Sustaining Just Transitions: learning and systems change

Zarina Patel, The Times of a Just Transition
Project status

The timeframes, indicators and targets (which are timebound) of the Sustainable Development Goals are modelled on specific assumptions about cities, which are out of sync with urban temporalities in Africa. Specifically, the predominance of informal modes of urban development in Africa challenges the timing assumptions held by the SDGs, which are modelled on formal systems (Simon et al, 2016; Valencia et al, 2019; Croese et al, 2021). Many of the SDG targets and indicators, for example, are based on timeframes (eg. frequency of public transport; frequency of solid waste removal) of formal public processes as an indicator of efficiency. However, informal systems in Africa operate on alternate in situ rationalities and temporalities. Equally, there are vastly different historical development pathways and trajectories followed by the global north and south. And again, African cities are currently in a dynamic state of growth while numbers in the global north have stabilised. Rapid urbanisation in contexts of vast inequality and poverty, in other words, present very different challenges in the Global South for meeting SDG defined infrastructural requirements within the confines of global environmental guardrails.

In contrast with the Millennium Development Goals (which recognised variations globally), the universalist reach of the Sustainable Development Goals relies on the misconception that actions can be coordinated globally within a specified timeframe. Such a misconception risks producing significant injustice in the Global South. To address this, a richer understanding of the timings of African cities is required. We have made some progress in this area through the Mistra Urban Futures Programme (2010-2020) which included collaborations between city authorities and universities in the global south and north. These collaborations piloted and tested the indicator frames contained in SDG11 prior to its ratification in 2015 (Simon et al, 2016). They demonstrated the extent to which the teamporal and material assumptions contained within these global frameworks were and are out of sync with the rhythms and realities on the ground in southern contexts. The pilot also provided an opportunity to learn from the south, and in turn to influence global frameworks at the science policy interface (Simon et al, 2016). These collaborative partnerships between universities and city authorities have been shown to be an effective means to leverage learning to effect changes to governance and decision-making systems.

The aim of this research is to build on these university-city collaborations in the global south to deepen our understanding of the mismatched timings between the SDGs and urban realities in African cities, and to make the case for alternative timings and indicators to drive just urban transitions.  With 8 years to go to the end of the Agenda 2030 era, securing systems change at the global level to ensure a just global sustainability system together with systems change at the local level to leverage the momentum catalysed by the SDGs is urgent. To achieve this, the project will:

  • Conduct a literature review of different experiences of implementing SDG11 in cities across the globe, with particular attention to temporal mismatches
  • Conduct site visits to selected local authorities to interview city officials and decision makers involved in the reporting and implementation of SDG11
  • Further deepen the theoretical engagement with the justice implications of the scalar and temporal paradox of translating global agendas in African contexts
  • Work with city partners and policy officials to identify the systems changes that need to be leveraged beyond the lifespan of the SDGs to sustain just urban transitions.

Sign up to our email newsletters