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Can learning networks move us to a greener sustainable future?


A Global Call to Action

The global challenge of climate change calls for innovation in the way we live, the way we do business and in the way we solve tough challenges both environmentally and socially.


In the last few months there has been a growing awareness of this in a number of sectors, with more conversations on how we engage with each other to create an environment where ideas can become innovation. One of these, forms part of the South African government’s department of Science and Technology’s 10 year Global Change research plan which put out a call for projects that “supports knowledge generation and technological innovation to enable South Africa, Africa and the world to respond to global environmental change, including climate change, in an informed and innovative way”.  Four cross-cutting knowledge challenges; understanding a changing planet, reducing the human footprint, adapting the way we live and innovation and sustainability were identified.  


An fresh approach from an innovative consortium

Kessels and Smit, The Learning Company South Africa and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) put together an innovative consortium to address the challenge of “Innovation for Sustainability” specifically the theme of “Social Learning for sustainability, adaptation, innovation and resilience”. The call recognises that learning, and social learning in particular is at the centre of the successful translation of research results in society. 


The consortium, which has been described as ‘fresh’ and ‘an innovation in itself’, consists of different partners bringing deep expertise in a number of fields.  Kessels & Smit, The Learning Company (social learning & innovation), CSIR (research on natural resources, built environment and development planning), SanParks (adaptive management in conservation space), Living Lands (practical experience of facilitating learning networks in socio-ecological space), University of Pretoria (sustainability science) and Da Vinci Institute (innovation).  


From the beginning the team committed to making the journey of creating the proposal, a learning experience in itself both for the individuals and the organisations involved.  The experience of what works for a network, which dispersed across different geographies in SA, and bringing together different institutional agenda’s, formed the basis for our own action research of how to strengthen the social learning capability in the national innovation system in South Africa.    


Modeling a new way of doing and implementing research

The programme that evolved from the work of this consortium, proposes to model a new way of doing and implementing research, while studying it and documenting it at the same time. Too often it is found that the “creators” of innovation and the “beneficiaries” and “implementers‟ of knowledge and innovation are separated in the research and innovation system. This includes the limited linkages between different parts of the research and innovation system, working in narrow disciplinary and industry /sectoral silos. Through the incremental inclusion of collaborators and initiatives in the innovation system, the proposed programme aims to bring about a systemic change in the National System of Innovation of South Africa.


The programme proposed three work packages, which are for the purposes of simplicity presented as separate pieces of work, but in practice form an integral whole: 


  1. Embedding social learning practices in participating projects in the bigger Global Change programme
  2. Enable and support learning and innovation through national networks and integrated social learning systems
  3. Provide a shared space for the design, conduct and publication of research that specifically contributes towards social learning practices in the field.


A practical example: The PRESENCE network

One of the consortium members, a non-profit organisation called Living Lands has been working and living the possibilities of how such an approach can add value in a region and social economical and environmental community in the Eastern Cape. Living Lands is the facilitators of a learning network called  PRESENCE which operates in the world heritage site of the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve.


The practical example this learning network illustrates the value and practice of social learning or the ‘learning to innovate’ approach that is proposed by the consortium for application to a regional or national system:


1.  Embed ‘social learning’ practices on specific projects:  The project leads,  and individual researchers in the Living Land teams design projects to have social learning and innovation practices embedded to create project environments where ‘creators’ and ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘implementors’ are working together from the start. 


2.  Enable and support learning and innovation through a regional learning network called PRESENCE which brings together farmers, researchers,  local and regional institutions e.g. municipalities, local water board, Department of Water (DWAF), Eastern Cape Parks, non-governmental organisations and funders, etc.


3.  Provide a space for the conduct of applied research on social learning practices and encourage publication thereof.  From the Living Lands’ programmes  transdisciplinary research on the important building blocks of a network,  stakeholder network analyses and the importance of trust in a network is completed or underway. 


The way the consortium is working together in a complex social ecological system such as the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve models what can be done in other areas of the country and ultimately in the national innovation system. In this case study, Living Lands convene the programmes and facilitate the network, Kessels & Smit, The Learning Company acts as coaches and social learning mentors for the Living Lands team. The CSIR leads research with social learning and innovation practices in both development planning and natural resources, which are action learning based.  And finally, good collaboration with the local parks board (in this case Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency) provide fertile study and implementation ground.  


With this approach, and an innovative team with a commitment to their own learning and the learning of the bigger system, it could be that the learning networks they create will move us to a greener and sustainable future


For an informative movie from the United Nations which include the work of PRESENCE in the Baviaanskloof in South Africa view the documentary from environmental film maker John Liu here


For more information on collaboration with the consortium on this initiative, or other adjacent opportunities, please contact Andrea van der Merwe at Kessels & Smit, The Learning Company South Africa.