatersrand, expanding to over 30 academics by the end of the 1990s. This was the outcome of a global research collaboration involving leading management schools in North America and Europe (1992-1998), specifically Kennedy School of Government in the USA and Institute for Social Studies in The Hague, but links to Schools in India and Latin America.
Since the early ’80s I have initiated major research collaborations that applied the transition perspective to cities, resulting in books on the Apartheid City (1991), African Cities (1997), Local Government (2002), City of Cape Town (2010), Stellenbosch town (2012) and global urban change (see Open Access book Untamed Urbanism published by Routledge). Major global research collaborations included the Global Urban Research Initiative comparing urbanization in developing countries (led by Prof Richard Stren, University of Toronto, ’90-’98) and the Global Civil Society research project (Johns Hopkins University, ’97-’01).
Since starting at Stellenbosch University (2002), I focused on managing sustainability transitions, culminating in the Just Transitions book in 2012 and in 2016 the publication of a co-edited book entitled Greening the South African Economy (published by UCT press). I built up major international research collaborations underpinned by extensive institution building. This included the building of the Sustainable Development Programme from an intake of 20 Masters students in 2003 to 60 Masters and 20 Phd students per annum by 2017 (selected from over 200 applicants each year); the co-founding with Eve Annecke of the Sustainability Institute; co-founding and leadership of the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition as a collaboration between 7 Faculties; and founding member of the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (DST-funded) at Stellenbosch University.
I have started to work more internationally, specifically with reference to my role since 2007 in the UN’s International Resource Panel and my research collaborations (UNEP, UN Habitat, African Union, World Academy of Art and Science, We-Africa Action Research Network and International Social Science Council). The Just Transition (JT) book provided the conceptual framework for the 19th International Sustainable Development Research Conference in 2013 organised by the International Sustainable Development Research Society, hosted by the SI. This was the first time in the 19 years of its existence that this annual conference was held in the global South. The theme of the conference was Just Transitions – A Global Perspective. When world renowned sustainability transitions expert Frank Geels was asked why he accepted the invitation to be keynote speaker he said “because we have not engaged with the question of a just transition before”. This event, plus the Award, plus numerous invitations to deliver keynote addresses internationally and locally, seems to confirm that the JT book succeeded in connecting sustainability and fairness in a way that subverts simplistic solutions focused only on decarbonization and ‘greening’ (usually imposed by or copied from the global North).
Related to this is my work on decoupling. As already mentioned I was co-lead author with world-renowned material flow analysis expert Marina Fischer-Kowalski of the Report for the IRP on Decoupling Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth. This report was downloaded 20 080 times in 2012/2013. It is generally accepted within the IRP that this report sets the conceptual framework for all the work of the IRP done via Working Groups on land, water, metals, forests, energy, environmental impacts, cities, trade and food. I often deliver keynote addresses on this report, for example on two occasions at the World Resources Forum in Davos. Decoupling has now found its way into key policy frameworks, including the European Union’s Resource Efficiency strategy and (via work I have done with Prof Kevin Urama) the African Development Bank’s Green Growth strategy. I have also introduced decoupling into the South African discourse, including into the National Strategy for Sustainable Development, the national Integrated Urban Development Framework and regional and local strategies (e.g. Western Cape Government’s Economic Development strategy and the spatial development framework of Stellenbosch).
As for my work on urban metabolic flows/infrastructures, this is part of new research in this field. The City-Level Decoupling Report for the IRP was jointly launched in March 2013 in Nairobi by the Director of UNEP, Director of UN-Habitat and the Secretary-General of ICLEI (20068 downloads by end 2013). This spotlighted the significance of this perspective. I was part of compiling the first comprehensive review of this new literature for UNEP (Robinson et al, 2013). What this review shows is that most researchers interested in urban metabolism ignore infrastructures, whereas those interested in infrastructures ignore resource flows. The City-Level Decoupling Report and subsequent academic article in Journal of Industrial Ecology is the first research that explicitly connects the two. The next phase is a report to be published in 2017 entitled Resource Requirements of Future Urbanization. This perspective is now being applied globally via the Global Initiative for Resource Efficient Cities as well as to the SA context (Palmer et al, 2013) and in the iShack project that aims to re-invent what incremental upgrading means in practice (Swilling et al, 2013). I have supervised many PhDs and Masters theses that all apply this metabolic perspective to urban infrastructrues across several South African and African cities, with special reference to incremental upgrading. In 2018 the Weight of Cities report was published by the IRP – I was co-lead author, and coordinator of the international team that conducted the research for this report over a period of four years.
Over the years my general preference for applied problem-solving research led me to search for an appropriate research methodology. I eventually found it in the work on Transdisciplinary (TD) Case Research pioneered by Roland Scholz et al at ETH (Zurich) and the Athena Institute at the Free University of Amsterdam. I have collaborated directly with both these institutions. TD research can be defined as inter-disciplinary research that is co-produced with – rather than for – societal actors to generate solutions to real-world problems. The aim is to use the research process to build capacity for evidence-based problem-solving. Although I tried it out in various contexts, the NRF funded iShack project has really produced significant results, including a critique of aspects of TD theory as developed in Europe where conditions are very different. Research by postgraduate students is underway that will generate several journal articles and possible a book over the next 3 years. This has already equipped me to contribute to the global debate (Lang et al 2012), to the SA debate (article in SA Journal of Science) and to the Future Earth platform launched at Rio + 20 (by virtue of my membership of the Future Earth Africa Committee coordinated by the NRF during 2013/4).
In 2017 I decided to respond to the cabinet reshuffle that took place in March by establishing and convening the State Capacity Research Project as a partnership between researchers at University of Cape Town, University of Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch University. We released a report entitled Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa is being stolen in May 2017 that triggered a media frenzy. We continue to do research on state-owned enterprises and other aspects related to what is generally referred to as state capture. The substance of this work was published as a book in 2018 entitled Shadow State: the Politics of State Capture.
My future research will by located within the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) based in new offices at STIAS. I will be Co-Director together with A-Rated scientist Prof Jannie Hofmeyr, a systems biologist. SU has designated CST as a flagship initiative. CST will focus on five research themes: transition and decoupling; governance innovation; building resilient ecosystem services; complexity modelling and foresight intelligence; and transdisciplinary research methodologies. CST already has a Transdisciplinary Doctoral Programme of 25 students, and will host Summer and Winter Schools on Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies and Methods for the 6 African University partners funded by the Open Society Foundation and the African Union to work with CST over 6 years. Over the coming years I want to further develop my work on global transitions. This has included a journal article entitled Developmental States and Sustainability Transitions: Prospects for a Just Transition in South Africa (Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning) where I try to find theoretical convergence between the developmental state and sustainability transitions literature in light of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals. I would also like to further explore alternative macro-economic paradigms that can replace neo-liberalism, including how to move beyond the confines of heterodox economics which tends to ignore ecological issues. I am working on a book that links ‘futuring’ and ‘experimentation’ to develop a framework for making sense of the transition to a more ecologically sustainable and socially just world over the coming decades.
I live and write in Stellenbosch, South Africa – a University town inland from Cape Town. My two wonderful beloved sons, Michael and Ranen, are now grown up and I’m so proud of who they have become and what they do with their lives. They bring together the best of their amazingly powerful mother and what I have aspired to be (without always succeeding) – for what their mother, Eve Annecke, is saying and doing click HERE. For more about my life and work journey, click HERE for a three-part radio interview on Classic FM.
I am employed by Stellenbosch University where I am Co-Director of the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) and Academic Director of the Sustainability Institute and I coordinate a Masters Programme in Sustainable Development that gets delivered at the Sustainability Institute.