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 with particular reference to urban infrastructures and resource flows 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 entitled Age of Sustainability: Just Transitions in a Complex World (Routledge 2019). This builds on the co-authored book with Eve Annecke entitled Just Transitions: Explorations of Sustainability in an Unfair World (United Nations Press 2012) 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 (International Resource Panel 2007-2024) 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 2023 I delivered the keynote address at the annual International Sustainability Transitions Conference in Utrecht. In 2014 I was appointed by the Minister of Finance as a Board member of the Development Bank of Southern Africa (and as Chairperson of the Board from January-September 2019 and again from November 2021 to September 2023). In January 2024 I was appointed by Eskom Holdings Ltd. to the Board of the National Transmission Company of South Africa. 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 – 2019 I convened the State Capacity Research Project on the dynamics of state capture in South Africa. In 2020 I was invited to become a member of the prestigious Club of Rome – the oldest sustainability think tank, founded in 1968.
I am formally appointed as Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development and Co-Director of the Centre for Sustainability Transitions (CST). In 2016 I was 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. For a two year period starting in 2021 I was appointed as a Visiting Professor (25% time) in the Georgetown Environmental Justice Programme at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. In 2019 I was appointed by the South African Government to the Reference Group of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy of South Africa and December 2021 I was appointed by the South African President as a Commissioner on the National Planning Commission for a period of five years. I coordinate the Infrastructure Task Team and Finance Task Team of the NPC.
My career is a succession of research collaborations (mostly involving international partners) aimed at catalyzing societal transitions, with special reference to the urban context and urban infrastructures in particular (especially energy, water and waste). 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 1990s, including support for the negotiations process that culminated in the new democratic constitution in 1994. Similar NGOs emerged in all of SA’s major cities. Almost all my applied research work during the 1980s and 1990s was focused on the design, financing and implementation of urban infrastructures. 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 (now called the Wits School of Governance), 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 with links to Schools in India and Latin America.
Since the early ’80s I have initiated and/or participated in 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’s urban system (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), the Global Civil Society research project (Johns Hopkins University, ’97-’01) and Coordination of the Cities Working Group of the International Resource Panel that produced two major reports – City-Level Decoupling (2013) and Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements of Future Urbanization (2018). In 2023 I collaborated with Helga Weisz from the Potsdam Institute on a report for the International Resource Panel on financing sustainability transitions. In 2023/2024 I was co-lead author with Prof Desta Mebratu of the Economic Report for Africa 2024 which is the annual flagship publication of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. During the period 2022-2024, I have coordinated large-scale research collaborations involving the National Treasury, National Planning Commission, Presidential Climate Commission and the Development Bank of Southern Africa focused on the investment requirements for long-term infrastructure development to ensure water and energy security, and digital transformation. Related to this work, I was appointed as Co-Lead with National Treasury official Georgina Ryan of the Water, Energy and Food in the Context of Climate Change Workstream that forms part of the SA-TIED programme, coordinated by UNU-WIDER in collaboration with National Treasury.
Since starting at Stellenbosch University (2002), I focused on sustainability transitions, culminating in the Just Transitions book in 2012 and a co-edited book entitled Greening the South African Economy (UCT Press 2016). 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; the co-founding with Eve Annecke of the Sustainability Institute in 1999; co-founding in 2015 and co-leadership of the Centre for Sustainability Transitions 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, and World Academy of Art and Science). 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 Just Transitions 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). This work was extended into a collaboration with a group of economists convened by the World Academy of Arts and Science to reframe the epistemological, ontological and axiological foundations of economic theory (Jacobs et. al. 2016). I took this further in my explorations of non-equilibrium economics and ‘the commons’ that emerged in the book Age of Sustainability: Just Transitions in a Complex World. Based on my nine years of experience on the Board of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, in 2022 I opened up a new research area focused on the global, African and South African financial systems, paying specific attention to how they can be reconfigured to enable increased investments in sustainability transitions and infrastructures in particular. This work is now being taken forward in the Finance Task Team of the National Planning Commission which I coordinate.
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, regional and local strategies (e.g. Western Cape Government’s Economic Development strategy and the spatial development framework of Stellenbosch) and the vision and strategy of the Development Bank of Southern Africa.
As for my work on urban metabolic flows/infrastructures, the foundation was laid in the City-Level Decoupling Report for the IRP which was jointly launched in March 2013 in Nairobi by the Director of UNEP, Director of UN-Habitat and the Secretary-General of ICLEI (20 068 downloads by end 2013). 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 second phase of this work was the publication of Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements of Future Urbanization (UNEP 2018). This perspective was applied globally for a while 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 (van Breda and Swilling 2018; Swilling 2014). Research by postgraduate students has contributed significantly to the global learning about TD. This has already equipped me to contribute to the global debate (Lang et al 2012; van Breda and Swilling 2018), to the SA debate (Swilling 2014) 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 shifted the public narrative from corruption to a more systemic process of state capture. 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. In 2019/2020 a new publication entited Anatomy of State Capture assess the depth and extent of corrupt practices and systemic repurposing of public and private institutions before and after 1994. South Africa’s unique colonial socio-economic structure seems to depend on a particular set of ‘rackets’ for reproducing the conditions for elite accumulation and extreme levels of inequality.
My future research will by located within the Centre for Sustainability Transitions (CST) based in new offices on the campus that has hitherto been occupied by the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies. I was founding Co-Director together with A-Rated scientist Prof Jannie Hofmeyr, a systems biologist. After the latter’s retirement in 2018, Prof Oonsie Biggs (a resilience expert) took over as the other Co-Director. SU has designated CST as a flagship initiative. CST focuses 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 until 2018 hosted 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. By mid-2019 the CST had committed research projects with a combined budget of over R100 million for the period 2018-2020. Over the coming years I want to further develop my work on global transitions. This has already resulted in the book Age of Sustainability: Just Transitions in a Complex World (Routledge 2012). This book synthesizes a wide range of literatures, including the new metatheories (Integral Theory, Critical Realism and Complexity), non-equilibrium economics, governance, sustainability transitions, incrementalism, global energy revolution and the role that toxic masculinity plays in the rise of authoritarian populism internationally and in South Africa. 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. This has led me into the literature on commons-based peer-to-peer production systems. This line of inquiry has led me into extensive research on financing sustainability transitions.
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.
(Note: for the references referred see my detailed CV accessible via the link in the adjacent box)