Transdisciplinary research in urban Africa: A coat of many blended colors

Buyana Kareem
Uganda Management Institute, Uganda

 If the minds of different actors are gathered in a conducive space and engaged in knowledge exchange beyond the limits of their fields, breakthroughs to grand societal challenges are likely.

Transdisciplinary research is a process that seeks to foster learning across disciplines by integrating knowledge from multiple fields through the involvement of stakeholders from different sectors [i]. It shapes urban development research through a shift from collective studies –such as traditional participatory approaches that extract knowledge from urban policy makers and residents using a pre-determined framework –to collaboration in solving the greatest challenges of our time, such as decoupling economic prosperity from dependency on the environment. Using this definition, transdisciplinary research in the urban context can be analogized as a coat of many colors –knitted together by a network of peers, comprised of academics and non-academics working together as co-bearers and co-end users of knowledge. The colors become blended when contestations between scientists and stakeholders of diverse backgrounds lead to a reconciliation of values and preferences in order to co-construct a narrative on how knowledge production processes should be set-up, thus contrasting with multi-disciplinarity studies (which could be represented as coat of many, but unblended, colors). Nonetheless, transdisciplinarity from an urban African perspective has yet to be sufficiently clarified and illustrated. Yet, African cities are increasingly becoming ideal spaces for understanding complex interfaces between expert science, industry strengths, policy pathways, and societal transformation. This article reflects on two South African case studies, one on coastal erosion in Durban and the other on under-served informal settlements in Stellenbosch, since both have utilized an intensive transdisciplinary approach to produce knowledge that was valid for the science community, and used by society to demonstrate robust change in underprivileged communities.

Co-framing a coastal vulnerability index in Durban, South Africa

After learning that encounters with beach erosion, coastal flooding, and other climatic impacts cannot be solved based on expert science alone, the city of Durban decided to build on the voices of actors at multiple scales in drafting a coastal vulnerability assessment. An extreme storm in March 2007 enabled local residents to construct narratives that helped develop local vulnerability assessment tools, as opposed to simply utilizing pre-formulated tools, which often render assessments expert-led and will neglect community-based knowledge.

Local residents and municipal officials utilized mobile phones and digital cameras to take images of affected landscapes, buildings and communities. With facilitation by the experts, local actors distilled their experiences and developed a set of environmental, social, and economic indicators for co-designing a localized vulnerability assessment. Coastal geographers and consultants had initially designed tools depicting three sea level rise scenarios: 300 mm (12 inches), 600 mm (24 inches) and 1000 mm (40 inches). By positioning local residents as co-designers of the vulnerability index, social, economic, built-environment, and physical characteristics were integrated into a single tool. The images taken and pictures drawn by the local residents were then placed on the right of each indicator. This enabled residents to easily visualize, interpret and associate the tool with their own experiences in regards to coastal life. The content of the tool also became interdisciplinary in nature, with social, economic, geographical and environmental indicators that required both conventional expertise such as oceanography, and more recent disciplines like coastal sociology.  However, there were limitations associated with a community-led process in co-framing the vulnerability assessment tool. The local elite were the voice for the non-elite, thereby concealing the realities of certain under-educated individuals, and experts had to critically inspect the process in order to allow the non-elite voice their experiences. This was made possible by having a one-on-one with the local actors whose voices had not been heard during the group work. To refine the vulnerability index, support was sought from Corporate Geographic Information System, used by the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial authorities and eThekwini Municipality.

Co-researching slum upgrading in Stellenbosch, South Africa

In 2011, as part of their postgraduate studies, a group of students from Stellenbosch University in South Africa agreed to research Enkanini, one of South Africa’s urban slums with a population of 6000[ii]. The students’ mutual research question was this: what does in situ upgrading (as specified by government program) mean in practice from the perspective of the average shack dweller living in Enkanini? With support from their academic supervisors, the students applied a transdisciplinary research approach as the avenue for changing the rules of engagement with societal actors, by way of establishing informal relationships with community actors in a settlement that is mostly devoid of formal structures. It is through such relationships that the study acquired both an emic and etic understanding and experience of what it means to live in a shack.  By becoming activist-researchers and leading slum improvement campaigns, the students built relationships with residents across different demographics and peer networks, mainly the Informal Settlement Network, a social movement that worked with Stellenbosch Municipality officials who also had formal and informal contacts with the network.

A view of Enkanini settlement. Image Credit: Author

The students’ understanding of upgrading slums included municipal delivery of electricity for streetlights, water, sanitation, roads, storm water, and solid waste services. But this could only be possible if Enkanini met two formal standards by the municipal government: i) it was recognized legally as a permanent settlement, and ii) the land on which it was located was zoned residential. As Enkanini met neither of these legal standards, a court issued an order for its removal, but with this was not enforced by the local authorities Even if the standards were met in Enkanini, upgrading meant waiting for waste-collection systems, electricity, and water grids to be put in place by the government. According to the Western Cape Provincial Government, this process could take about eight years following legalization and rezoning. The research question changed to: what could be done before the arrival of the municipal services to improve quality of life? This reframing sparked the student’s collective imaginations on alternative infrastructure solutions that could transform Enkanini. The postgraduates, who now had to combine university research expertise with the practical knowledge on Enkanini and the community groups, needed to form partnerships that had the ingenuity and capacity needed to make a difference. The students, working together in groups of two to three, came up with presentations for senior researchers within the university and municipal officials outside the university, who were leery about their endeavors. The students focused their presentations on research questions that treat scientific and societal knowledge with equal value in order find solutions to informal settlements. One of the students framed her research questions as follows:

  1. How are social and technological considerations configured in the production of sanitation interventions in informal contexts?
  2. What are the challenges of co-producing knowledge in an informal settlement context?
  3. How can design facilitation enhance participation in contexts such as informal settlements that have traditionally been under-served by professional design?
The design of the improved shack that became the boundary object for social engagement and learning among the researchers and community members, and later attracted the attention of industry and municipal authorities as an innovation that could address the need of underserved urbanites in informal settlement, as they await formal service delivery from government. Image Credit: Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch University

As an industrial designer, the student argued that co-producing sanitation enables residents of informal settlements to situate their experiences within the academic research agenda, and taps into the spirited behavior of underprivileged citizens to lead intra-community and collaborative problem solving. Her presentation and that of colleagues, were refined into a transdisciplinary research enterprise that challenged the university to break out and use its resources, to build the capacity of other researchers to undertake collaborative studies that can incrementally bring about an improved shack instead of low-cost high-rise apartments (See[iii])  After months of informal and formal interactions between the university, municipality and the community, the iShack was designed by industry actors –a 14.2 m² dwelling incorporating fire-retardant insulation, passive heating and cooling materials, orientation to maximize solar penetration, a solar panel, and a gutter to capture rain water.
The iShack became an object for social engagement between the researchers and the community.  These engagements changed the character of researchers and community values in ways that formed the guiding principles and design of the iShack Project. The project is now providing solar electricity, on a pay-for-use basis, to residents of an informal settlement in Stellenbosch (Enkanini), South Africa. Over 1500 clients have been targeted and a group of local franchisees have been trained and labelled as “iShack Agents”. The agents install and maintain the solar systems and to market the service in their community. The clients pay a monthly fee for the service to ensure long term operational sustainability. The energy service provides lighting, television, cell-phone charging and additional energy for music, DVD players and radios. The utility is scalable and in future, fridges and water heaters will be added


These case studies show that transdisciplinarity in an urban African context breaks disciplinary walls that underpin the form and content of many research and policy enterprises, which traditionally govern the way we conceive and apply sustainability options for specific sectors as well as across sectors. Although there can be difficulties in stretching across the legal/illegal boundaries of conducting what we know as scientific research, the incremental result is flexibility and pragmatism, which enables both scientists and stakeholders to navigate complex interfaces between expert science, policy-making, industry and society, while searching for local-level solutions that can incrementally reconcile the often conflicting ideals of social, economic, and environmental urban sustainability. However, breaking the divide between society and science in an African city-setting often intersects with social inequalities, like gender, class and level of education, that have a strong effect on the way local people engage in transdisciplinary processes.  For instance, the local elite have a higher chance of positioning themselves as the voice for the non-elite, thereby concealing and/or misinterpreting the realities of certain under-educated individuals. It is often hard for the researchers to critically interrogate the knowledges, subjectivities, and truths that are constructed as a consequence of such social inequalities.  The other challenge is how to systematically break down the disconnection between the university and the society around it, through formal and informal administrative routes, and garner institutional support from science, policy and practice to fund and execute transdisciplinary research. Nonetheless, there is growing momentum among African universities, in South Africa and beyond, to learn and refine the practical methods for conducting transdisciplinary urban research, thus making it necessary to invest in the creation of research and training centers, that look at urban challenges an opportunity for designing a methodology that produces science with society.

[i] Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., & Thomas, C. J. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability science, 7(1), 25-43.

[ii] Swilling, M. (2016). Africa’s game changers and the catalysts of social and system innovation. Ecology and Society, 21(1).



Dr. Buyana Kareem is a lecturer at the Uganda Management Institute, Department of Public Administration. He is currently working on establishing the Trans-Urban Knowledge Network (TUKN) at the Sustainability Institute Stellenbosch University South Africa.

Header Image: DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA – JANUARY 28, 2016: Locals and Tourists on the Main Swimming Beach in Umhlanga Rocks.  Image Credit: Timothy Hodgkinson /


2 thoughts on “Transdisciplinary research in urban Africa: A coat of many blended colors

  1. Great article.

    All too often, it is Western researchers or national government elites coming in to African neighborhoods – poking, prodding, and testing out their ideas on social and environmental issues. The challenge, broadly, it seems is to collaboratively investigate and act upon results.

    By the way, I just looked up the Sustainability Institute and subscribed. Good stuff over there.



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