Africa's research universities can help to drive an urban agenda

10 May 2017 | Story Jane Battersby. Photo Paul Saad

Africa is becoming rapidly more urban. This has created a number of connected economic, social, political, infrastructural and environmental challenges.

But African governments have not, historically, paid significant attention to urbanisation and the problems experienced in their cities. This means they’re ill prepared to deal with their countries’ increasingly urban futures.

Now concerted policy attention is being paid to urban issues, from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 document.

The SDGs and the New Urban Agenda were drafted in consultation with many players, universities among them. These documents’ final texts acknowledge the role that research institutions have to play in bringing plans to fruition. Now Africa’s universities have more opportunities to engage with governments and development agencies to work towards achieving the goals and targets established in these framing documents.

What’s the best way for them to do so?

I think at least part of the answer lies with the nature of universities’ research. What’s needed is not just more research on the “right” topics – housing, urban poverty and inequality, and food security – but entirely new ways of doing research and dissemination. This sort of research is currently something that’s delivered to an end user in forms that may or may not be useful to them. It’s time it became a two-way process.

Co-created work is better informed of the end user’s research needs, and the kinds of products that they are able to access and use. If we want our research to have impact, it needs to be consciously designed with this in mind, not as an afterthought. We need to build new relationships with policy makers. Doing so can really change how research is pursued and produced, as I’ve learned first-hand with my colleagues at the African Centre for Cities.

What needs to change

Universities have an important role in generating, analysing and monitoring data that can be used by policy makers.

However, they should not do this in isolation. It should be done by both government data institutions and academia working both individually and collaboratively. The universities have a key role in research. They also need to be involved in developing researchers’ capacity to work in academia and government data institutions.

For instance, the African Union is developing the African Programme on Urbanisation Data and Statistics. African universities should play an integral role in this programme. They can help with data collection, analysis and monitoring, and can connect research in different countries.

My second point is that if research is to have any real impact, new kinds of relationships need to be built between researchers and policy makers. It is not enough just to do “good” policy-relevant research that’s scientifically rigorous and addresses issues pertinent to policy needs, then send those findings out to policy makers. Prior consultation and strong working relationships are needed.

At the African Centre for Cities we’ve used something called “City Labs” as a methodology to broker interdisciplinary engagement, both across academic disciplines and between academia and broader society. City Labs are thematic groups that bring together officials, researchers, policymakers and practitioners around key topics. These provide a space for dialogue and for new research on that theme to be undertaken or facilitated. In this way we’ve been able to engage with issues that are pertinent to sustainable urban development in Cape Town.

One of the most exciting projects to emerge from this approach has been the new Integration Syndicate. It’s a one year project that involves researchers, policy makers and civil society groups. It will entail a series of ten “episodes”, run once a month, to spark informed debate about the drivers of spatial injustice in Cape Town and to find remedies. It’s has been designed to provide a space for discussing tough and polarising issues productively, to inform policy and to generate “a larger network of informed and passionate urbanists across diverse fissure lines of the city”.

Embedded researchers

The outcome is that our research is better informed by policy makers’ needs. Our outputs are crafted to respond to the ways in which policy makers read and use information.

The lessons learned from this approach have informed a number of our practices. We now have embedded researchers working within local government. In this way the researchers develop a better understanding of the un-codified everyday practices of governance that shape urban policy and practice.

This principle is now being implemented in the multi-city FRACTAL project, in which researchers and local government officials are partnered in the co-generation of knowledge and policy responses.

The centre also provides opportunities for municipal officials to take “research sabbaticals” at the university. It’s a chance to disseminate their experiences and findings from their work within the city structures into the academic domain.

Such partnerships seem more important than ever, since it’s likely that one of the main outcomes of the New Urban Agenda will be a move towards developing national urban policies.


This is already happening in some places. Aligned with the UN Habitat call for National Urban Forums, Namibia has established a forum driven by local universities which is currently helping to develop its National Urban Policy.

This model could potentially be replicated elsewhere on the continent. Networks like the newly launched African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) are well placed to provide opportunities for connecting researchers and generating funding proposals to support crucial policy-relevant research.

And to achieve real impact, it’s essential that researchers develop new approaches to increase their engagement with the state and society throughout the entire research process.

Author’s note: this article is a version of a presentation made at the ARUA Launch Conference in Accra, Ghana, 3-4 April 2017.

Opinion piece byJane Battersby, Senior Researcher in Urban Food Security and Food Systems, University of Cape Town.
Image by Paul Saad via Flickr (Creative Commons).

This article first appeared in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.