Background and Context
The complex and multifaceted nature of the COVID-19 impact in Africa has highlighted the need for system-oriented sustainable development efforts which are more inclusive (i.e., benefiting a wider segment of population, especially the youth) and resilient (i.e., coping with shocks to global socio-economic and environmental systems). African universities, along with research institutes, constitute the creative core of the knowledge sector in every country, and as such, play a key role in socio-economic transformation to tackle these complex sustainable development challenges. The universities have a neutral convening power which enables them to co-create knowledge, initiate a closer policy-science interface, develop practical industry-academia collaboration, or more readily engage with community-level concerns. Several African universities have shown this capability through the rapid development of technologies to tackle the COVID pandemic.
Traditionally, universities’ roles are often described in terms of its three functional attributes of research, teaching and learning, and public service. Universities usually compete in terms of how well they perform in each of these functional roles. However, excellence in these attributes by themselves is hardly adequate to constitute an “innovation university” that is capable of making a dent in Africa’s sustainable development path. This calls for universities to re-imagine their role in society by embracing a dynamic process that takes place continuously and customarily in multiple fields of societal priority, going beyond the realm of public service to work with external stakeholders using transdisciplinary approaches. This entails universities needing to not only mobilise their intellectual assets and involve students in field-based learning to prepare them for a lifetime of problem-solving challenges, but also to work closely with stakeholders in communities, industry, as well as national, regional, and global policy institutions to ensure application and utilisation of co-created solutions. In essence, universities need to assume a new functional role as “conveners” of science-based action to bring about convergence of transdisciplinary expertise and stakeholder interests.
The convening power or potential of universities is based on their capacity to mobilise and integrate scientific knowledge and technological skills from different disciplines while reflecting the interests, values and views of different stakeholders through a transdisciplinary process. This is not negotiating power for political persuasion, but soft power based on co-creation of new knowledge and practical solutions to the shared problems. Universities constituting the core of the knowledge sector have the promise of exercising this power and assuming the convening role. However, in most African countries and universities, for various structural and contextual factors the opportunity is still largely untapped. It is envisioned that the complementary resources and experience of stakeholders in industry and society would enable the development of a transdisciplinary collaborative platform to co-create knowledge and co-innovate solutions to tackle Africa’s sustainable development priorities.
The proposed session intends to engage leaders and experts in higher education, industry, civil society as well as national, regional, and global policy institutions on opportunities for creating a transdisciplinary platform to tackle Africa’s development priorities. The session will focus on responding to the following key questions:
Brief introductions by participants
Introductory remarks on the AfDB’s interventions on higher education, research and innovation in Africa by Ms. Hendrina Doroba, Division Manager, Education and Skills Development Division, African Development Bank
Introductory remarks on the re-imagining of universities to tackle Africa’s sustainable development priorities by Prof. Tawana Kupe, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Pretoria, South Africa
Facilitated discussion by Prof. Tawana Kupe
Discussion on the way forward to develop a transdisciplinary collaborative platform to tackle Africa’s sustainable development priorities
Concluding remarks by Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas, Resident United Nations Coordinator, South Africa
End of programme