What is the importance of the Sustainability Research & Innovation Congress 2021 (SRI2021)?

The Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress (SRI2021) is taking place for the first time in Brisbane (Australia) with the purpose of discussing what defines sustainability research and what it is comprised of as well as the optimal approach for achieving sustainability, given the play of complex and interconnected issues (food, water, health, governance, energy, etc.). Addressing these questions under consumerist societies, increased species extinction due to the human footprint, rapid urbanisation and flow of resources, serious impacts of climate change; require ‘business as unusual’.

Trends in addressing sustainable development demonstrate an increasing interest in harnessing innovation beyond the technical and engineering realms to embrace more social considerations. Building social capital from the other development pillars requires ongoing leverage to achieve rapid transformation of the continent. Technology is taken for granted, given all the advances in IT, the internet of things, big data under the fourth industrial revolution, futuristic responses to energy, food production water use, health, as well as other factors. The success and failures of all these innovations will depend, to a large extent, on the human dimensions, aspirations, culture norms and values that vary across geographies. What innovation means and implies will depend on numerous social and cultural backgrounds. What innovation means to sustainability will depend on how to produce knowledge and for whom.

Innovation should result in practice. How?

In considerations of what innovation means to people, I believe that there is a big misunderstanding. Common wisdom considers innovation from the angle of technology and new ways of dealing with emerging challenges. To us innovation is also about bringing back neglected knowledge that has been overlooked by so-called modern solutions. For instance, the agroecological concept and nature-based solutions adopted various forms of ‘green stimuli’, to support in-situ biocentric development pathways based on genuine practices established and used by local and indigenous communities for centuries. These practices have been weakened and even banned by imported models that were imposed during colonial times.

Any innovation is a convergence of findings that are packaged to address a purpose. For example, improved yield in agriculture cannot be a single-pronged solution. Depending on the context, the focus should be on seed improvement, water use efficiency, sustainable energy use efficiency, soil management practices, agrobiodiversity and land management, food products transformation, market, and value chain optimisation. The plurality of interventions in each sector requires mapping each outcome area with relevant sources and user knowledge. In that sense, sustainability research is context specific and user oriented. It applies systems thinking, which is intrusively apparent when dealing with challenges, yet in practice very onerous to create, requiring collaborations without watering down the perception of research excellence that is up until now mono-disciplinary in essence.

How to improve sustainability science in Africa?

Sustainability science is an important consideration for sustainable development, but on its own, not enough. Thinking along the pragmatic implication of the science generated to trigger integrity, equity and incurring governments and private sectors to implement that science is not a trivial challenge. In the context of Africa where countries are resource poor, building a new positive narrative about unlimited opportunities is possible if improvements are made on enabling conditions such as governance systems in place and weakness of infrastructures for innovation. The potential in Africa to thrive in this dimension of new development concepts must be connected with a vision of new job opportunities for the youth and women; the possibility to shift the economic model that build on existing (local) knowledge. There is no easy way to achieve the goal, but there are certainly several levels of actionable areas that include the need for embedding sustainability innovations into current development policies as inspired by African regional policies that include the environment, agriculture, social inclusion, and integrated market opportunities.

Changing ways to develop and deliver science through sustainability research in Africa is pulled by two main forces. One, is consolidate the noble intention of promoting transdisciplinarity science and co-design where various stakeholder engagement is valued for inclusive development pathways. Second, is dovetail what technology can bring in building social capital and the sense of people-place interactions.  Innovation driven in this context must be non-exclusive to trigger long-term social transformation and environmental sustainability in Africa. Rethinking Africa’s development to advance resilient infrastructures, quality global health, clean energy and clean water, productive agriculture with limited ecological impacts, etc., requires applying advance learning methods, development approaches and collaborative frameworks to generate clear implementation options for sustainable development. This need to harness sustainability science for innovation can therefore be facilitated by complementary actions from business, policy, and science.

What can you expect from the SRI2021 Conference?

In the SRI2021 dialogue, it will be great if we can address the following questions:

Who are the intended beneficiaries of the research?

Local issues with global concern such as agricultural, urbanisation and industrialisation often compete for the same resources such as land, water, energy, etc.  Progress in one sector may raise trade-offs for others. Understanding the equilibriums of development pathways will help emphasise synergies, minimise side effects, and other negative externalities.

Where will sustainability research as new knowledge will be used?

Obviously, the main target is policy change (such as improved processes, public procurement, private investment) at the national and regional level using a co-production approach.  Hence, a big rag will be the development of socioeconomic scenarios that identify any policy processes where the sustainability science results will be relevant and the relevant scope of socioeconomic drivers that can lead to environment degradation.

How will sustainability research and innovation will be used?

Knowledge brokering, translation of science, mainstreaming discoveries into practical actions, will require accurate markers for plausible implementation options. Science outputs can only lead to step-change if similar ‘willing of change’ happens in the decision-making arena. The ambition to accelerate development must start from local gains from knowledge that increase smallholder resilience. From adequate knowledge application to local conditions, we need fundamental changes in skills and the physical infrastructures that allow for sustainable application of innovations.

For further information about the SRI2021 Platform: Africa Satellite event page: http://bit.ly/SRI2021FutureAfricaUPInfo

The Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria in collaboration with the Future Earth Regional Office for Southern Africa (FEROSA) hosts the Sustainability Research & Innovation Congress 2021 (SRI2021).

This online event will be hosted at the Future Africa Campus, and the host of the satellite event for the Africa Panel SRI2021. The event, under the banner: Innovation for Sustainable Development: Perspectives from the Global South forms part of the Future Africa Science-Policy Dialogues, which promotes new sustainability science and transformative knowledge that offers scalable solutions, policy interventions, regulatory and governance frameworks and sustainable financial systems.

– Author Professor Cheikh Mbow
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