Academic networking seminar: Community Development

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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.

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