The editorial team sat down with Prof. Tawana Kupe to discuss the role of Africa’s universities in shaping a sustainable future for the continent. The article below is a summary of that discussion.

Key Points

  • Sustainability going forward will be the guiding principle for all businesses and human activity in general. People will create plans around sustainability and it will no longer be an afterthought.
  • In developing markets we can’t treat the environment as a secondary concern to development.
  • The University of Pretoria has created a centre for the Future of Work to research the emerging new world of work caused by the rapid advance of new technologies.
  • The University of Pretoria is transforming into an impact institution for greater society.

The worker and leader of the future will be dramatically different from previous generations.

There has to be a huge change. Sustainability will be a major focus as we go into the future. We have to look at the broader notion of sustainability. We cannot use resources without assessing their impact on the planet. To save our lives we have to save the planet. If we use resources paying little regard to sustainability, future generations will suffer.

Sustainability going forward will be the guiding principle for all businesses and human activity in general. People will create plans around sustainability and it will no longer be an afterthought. It is a difficult transition to make, but one that has to be made. There will also be increased interconnectedness between people across the world, we must look at the toll that takes on the planet.

The concept of sustainability was unclear before but that is changing. I did a PhD in media studies and its focus was democratisation in societies. Sustainability often came up as a topical issue but I didn’t quite connect it with my real-world environment at the time. Today, I understand that this is the issue and it can’t be ignored as we make plans for the future.

Major corporations like Eskom are dependent on coal here in South Africa and they are struggling. We must all realise that these finite unsustainable resources do not present a long term crisis but an immediate one.

In developing markets we can’t treat the environment as a secondary concern to development. This line of thinking shows a lack of understanding of what’s at stake.

People must understand that the issues they would rather prioritise are connected to the sustainability question. To create proper infrastructure and create a thriving economy, developing countries must embrace sustainability. 

The issues of sustainability cannot be postponed and that’s why at the University of Pretoria we want to be a transdisciplinary institution. We want to explore how things interconnect and not see things in silos. The silo mentality breeds blind spots that often lead to mistakes and oversights. We also want to research sustainability in all disciplines. We have created a couple of platforms already that involve many campuses coming in and making contributions. This is a step towards breaking out of our institutional silos.

Part of creating collaborations and partnerships is creating incentives that motivate all parties. Once this starts to work, co-creation becomes possible.

The core design is very important. We are embracing a systems approach that shows you the connectedness and linkages. We also put these linkages at the centre of programmes to develop knowledge that leads to breakthroughs. We must also look to link our university to society.

What we may know in the classroom is not exactly what we may know outside of it. Co-design happens by linking our institution to the environment. Farmers must be involved in the conversation if we want to figure out how climate change affects farmers. The approach must be to create solutions for problems and not create solutions looking for problems. This will help create effective research questions and potentially groundbreaking solutions.

The kind of solutions that will need partnerships with government and industry. We collaborate with institutions in parts of Africa, Europe and other continents. This helps us break out of our shells. We are part of ARUA (Africa Research Universities Alliance) these are all universities on the continent, doing lots of research and not just graduating students.

We have had conference meetings recently on global health challenges because we realise that health is a major issue and is linked to sustainability. The pandemic revealed just how connected we all are now and that most of the human challenges are shared across the board.

I believe in sustainable economic growth because we cannot have growth based on inequality. 

Ignoring sustainability leads to future harm that varies depending on social standing. Inequality exacerbates existing pressures and that is why we must have inclusive sustainable economic growth. This is how we arrive at a more inclusive growth system and one that is more sustainable.

The COVID situation and the July unrest in South Africa are case studies as to why inclusive growth is important.

The University of Pretoria has created a centre for the Future of Work to research the emerging new world of work caused by the rapid advance of new technologies and the implications for university’s curriculum for education and training.

The Centre for the Future of Work was created here at The University of Pretoria with the understanding that when we employ a transdisciplinary focus, we see that the world is changing.

It is changing through technology and the threats posed by the climate emergency. We are also seeing that some jobs can be replaced by machines. We must not be overtaken by events but rather train people on the challenges that lie ahead.

This is why we have the centre so that we stay ready and anticipate changes. Centres like ours mean that we are going to remain relevant in the long term.

Linked to the Future Africa project is something we call Engineering 4.0. It observes the concept of a transdisciplinary focus and is inspired by the age of 4IR. We now have a third robot that we created after the one in the hospital and library.

This one works in the engineering school to help in civil works by checking on road conditions amongst other tasks. We also have a new art centre called the Javett UP Art Centre. It’s not just for a centre for art exhibitions but one that trains people who can authenticate and restore works of art and also teaches the importance of heritage.

Over the decades, the work landscape has changed. Our parents and grandparents maintained the same career all their lives and that is not necessarily the case for us today. A lot of the jobs they used to do are now done by machines and we have to adjust to this.

The Future of Work Center exists to help students adapt and to explore the relationship between work and their values. It will also help us predict which professions are likely to become redundant. We may see a different meaning to work-life balance as we try to address the alienation between humans and their work.

Universities are often seen as a world of answers to problems. This has made our institutions silos with only a transactional relationship with society. 

We must interact with society and meaningfully become part of it. We must take responsibility for the mistakes of the past that saw us produce knowledge and keep it in books. Books that most people in our respective societies were never going to open. Information dissemination must evolve so that the information we produce is accessible to the general public.

It’s all about impact from now on and not qualifications and titles. We want to reimagine the University of Pretoria as an impact institution for greater society and other schools must do the same. Lobby groups should also be created to help push agendas forward with one accord. Lobby groups will help change the policy narrative from one driven by politics to one driven by research from universities.

ARUA exists to ensure we invest in the research, people, facilities and partnerships to create a sustainable future.

It was born out of a realisation that since the 1960’s there has been an increase in University goers yet the amount of research hasn’t and the investment in infrastructure hasn’t kept up as well. The stasis in our universities relegated them to being just teaching institutions and a university cannot just be a teaching institution.

This means that we have been producing graduates that were half prepared for a rapidly changing world. We must have sustained investment in research and we must keep our researchers happy.

Our universities must also have the ability to offer updated education to more people. ARUA exists to help build capacity and partnerships globally. We partnered with UK Innovation and Research through the Great Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). They provided funding for a partnership between African Universities and UK universities. We are working to help create sustainable food systems in Africa.

We are working with the University of Leeds, the University of Nairobi and the University of Ghana on food systems. We want to bring on board some African Union-funded universities to help add some diversity as well as new ideas. Central to our efforts is the grooming of new researchers that will help lead us into the future.

There remain reasons to be positive about the future. We are now conscious of the need for sustainability. 

People see climate change as an existential crisis and are taking issues of sustainability seriously. The public is also aware that there are solutions to help avert the crisis. This leads me to believe that there is much to look to forward in the future. 



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