Learning from mining for greater local developmental impact of renewable energy

Over 45 community relations professionals gathered in Johannesburg to share and discuss experiences in mining, oil and gas operations across Africa. The gathering was organised in partnership, by the International Council of Minerals and Metals (ICMM), Synergy Global Consulting and hosted by the Experiential Learning Centre of Anglo American.

Holle Wlokas, a research associate at the CST, attended the event as an academic observer and gained deep insights into the practices and lessons learnt of the extractives industry in delivering community benefit and managing relationships with stakeholders in their ‘zone of influence’.Participants learnt about the latest research on Social and Labour

Participants learnt about the latest research on Social and Labour Plans in South Africa’s mining industry and the global reflections of the Rio Tinto mining house on the external influences on social performance. Holle listened to the conversations with an interest to inspire the discourse in the renewable energy sector on matters concerning community relations and development practice.

The analysis of the event revealed that community relations practice (CRP) in the extractives sector is further advanced than in the renewable energy industry. The professional capacity active in the extractives is thus far greater than that in the growing number of wind, solar and hydro energy projects on the continent.

Going forward the RE4T’s research ambition will, therefore, continue to foster the connection between the conversations and hence the community of practice in both sectors. RE4T’s intention is to support the renewables industry in growing its capacity to develop professional responses to the social benefit and impacts associated with its operations.

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2017-06-19 11.38.05PHOTO: Synergy Global Consulting


RE4T represented at Energy for Society: First International Conference on Energy Research and Social Science

Megan Davies, PhD candidate at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition recently attended the First International Conference on Energy Research and Social Science in Sitges, just south of Barcelona, Spain. The first event of its kind, the conference brought together an international network of academics within the fields of energy research and social science, with the aim of examining the relationship between energy systems and society. Interdisciplinary in nature, the conference covered a diverse range of themes, some of the prominent ones including energy institutions and governance, energy equity and justice, distributed and community energy, energy poverty, energy security, and the water-energy-food nexus. In her presentation, Megan introduced the focus of the Renewable Energy for Transitions (RE4T) at the CST, namely investigating the developmental impacts of the large scale renewable energy programme in South Africa, in line with a transdisciplinary research methodology. Drawing on her own transdisciplinary research engagements between May 2016 and April 2017, she then reflected more closely on the potential contribution of experimental governance in addressing some of the developmental challenges faced in the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP). As one of the few researchers from the global south, Megan’s insights on development and energy transitions in the South African context were a unique contribution, particularly in how the RE4T supports a transdisciplinary approach to research. Overall, the conference was an enriching experience, and an invaluable opportunity to connect to a wider international discourse on the growing connections between energy research and social science.

Presentation MDavies

RE4T research collaboration with Urban Futures Studio

As part of an emerging research collaboration, Megan Davies, PhD Candidate at the CST, recently spent a week in March at the Urban Futures Studio at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

The Urban Futures Studio is a newly formed cross-disciplinary institute led by Prof. Maarten Hajer. It aims to improve the interaction between academic insights and the challenges we face in coping with the future, particularly at the urban level. The Urban Futures Studio is embedded within the Faculty of Geosciences and collaborates closely with the research groups within this faculty. It wants to take the lead in in the study and development of new practices that relate to environmental, social, economic and political challenges within the urban field.

The visit was an opportunity to further engagements between the Renewable Energy for Transitions research group at the CST, and the UFS. As well as working on joint research proposals and publications, Megan had the opportunity to present her PhD research to a wider group, including guests from the Utrecht Sustainability Institute, the Green Office and the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning at Utrecht University. Her presentation introduced the overall research focus of the RE4T which she coordinates and where a growing network of researchers are committed to investigating the developmental impacts of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme in South Africa. She also shared initial reflections from transdisciplinary research engagements between May 2016 and April 2017, with a closer focus on the urban and spatial implications of distributed renewable energy infrastructure.

The group looks forward to what this exciting research coloration holds!

DSC00911Megan is a PhD candidate at the CST and the coordinator of the Renewable Energy for Transitions research group.

Academic networking seminar: Community Development


How can researchers support the successful implementation of large-scale renewable energy projects in local communities? On the 8th of March 2017, 25 academics, students and practitioners met at the Sustainability Institute to discuss this question.

The meeting was the second effort to strengthen the network amongst South African (based) researchers with an interest in the social and development implication of place-based investments. The current Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) is the common empirical interest amongst the participants. Last year the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre (ERC) convened the seminar – the first of its kind – and this year Stellenbosch University’s Center for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) hosted the event.

International inputs and local invitations directed the morning. Dr Jiska de Groot from the ERC shared insights from her PhD exploration of community engagements in the Shetland Island’s marine-based renewable energy sector. Her account of the importance of place attachment and economic opportunity for local residents in this remote island community in the United Kingdom held plenty of inspiration for the South African renewable energy context where often remote communities are the beneficiaries of significant socio-economic investments. Dr Sebastian Hochstaettler from Germany’s Institute for Advanced Studies introduced their international, transdisciplinary research effort that aims to mobilise co-benefit in support of mitigation measures including renewable energy projects in South Africa. Together, these international examples highlighted interesting lessons from previous research and upcoming initiatives, and sensitised the group to the relevance of questions related to the role of research in energy transitions, in a global context.

The CST representatives, Prof Mark Swilling, Holle Wlokas and Megan Davies, outlined past and current research efforts that aim to generate collaborative, multi-stakeholder research capacity to analyse and attend to the numerous socio-political dynamics and risks associated with the implementation of REIPPPP across South Africa. The global relevance of this research, in the context of a fast growing renewables industry in the Global South, is a constant reminder of the urgency to conduct embedded, committed and transparent research.

Research needs and ambitions prevalent across the seminar group emerged during the afternoon. Group discussions were structured according to the three types of transdisciplinary knowledge, firstly generating systems knowledge (where are we now?)), target knowledge (where do we need to be?) and transition knowledge (how do we get there?). The group recognised the importance of working in inter- and transdisciplinary ways, as researchers engage with the complexity of the REIPPPP landscape. Cultivating such responsive institutional research has the potential to advance urgent REIPPPP questions, particularly around how to build civil society capacity to meaningfully engage with the opportunities and risks associated with the decentralised place-based investments.

After an afternoon of rich discussion amongst the diverse group in attendance, the seminar concluded with great anticipation for what might unfold – possible joint research funding proposals and publications, future stakeholder engagements within the research community but also across civil society and industry networks. Most significant was the shared sentiment that the events such as these, help to cultivate greater trust and understanding within an expanding research network. The group committed to continue growing the connections across universities and organisations, further support each other’s intellectual and institutional development in this field of study through research proposals, student research exchanges and collaborative knowledge product development.

Creating positive futures for southern Africa


In November 2016, the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) held an “Anthropocene Visioning Workshop” in Cape Town, with the aim of bringing together a diverse group of changemakers to envision positive futures for southern Africa.

Thirty-one scientists, artists and social entrepreneurs came together at the Cellars Hohenort Hotel for three-and-a-half days of intense discussions and creative visioning. The participants were divided into four groups, each tasked with developing a scenario for southern Africa in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene, or literally the “Age of Man”, is the name for a new geological epoch in which humanity has become a dominant global force reshaping the geological, biological and atmospheric dynamics of Earth.


In the Anthropocene, we face new and diverse challenges, such as an increasing disconnect between people and nature, widening inequalities, and potential planetary tipping points. At the same time, technological progress and human development are opening up novel and exciting opportunities for addressing these key challenges of the Anthropocene.


Unlike other scenario planning exercises that tend to categorise futures into desirable and non-desirable, and focus on drivers of change, this visioning exercise was based on existing “Seeds of Good Anthropocenes”. These Seeds are initiatives, projects or organisations that are already making positive changes in the southern African region, piloting sustainable solutions to address the many challenges of the Anthropocene. Examples include projects on urban gardening and renewable energy, as well as technological advances in gene therapy.

These southern African Seeds were identified as part of a greater Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project, a collaborative initiative led by McGill University in Canada, the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, and the CST at Stellenbosch University. The aim of this project is to counterbalance prevailing dystopic visions of the future that may be inhibiting our collective ability to move creatively towards a positive trajectory for the Earth and humanity at local, regional and global scales. As pointed out by Alex Evans, stories are powerful things: they create our reality as much as they explain it.


During the Visioning Workshop, the Seed initiatives formed the foundation upon which to build positive visions for southern Africa. Four distinctly different scenarios were created, which nevertheless shared common ideals of decentralised decision-making and strong local communities, paired with a globally connected, highly active citizenry. Traditional values of Ubuntu and the common good featured strongly in these southern African futures, as well as high levels of flexibility and changeability in terms of education, employment and urban infrastructure. One scenario describes a societal collapse before the “good” Anthropocene is achieved, but the other scenarios manage smooth transitions into socially and ecologically desirable, just, and sustainable conditions. The event is described in greater detail in this piece published in The Conversation.

Events such as this Visioning Workshop can help counteract the negative storylines about the future that currently dominate our consciousness. Participants were inspired to take the ideas and methods from the workshop to their own places of work and influence. The positive visions that were created will be shared with the public, through videos and other publications. The hope is that the workshop itself will form a Seed, showcasing how science, art and enterprise can come together to create positive visions that inspire transformations towards sustainable futures in southern Africa.  

Further information about the Visioning Workshop, including the workshop report and other materials, is available on the CST website:

Anthropocene Visioning report

The following are artist sketches capturing the four different scenarios presented by workshop participants.