TEDxCapeTownSalon and Aqua d'UCT
29 March 2012
Chemical Engineering Seminar Room, University of Cape Town
Join the wider conversation on the TED.com conversation page here. _
On 29 March 2012 Aqua d'UCT, TEDxCapeTown and the Young Water Professionals (YWPs) hosted a conversation on water, food and cities at the University of Cape Town. A number of different panelists were present to give their differing views and a lively discussion followed.
The full write up of the event can be found below. Comment at the end if you wish.
We are working on a shorter brief of the event, but read the full meat here as this is where all the interesting outcomes lie!
Here’s the big, 3000 word transcribed conversation:
TEDxCapeTownSalon Food|Water|Cities conversation
29 March 2012
Chemical Engineering Seminar Room, University of Cape Town
Join the wider conversation on the TED.com conversation page here.
- Jane Battersby-Lennard http://www.egs.uct.ac.za/staff_files/jane.html
- Leonie Joubert http://www.scorched.co.za/books-by-leonie-joubert/
- Shannon Royden-Turner http://www.linkedin.com/in/shannoninformalsouth
- Tania Katzschner http://www.geomatics.uct.ac.za/index.php/people/academic/tania-katzschner
- Peter Johnston http://www.climate.org.za/
- Ulrike Rivett http://www.civil.uct.ac.za/staff/academic/rivett/
Aim of the conversation: To explore social campaigns and projects that are manageable and involve the public, but is also informed by researchers, to fit into the big picture and ensure wider impact and less conflict between projects.
Quoting Colin Cremin [2011,]: “If the possibilities for victories on different magnitudes are open, it is better sometimes to be involved in those movements than not participating in any struggles at all. Nevertheless, to simply do something rather than doing nothing is no compensation for the horrors capitalism unleashes and for this reason we need local struggles to acquire a universal dimension.”
In the pre-conversation session (16:00 – 17:00) we realized that ‘the public’ is poorly defined. (Peter asked: Who do you want to tell, what do you want to tell them?) Groups included stakeholders, decision makers, ‘who cares’ groups, the media. I decided to focus on the educated sector of stakeholders, who have graduated from a tertiary institution, but all these groups were touched on in the discussion. We decided that focusing on undergraduate students is not a good approach, as these students are very limited for time. (Mainly talked about engineering students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) – as that was where the main expertise of the panel lay). I want to involve these sectors to become more aware of the complex issues, to engage with them, and through these actions become more empowered.
‘Who is government?’ was another question. ‘What is governance’, ‘Who does the daily work in government’, ‘How does government work’, were important questions to tackle when we decide to take action for e.g. food security. In a highly polarised political situation like South Africa, governance and dominant political parties were often confused: this needed education and engagement. This issue is returned to later.
The next question was Education – what are we educating for? It was not to convey information, but to allow for flexibility and openness to what appears to be conflicting issues. An example from Ulrike was that civil engineers are responsible for sanitation, but they are not asked to engage with what it means to have humane sanitation. Hence they do make decisions in a simple way based on formulas and not based on human drivers. The conversation took a sidetrack on how universities engage with the reality that they teach or research, Shannon expressed the wish for universities to keep the complexity, to engage with the reality and not just the book. Doing projects in real situations and not simulated environments, asking for community services for engineers as is done with medical doctors was listed as potential routes, while it was acknowledged that e.g. UCT is continuously revising their curriculum and that it is tough to manage the content load. We did comment that perhaps we should try more to teach graduateness, a way of thinking, how to be a global citizen and not teach things. Breaking down the ‘ghettoisation’ of university departments and faculties is important as we become more comfortable in dealing and analyzing complex issues. On the other hand students still need a core skill set and be grounded in a particular discipline.
We then asked what are the role of academia and the role of civil society in, for example, ensuring food security and water management. It was this overarching question that kept popping up, and also contributed to the conclusion of the conversation at 19:00.
The main session, 17:00 – 18:00 was focused on food security, with water taking a lesser role. The conversation started with Carolyn Steel’s TED talk, and points highlighted from the talk included the following:
We are living in a place ruled by food:
- Food is at the centre of life, we need to take more time for food, think about it, plan for it, make it part of our social life, part of the landscape.
- Humus brings the whole thing together, reconnects us with nature
- Use food as a way of seeing
- The allegory of good governance (Ambrogio Lorenzetti painting); what would it look like today?
We explored the statement ‘Good Food in Cape Town’.
Good: secure, accessible, nutritious, appealing, uncontaminated (by e.g. metals, pathogens, antibiotics)
Food: nutritious, tasty (also salty, spicy, fried), addiction, culture, habit
The reason vs emotion driver in food consumption was a big talking point – that it really is not about our nutritional needs at all.
Another big point, raised by Peter, was that food is a commodity, now cheaper than ever. Hence it is influenced by profit, and as such any changes need to be influenced by policy at a decision maker level. There is a wider point to be made about urban planning without consideration of food. “If planners are not conscious of food issues, then their impact is negative, not just neutral.” (Pothukuchi 2000) That does not only relate to the space available to grow food, but to accommodate and plan for a food system.
Tania highlighted that food cannot be seen as isolated from healthcare, the environment yet is seldom linked to these issues. After transport, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other section of the economy. Our industrial food system is bankrupt as we are using ancient sunlight (i.e. fossil fuels) in the way we grow, process and eat our food. We should get back to current sunlight… we are eating fossil fuels and spewing out greenhouse gases.
Cape Town: Cape Town has a policy for food security, but this exclusively deals with production security (Leonie uses the catch phrase – ‘urban gardens’). This is flawed – other factors also have to be considered:
- The time needed to travel to work and hence time not available to spend on cooking or finding food
- Drivers influencing food choices, for example KFC as an aspirational food store
- The overlap of these factors creating their own influences
- Relevant sanitation (affecting the safety of the food being consumed)
Urbanisation was discussed. A comment from the audience indicated that some people feel that the spatial layout of cities is to blame for a lack of urban gardening, and that there is more space to grow food in the rural setting. Europe was used as an example of ‘garden suburbs’. While it is true that South African city layouts are not based on water access, the bigger issue is that people do not want to grow food once they come to the city – it is not seen as modern, even the choice to boil and not fry your food is frowned upon.
People move from rural areas to the cities looking for work, skills migrate to cities, this is a trend very unlikely to reverse. Once in the city, the individual becomes dependent on others in a different way as the lifestyle transitions from country to city living. There is an element of choice in this transition, but by the same token, the economic and geographic structures interact with personal desires to produce the lived experience.
Shannon notes: Even if individuals would choose to grow their own food, there is often a lack of electricity, processing and storing facilities. In contrast, there is pride in opening up a spaza shop (similar to a corner café), and the informal trade shares many of the same traits as the formal supermarket systems. The food system has two parts to it in the informal context. One is predominantly linked to global food flows where people buy longlife because they don’t have electricity and therefore refrigeration; and low quality highly processed food because it is cheap, from supermarkets. The second is through fresh produce bought at the spaza shops located within the settlement. These are linked more closely to provincial and city flows source from fruit and vegetable markets in the city. These spaza shops are considered to be one of the greatest assets within the community.
Jane pointed out that urban development’s approach to food centres around a pervasive logic: get a supermarket, and get a bank. The supermarket model actually has suitability, and the preference between a ‘supermarket-model’ and a ‘home-farm-model’ is not straightforward. She was hinting at the implicit logic of the formalisation of the food system and food markets in low income areas as a by-product of the economic development apparently brought by the mini-mall. Although the supermarket does bring food that is usually cheaper per unit and may have better diversity and quality, we need to be aware that it is not the panacea and that the informal food trade sector is in many ways more responsive to the economic needs of low income households (ability to ‘buy’ on credit, bulk breaking into more affordable and portable unit sizes, and in the case of fresh fruit and veg – fresher, more local produce).
The discussion moved towards how malnutrition is not the individual’s fault, but caused by normal people forced to make unhealthy choices (point raised by Tania). The responsibility has shifted from the individual to the settlement.
Peter was not so keen to move responsibility away from the individual, and noted that there is an intersection between poverty, education, and food security. There are still choices open to the individual. Jane noted that education is not sufficient to force behaviour change, that we need to recognize how individual agency connects to household decision making structures, cultural norms, household asset bases, food retail geography and the wider lived geography of the city.
From this point, the conversation really started to engage with the complexities around food, when an audience member asked about the impact of water in all of this. The conversation was again focused geographically, as most of the Western Cape’s agricultural activity is in fact not based on food, but on export fruit, wine and flowers – again the profit motive of production. Our wheat is imported. While 70% of water use in the province goes to agriculture, this has to be capped and these practices need to become more efficient. Peter noted that water is a limiting factor, but it is so cheap, and the competing interests here include industry (which has clout because it creates jobs), domestic use, (mining in other provinces), as well as agriculture, so that food security really does not feature in the argument about water management, but commercial and political interests do. The little food-based agriculture is focused on using the patches of fertile soil, and water is not a strong decision point. Peter noted that water is becoming more localized, similar to the energy production centres like coal mining, instead of decentralized and more locally responsive.
Clearly, to influence these macro trends, we need to engage with policy makers. Where researchers are more comfortable analyzing complex situations, policy makers need to make quick decisions, on short time frames, to manage risk. Ulrike stressed that we need to develop a common language to build constructive interaction and productive engagement. We need researchers to be based in a system; we can’t abandon projects when the funding cycle ends. VPUU, Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrade, was highlighted as a success story. Shannon reiterated that we need to integrate research into real projects, to build long-term resilience, scientists/researchers/technocrats need to engage with decision makers and build long term relationships to improve the massive lack of continuity and capacity currently experienced, in South Africa but also on a global scale (Shannon’s Voluntary Association, Informal South, aims to achieve exactly this). This thread carries real weight and we returned to it later.
Aqua d’UCT (pronounced aqueduct) here can play a strategic role. In being formed as a meta-water-research group at UCT, it aims to coordinate research interests and societal needs by firstly understanding and showcasing the UCT-wide water research activities and capacity. Using horizon scanning, research promotion and engagement with the state, researchers, industry and stakeholders, Aqua d’UCT can then begin to explore and promote relevant research needs, ensure that results are disseminated appropriately and streamline water-related research. The primary goal of Aqua d’UCT is to enhance the existing specialties and expertise of water research at UCT. Further goals therefore include increasing interdisciplinary research and collaboration and developing further, novel capacity both in knowledge generation and skills development. This can be understood as the breaking down of research silos and creating a bridge or aqueduct for all water research at UCT (and possibly further in future years).
Getting back to what to we can do to improve food security and the associated water needs, Jane noted that in developing countries 30 – 50% of food goes to waste, mainly as post-harvest loss. There is a lot of potential for innovation here, and Ulrike’s research on using mobile technology to improve municipal water management can be well utilized for these applications too. In developed areas, most of the food goes to waste from supermarket to home. Landfills are filling up, and we need structures to improve this nutrient management cycle. From a purely technology innovation point of view, these are easy pickings. What is required here is for students, universities, innovators to engage with the public, with mayors, and the media to develop these systems based solutions together, and communicate to improve feedback loops. It ties in with the need for communication mentioned earlier.
On a side note, Neil Armitage, a UCT Urban Water Management researcher in the audience, put things in perspective by noting that the real issue is not really food at all, if one seriously considers embedded water, Canada should be growing a lot more of it and South Africa should settle for being one big national wildlife park.
This provocative statement reminded me of a book I am reading by Colin Cremin – Capitalism’s New Clothes. I asked if the whole food crisis is not just part of the COCI – the Culture Of Crisis Industry – a capitalist/consumerist tool to get us to spend more money in an attempt to ‘fix the problem’. (The short, simplistic conclusion I got to was, if’s it needs money to fix it, it’s not a real crisis). The panel agreed that we do have a fair amount of a crisis on our hands; that richer as well as poorer communities are at risk, as the volcanic ash cloud illustrated in Europe recently. They acknowledged though that ideas around security are also influenced by equality and distribution. Peter noted that food production has to happen as a business, and Ulrike noted that it is easier to distribute food in more concentrated areas (this was illustrated by using Middelpos as example, who need to pay more for their frozen chickens than their neighbours in Calvinia, but who are not growing their own food – a complexity in itself which theoretically could be solved by everyone in Middelpos moving to Calvinia).
Leonie countered by arguing that there is a critical mass required, that too concentrated populations and too much dependence on the supply grid is not healthy either. Leonie used the example of RDP (low-income) housing with inadequate service provision, that can actually result in higher rates of diarrhea than in shack/slum areas where there is no service provision at all (Dr Jo Barnes from University of Stellenbosch works on this).
The conclusion from this returned to Carolyn’s points that food needs to be made more visible to influence behaviour change. It came down to communication once again. This concluded the main session, and as most of the audience left, the panel continued to explore how to best communicate research findings with the various groups of ‘the public’.
In the last hour, 18:00-19:00, we worked on a communication strategy to develop technocrat-decision maker relationships. TEDx was widely agreed to be a great platform for this (allowing me a breath of relief!) Requirements for a more resilient communication structure include:
- Science journalism becoming more prevalent, and better
- The move towards digital magazines can help with this – TEDx talks included
- Researchers need to be on first name basis with the newsroom. Good relationships take time, so start early
- Researchers need to communicate risks better, rather be slightly wrong but talk to the public, than not talk at all and foster ignorance. Even highly contentious arguments are soon forgotten, but contribute to general education (UCT’s admission policies was used as example)
- Develop different messages for different audiences, using different media outlets. Academic writing has its place, but is not suitable for discussions with in-the-trenches government workers
- Scientists need to be groomed and engaged
- Developing a common language between researchers, NGO’s, decision makers and the wider public (tongue in cheek Leonie said ‘using words consisting of less than 8 syllables’)
Ulrike challenged this by saying she does not trust journalists as they misquote scientists to push their angle. Leonie, a journalist, countered by saying that municipal officers don’t trust the media, but there are ways to get around this, mainly through building a long-term, first-name basis relationship. A member of the audience noted that University departments should have PR agents to assist researchers with managing their public statements. It was noted that while researchers should be curious about other disciplines, fields, roles and worlds, and that there is a very important role for generalists, researchers are also, first and foremost, researchers. They are not expected to be journalists or PR agents. We as researchers are, however, expected to engage and share our knowledge – that’s the whole point of generating knowledge in the first place.
In conclusion, the aim was to develop Social Campaigns and projects to improve Food Security. Food security is about much more than food production. We need to use the allegory of good governance, step outside of the fixation about production security, and focus more on distribution, especially into slums, improving the nutritional content, and access to food. We need conversation at a broader scale. Food security is not a poverty issue. It affects how the entire city is shaped. We need to make food visible in the city, to understand where the vulnerabilities come in.
Potential projects that were highlighted during this conversation are:
- Making engineers do a two year community service after they graduate – contribute to skills and learn how to deal with realities;
- Use TEDx or TED-ED short movies to build engagement around these issues;
- Where we do get involved in urban gardens, use these areas to build awareness and visibility of food, rather than to push the ‘food security’ angle;
- Innovate around the optimal systems that minimize or eliminate post-harvest loss, and supermarket-home losses, using IT, technology and social innovation.
Post script: This Food|Water|Cities Conversation was a joint initiative between Aqua d’UCT and TEDxCapeTown. Lead people are Raymond Siebrits (email) and Bernelle Verster (email), both post-graduate students at the University of Cape Town. This conversation was organized and executed voluntarily, organically and 'maverickally with no budget'. We thank the panelists for their precious time and input.
- Cremin C, 2011, Capitalism’s New Clothes: Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis, Pluto Press.
- Pollan M, 2008, In defense of food : an eater’s manifesto, Penguin Press.
- Pothukuchi K, 2002, What’s cooking in your food system? : a guide to community food assessment, Community Food Security Coalition, Venice CA.
- Steel C, 2009, Hungry city: how food shapes our lives, Vintage.
- Stuart T, 2009, Waste : Uncovering the global food scandal, W. W. Norton & Co, London.
- Joubert L, 2012, The Hungry Season, (in press)
- Jane Battersby articles: African Food Security Urban Network: http://www.afsun.org/
- Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrade: http://www.vpuu.org/
- Wilson E, 1998, Consilience: the unity of knowledge, Random House.
Description: PDF transcript of event (as above)
Title: TEDxCapeTownSalon and Aqua d'UCT: Food|Water|Cities conversation: 29 March 2012
Size: 150 KB
Title: TEDxCapeTownSalon and Aqua d'UCT: Food|Water|Cities conversation: 29 March 2012
Size: 150 KB
|TEDxCapeTownSalon and Aqua d'UCT: Food|Water|Cities conversation: 29 March 2012|
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