Enhancing capacity for sustainable urban design: an interdisciplinary approach

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Author:  Ash Brockwell (LIS Faculty)
Artist, writer, and consultant working on issues around education, sustainability, and wellbeing. PhD, Wageningen University and Research Centre.

Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals refers explicitly to ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’.  It has ten targets, which include ensuring access to safe and affordable housing and basic services, expanding public transport, providing inclusive and accessible green spaces and public spaces, and reducing the environmental impact of cities.  

Target 11.3 is particularly relevant to education, as it focuses on enhancing ‘capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management’.  This blog post, inspired by work that is being carried out at LIS and in an international research network led by the University of Bristol, is dedicated to exploring the meaning of ‘capacity’ and how it can be enhanced through an interdisciplinary approach to education.

What is ‘capacity’?
Traditional understandings of capacity in education and development studies often refer to it as something that can be ‘built’ or ‘developed’.  This mindset is often associated with what has been termed weak internationalisation or Type 1 institutional learning – a relationship between different institutions in which participants develop knowledge and skills in line with existing inequitable norms.  What this means, for example, is that researchers in the ‘global South’ (typically lower-income countries) learn to apply data collection and analysis methods that have been developed in the ‘global North’.  Meanwhile, ‘Northern’ researchers focus on improving their skills and knowledge in areas such as project management and fundraising, ensuring that they retain control of high-stakes activities such as allocating resources.

More recently, the development of a ‘relational approach’ to capacity has highlighted the fact that no organisation exists in a vacuum.  As Cardona and colleagues explain:

“Relational capacity begins with the vision to see one’s organization amidst the other organizations, actors and systems to which it relates. No longer is it enough to design strategies and build capacity as far as the walls of one’s own organization. Today’s complex, multidimensional challenges require more effective collaboration within and across sectors.”

This relational understanding of capacity is the basis of the approach adopted in the ‘Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures’ (TESF) Network Plus project, involving the University of Bristol in partnership with higher education institutions in South Africa, Somaliland, Rwanda and India.   An example of ‘strong internationalisation’ or ‘Type 2 institutional learning’, the project seeks to disrupt the inequitable global power relations that underpin academic knowledge production, and to challenge structures and hierarchies that are fundamentally unsustainable3 .  As such, the project does not relate to building or developing capacity, but mobilising capacities – viewing them as outcomes of ‘relationships-in-action’ that emerge in specific situations, and depend on the task at hand as well as on people, places and histories.

Skills for sustainability
In my PhD research carried out from 2013 to 2019, I looked at some of the different types of skills that are necessary to help societies transition towards sustainability.  A report commissioned by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in 1996 identified four broad types of learning; learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together.  Later work by UNESCO added a fifth category: learning to transform self and society.  These overlapped to some extent with the types of skills, or ‘competencies’, for sustainability described in a 2011 review of academic literature carried out by Wiek et al.  The academic review also highlighted three other types of competencies:

– Anticipatory competencies: the ability to create rich pictures of the future 
– Systems-thinking competencies – the ability to change our mindset, e.g. from thinking about parts to thinking about whole systems, from objects to relationships, and from structure to process 
– Normative competencies: the ability to specify, apply and negotiate sustainability norms, values, goals and targets

In thinking about the broad portfolio of skills needed for sustainable urban design, it becomes clear that no single discipline could possibly deliver all of them.  Disciplines such as architecture and urban planning might cover some of the practical aspects (‘learning to do’); philosophy might deliver the critical thinking skills that form part of ‘learning to know’; sociology and anthropology might yield insights relevant to ‘learning to live together’; and education studies, ecopsychology or even theology might scratch the surface of ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to transform self and society’.  Yet method-centred approaches such as ethnography or participatory action research may be needed, alongside these discipline-based approaches, in order to build the networks or broader ‘learning ecosystems’ required for normative, anticipatory and systems-thinking competencies to emerge.

Returning to our Target 11.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, relating to enhancing ‘capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management’, we can see that one of the keywords is integrated.  To deliver on this ambitious target requires a revolutionary rethinking of education – an integrated approach that looks beyond disciplinary boundaries to deliver across all the different competency areas.

1 Appadurai, Arjun (1999). “Globalization and the research imagination.”International Social Science Journal 51 (160): 229–238.
2 Kontinen, T.  & Nguyahambi, A.M.  (2020) ‘Institutional learning in North–South partnerships: critical self-reflection on collaboration between Finnish and Tanzanian academics. Forum for Development Studies.
3 Mitchell, R., Wals, A., & Brockwell, A.J. (2020). Mobilising capacities forTransforming Education for Sustainable Futures: opening spaces for collaborative action and learning. TESF Network Plus / University of Bristol, in preparation.
4 Cardona, C., Simpson, J., & Raynor, J. (2015) ‘Relational capacity: a new approach to capacity building in philanthropy. Responsive Philanthropy (online, 2015).
5 Brockwell, A.J. (2019) Measuring what matters? Exploring the use of values-based indicators in assessing Education for Sustainability. Wageningen, NL: Wageningen University & Research.
6 Delors, J. (1996)Learning: the treasure within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century. Paris: UNESCO.

7 Wiek, A., Withycombe, L,, & Redman, C.L. (2011)`Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development Sustainability Science 6: 203-218. 
8 Ecoliteracy

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