Transdisciplinary research in practice

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exploring incrementalism in informal settlementsDoctoral and masters students have made progress tackling the national challenge of in situ upgrading. Lauren Tavener-Smith is doing her Phd on incremental approaches to water and sanitation; Andreas Keller is doing his Mphil thesis on incremental approaches to energy; and Joel Bronkowsky has done his Mphil thesis on the community-driven participatory processes that are introduced into communities by the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) and the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP). Funded by funds from the NRF, this research is breaking new ground.
Today Lauren presented an update on her Phd research to the Transdisciplinary Doctoral programme seminar.  Her research is on incremental approaches to water and sanitation for informal settlement upgrading. She has just spent a few weeks in Lilongwe, Malawi, working with the Malawi affiliate of Shackdwellers International (SDI). She is an economist who has, like many economists, become disillusioned with the language of economics and is exploring transdisciplinary methods to link social processes, technology assessment and development practice. She has been working with SDI affiliates in the settlements in the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek region. Incrementalism has become an issue since government has changed its policy from building houses in greenfields developments to in situ upgrading. Unfortunately, all the existing regulatory, fiscal and institutional structures and systems are still in place – they don’t change just because the policy has changed. Very little knowledge exists about how to do incremental upgrading, partly because the culture of development in SA is based on entitlement and the notion that the state will deliver. However, SDI affiliates are critical of this culture, emphasizing that people themselves must build the capacity to define and keep control of the solutions to their problems. This, of course, is a healthy and important starting point but technical knowledge is not keeping up. Lauren’s Phd, together with a group of related masters’ theses, is addressing this problem.
What is most amazing is the creative energy that is generated when opportunities for researchers to work with organised grassroots communities are created. The students go through hell, but their view of the world and personal values are transformed forever, relationships get made that will last a lifetime, and communities gain access to knowledge workers that would otherwise cost a fortune or be imposed by a donor.
While Lauren’s work addresses the challenge of incremental approaches to water and sanitation, Andreas Keller – a masters’ student – has done his thesis on incremental approaches to energy. He has built an ‘improved shack’ (iShack) in Ekanini to test an ecological design of a shack, including a local solar PV unit for lighting and a solar hot water heater. Included in the iShack is a little weather station to test the energy efficiency of the structure and compare it to a normal shack next door which was also fitted with a weather station. This is going to generate significant design insights that fits into a people-driven upgrading process. It will also demonstrate that ecological design is not about greening rich people’s homes, but could well make poor people’s urban living not only more affordable, but also the starting point for a long-term process of development resulting eventually in a formal house, connections to services and a decent and safe place to live.