New African Urban University project launched

15 April 2021 | Story Zarina Patel, Ruth Brain and Carla Bernardo. Photo Z Patel. Read time 4 min.
Assoc Prof Zarina Patel, from UCT’s Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, is the academic lead on the New African Urban University project.
Assoc Prof Zarina Patel, from UCT’s Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, is the academic lead on the New African Urban University project.

At a recent successful inception meeting, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Associate Professor Zarina Patel launched the New African Urban University, a one-year project funded by the Worldwide Universities Network’s (WUN) Research Development Fund.

Associate Professor Patel, from the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science in the Faculty of Science, is the principal investigator on the project, leading a team of members from nine universities across the world.

The New African Urban University project will forge new partnerships aimed at strengthening the role of African universities in urban change and this will take place during four workshops throughout the year, focused on knowledge exchange and agenda-setting.

The aims of the project include addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11, strengthening the role of African universities to co-produce urban knowledge to advance SDG 11, engaging with the promise and potential of African universities to support transdisciplinary research as a means to foster just and sustainable urban transformations, and setting the agenda for a more global and inclusive understanding of the scope of systems changes required by universities in Africa to address the distinctive complexity of urban transitions.

The WUN Research Development Fund is designed to foster research collaborations and help stimulate larger collaborative projects. It provides a rare opportunity for scholars to meet and find common ground and differences and to be in a stronger position to bid for larger grants without the pressure of multiple deliverables.

Universities’ pivotal role

The project was launched in the context of a global urban focus, as seen in SDG 11, which is “to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, and amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

 

“Universities have a pivotal role to play in generating data and supporting knowledge systems.”

“Given the distinctiveness of African cities and the paucity of urban knowledge to respond to the targets and indicators of SDG 11, universities have a pivotal role to play in generating data and supporting knowledge systems,” said Patel.

She added that the heightened levels of inequality because of COVID-19 have catalysed the urgency for universities to exercise their convening power and influence to address urban transformation.

“African universities and scholars, individually and collaboratively, have [contributed] and are contributing to shaping urban futures through research, engaged scholarship [and] consultancies, as well as through teaching and administrative and outreach activities.

“Engaging with urban questions and engaging with actors beyond the university is increasingly commonplace,” said Patel.

Advancing, fostering, engaging

By advancing the idea of the New African Urban University, the project engages with the promise and potential of African universities to support transdisciplinary research to foster just and sustainable urban transitions.

“The project serves as an amplifier – by making visible what is already happening – and finds ways to support universities and academic practices, drawing on the strengths of dissimilar comparisons evident in North–South partnerships,” said Patel.

By fostering a more global and inclusive understanding of systems changes required by African universities, this comparative study will develop a distinctive approach to theory and practice, thereby decentring the dominant discourses and approaches assumed to be universalised in contemporary debates.

 

“The project serves as an amplifier – by making visible what is already happening.”

Finally, by engaging with the promise and potential of the New African Urban University, the project focuses on the intersections between three imperatives: urban transformation, alternative forms of knowledge co-production, and engaged scholarship / social responsibility. It locates itself within three major gaps in advancing these three imperatives:

  • Gap 1: understanding the effectiveness and impact of universities in informing urban change in African cities
  • Gap 2: understanding how time- and funding-bound transdisciplinary urban projects can have long-term impact and be upscaled
  • Gap 3: understanding systems changes required at universities to support transdisciplinary research approaches for sustainable urban transformation.

Over the next months, the team will co-produce the framing of the project and sharpen the focus of the objectives and questions, develop a resources repository and identify additional partners and networks, funding opportunities and suitable publishers.


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