Centre to build solutions for socio-environmental challenges

The establishment of the Mandela Institute for Sustainable Futures (MISF) by Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), South Africa, is set to contribute towards building a strong pipeline of early-career researchers, critical in providing transformative interventions to the wave of planetary health challenges in South Africa and across the African region.

The announcement of the new institute was made recently during an Africa Satellite Event hosted by the Africa Future Earth Global Secretariat Hub with the support of South Africa’s National Research Foundation, or NRF, at the recent global Sustainability, Research and Innovation Congress 2023.

The Secretariat Hub is one of several that work together to deliver the core functions of the Future Earth Secretariat, which includes facilitating research, innovation and engagement, as well as supporting regional networks.

The regional event’s theme, ‘Showcasing the richness of African perspectives in sustainability science and innovation’ has supported the Future Earth Africa Hub’s quest to promote collaboration between researchers and stakeholders to generate critical knowledge needed to advance global sustainability science.

The hybrid sessions (the event was delivered on-line and in person) held at NMU brought together researchers, scientists, research managers, policymakers and industry experts to engage, exchange knowledge and discuss sustainability challenges, opportunities and possible solutions for Africa and beyond.

Some of the topics during the cross-cutting round table discussions, plenary and thematic sessions were on the importance of open science in sustainability, the water-energy-food nexus, sustainable food systems as well as the sustainability of science and innovation in Africa, among others.

Advancing planetary health

In an interview with University World News on 19 July, Dr Thandi Mgwebi, the deputy vice-chancellor: Research, innovation and internationalisation at NMU, confirmed the establishment of the new institute, which would be critical in advancing transformative research in South Africa and the region by utilising international, regional and local partnerships.

There would also be a focus on building key solutions for socio-environmental challenges faced by African societies within a global context and strengthening the capacities of early-career researchers and scientists in Africa.

“At NMU, there has been a lot of research on sustainability science. Therefore, the idea of establishing an institute for sustainable futures stems from the need to contribute better to addressing global challenges,” she said.

“The significance of MISF for South Africa and the African continent is that it adds value to the existing vehicles that address issues of climate change, energy and energy transitions and food security and creates a facilitating mechanism in advancing what is called the one health or planetary health agenda.”

The One Health Agenda, is an integrated approach to balance the health of humans, animals and the environment in order to prevent and respond to global health threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the One Health Agenda there is a bigger system here, involving human health, environmental health and animal health that we want to foster. This can only be enabled by local and global partnerships, university partnerships, as well as internal university partnering,” Mgwebi added.

Contributing to SDGs

During the workshop that formed part of the Africa Satellite Event, Mgwebi highlighted that NMU had established its strength in ocean sciences and ranked among the top universities in South Africa for its contribution towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG14 or goals related to life below water, SDG15, focusing on life on land, and SDG3, on pursuing good health and well-being.

These formed the core research pillars of the new institute, which include ocean science and the Blue Economy, the environment and health and well-being.

In addition, the academic institution had various research entities which would contribute towards the new institute, including Hubs of Convergence strategically placed to help bridge the gaps between researchers and communities.

The Hubs of Convergence were also instrumental in addressing societal challenges – for example, by improving food security through supporting community gardens.

The anchors within the NMU – for example, the Centre for Energy Research – would be vehicles for attracting local, international and regional partnerships, but also for driving transformative research.

“We want to make a contribution on SDGs reporting in South Africa and unleash the transformative potential of our excellence at the university through the work that is already happening. Therefore, the institutes, units and centres that are already at the university will be anchors to the MISF,” said Mgwebi.

“There are a lot of synergies and collaborations between the Mandela Institute for Sustainable Futures and the Future Africa Institute [at the University of Pretoria].

“One of the key things that we have already highlighted with Future Africa is the work on futures literacies (through the Future Africa Futures Literacy Incubator) and we also want to revive the Southern African Systems Analysis Centre within the new institute to make it more global so that we can build African capacity in systems thinking for sustainability,” Mgwebi said.

‘Futures literacies’ involves capabilities and skills that allow people to better understand the role that the future plays, building upon and extending from the discipline of future studies.

Achieving a positive impact

Dr Heide Hackmann, the interim director at the Future Africa Institute and strategic adviser on transdisciplinary and global knowledge networks at the University of Pretoria, applauded the vision of an institute on sustainability science and underscored some of the key imperatives needed to broaden the work and impact at MISF.

She highlighted the enormous potential to address nexus issues at MISF – for example, energy-water-food – which had regional significance in the face of many global challenges.

The institute required transdisciplinary approaches and engaging with society for knowledge co-creation and production, and a digitally enabled science with cutting-edge data and the use of tools from the digital revolution.

She stressed the need for collaboration; capacity development of early-career researchers with an emphasis on training in transformative approaches and science systems leadership; and effective engagement of the science policy practice interface, which requires institutes to be savvy about the knowledge brokerage process as critical components to the new institute.

Hackmann added science communication, outreach and dissemination, one system’s thinking with the interactive nature of the SDGs as key priorities in driving the MISF.

“We are entering into a world of science, particularly of universities, that are now increasingly rallying behind the SDGs, with increasing and fierce competition for attention, positioning and funding but also a world of massive opportunity for recognition of universities for partnerships, knowledge sharing and to counteract some of the fragmentation.

“Secondly, it’s a world of major and numerous imperatives and demands on science. And these imperatives are all about achieving positive impact around the growing complexity of the challenges we face and, preferably, in the shortest possible time. At a university, we are expected to pursue those imperatives without always having the systems in place to incentivise them,” she said.

A polycentric approach

Hackmann emphasised the importance of pursuing a “polycentric approach” by encouraging experimental efforts from multiple levels and ecosystems, positive synergistic action, particularly between climate and the SDGs, as well as systems thinking and systems change.

“We are also entering into a world that has failed to respond adequately to the SDGs, and heading for a future of growing uncertainty, cascading systemic risk and existential threats. We now need to look at the SDGs in a polycentric world of global frameworks, including the Paris Climate Agreement; the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction; the [UN] secretary-general’s roadmap for digital cooperation; the developmental approaches of the United Nations Development Programme; One Health, championed by the World Health Organization; emerging planetary health frameworks, and others.

“This ‘polycentricity’ puts implementation stress on governments and also stress on research to understand where we should be putting our focus in terms of implementation.”

Finally, said Hackmann, “we are in desperate need of sense-making which is future literacies thinking, the capacity to better understand how we use the plans we made today to colonise the future by bringing our assumptions that are rooted in our own histories, our cultures and old ways of doing things. Futures literacies is about the capacity to expose and critically assess those assumptions through collective learning processes, expand our capacity to anticipate alternative futures on what is important and that they may lead us to alternative narratives and the stimulus for innovation in pursuit of alternative outcomes.”

She highlighted that, in order to maximise the opportunities at the new institute, NMU would need to think across and beyond different sustainability frameworks, embrace the principles of open science, looking at the links between open data and transdisciplinarity and find innovative ways to ensure that researchers are incentivised to respond to those imperatives, as well as invest in futures literacies thinking and capacity development.

“We need to consider the notion of ‘think global, act local’ with research outputs that provide compelling people-oriented success stories, which align global goals with local and regional implementation, and give us examples of how we overcome barriers to change. We need positive narratives across policies and practice to incentivise action,” she said.