The Class of 2017 completes their first module

Eve Annecke and I have just completed teaching the Sustainable Development module of our Masters Programme in Sustainable Development for the 15th time! – yes, we cannot believe it, this is the 15th year that our masters programme has been delivered. And this year the class was the largest ever, at 53 students (selected from nearly 150 applicants who qualified for entry). Of the 53, only 13 are men (mainly because of the low number of men who applied) and nearly 60% are black. More significantly, 33% of the group were non-South African – the highest ever. Of the 17 non-South Africans, 14 are from various African countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Ivory Coast and Namiba. The other non-South Africans are from The Netherlands, Spain and Australia. Most are from the private sector – 24 out of 53, followed by 11 from the public sector, and 5 from the NPO sector. Ten are full-time students, and the other 3 are a mix of consultants/unemployed. It was a high energy module, covering a lot of ground including ‘long histories’ from 13 billion years ago, to inner histories of what it means to be human in today’s transforming world. The strong non-SA African presence influenced the direction of the discussions, including questions about the implications of the Bannonist coup in the US for the future of Africa, and in particular what it means to be African in a world where racism is on the rise, humanism may be dying and environmentalism is on the defensive. We read Achille Mbembe and Ben Okri to help generate some answers to this question.

Thanks to all the wonderful people at the SI who supported us, and to the families who have supported the students as they commence a journey that is bound to transform them.

(The pics below from the top left: walking upstairs for class after the gong, sticking up pics of their respective ‘homes’, group work, class discussion, working in the gardens, Eve facilitating discussion, and end of course party in the hall.)

UpTheStairs HomePics GroupWork GroupDisInClass Gardening EveTeachingjpgFriParty


New book by my colleague Lorenzo Fioramonti – The World After GDP: brings together his recent on governance innovation and makes a very convincing case for transcending GDP as our way of measuring progress.

FLYER – The World After GDP

Renewables, oil peak and the crisis of banking

Today I posted three items on FB which are clearly linked in ways that I would love to explore further. The first is an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that reveals that wind power generated more energy in 2016 than coal power, and that coal power generated less in 2016 than in 2015. However, what was more significant than this to me is a reference in the article to the construction of a vast new infrastructure of “thousands” of wind farms – in other words, a new decentralised energy infrastructure to replace the centralized fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure. The second post was a remarkable article by Nafeez Ahmed entitled Brace Yourself for the Oil, Food and Financial Crash of 2018.  Using a recent report confirming oil peak by HSBC bank, Ahmed argues that the peaking of conventional oil production in 2005 will not only prevent global economic recovery it also contributes to a debt-driven finance bubble that will burst in 2018. The only alternative, he argues, is to prepare for a post-fossil fuel and post-capitalist economy. However, what will prevent this is the fact that global banks are capable of creating money via debt to sustain growth rates that are necessary to protect the value of the debt. Hence the significance of the third article which is about the remarkable – albeit gradual – acceptance of the notion that it is indeed banks that create money via debt financing. Quoting Mervyn King, former UK Governor of the Bank of England, the problematic role that banks play in the global financial system is lucidly explained and highlighted. It makes so much sense to connect the dots reflected in these three articles: the success of renewables that exacerbates the crisis of fossil fuel production by preventing scarcity from pushing up energy prices; the coming financial crisis exacerbated by debt-financed strategies to artificially compensate for the recessionary implications of oil peak – a strategy that the new Trump Cabinet is bound to reinforce and back up with military force; and the search for alternatives to the current system of money creation via ‘too-big-to-fail’ private banks, including either greater centralisation of control of money supply by central banks (e.g. as already started in India) or the promotion of localised (ideally non-profit) community banks (as has been prevalent in Germany). Surely the Trump Presidency is about defending the existing globalised financial system and the centralised fossil fuel-based energy system it is based on? Will the devastation caused by a possible global economic crisis in 2018 wreck these plans? Will alternatives to financialised capitalism and fossil fuel-based energy emerge on scale to replace the existing system? What alliances of forces are needed to make this happen? And what role will the construction of a decentralised renewable energy system play in creating a new global space economy of literally millions of renewable energy power plants? What is the relationship between the emergence of this new global space economy and the alliance of forces needed to bring about a global transition to a more equitable and ecologically sustainable world?  Herein lie glimpses of future trajectories.


Welcome to the age of anger

A truly remarkable brilliantly written critical overview of the root cause of the current global political crisis in historical perspective. A quote from Musil’ The Man Without Qualities about why we face the outbreak of irrationalism the world over says it all: this man suffers “immense loneliness in a desert of detail, his restlessness, malice, incomparable callousness, his greed for money, his coldness and violence” is “the result of the losses that logically precise thinking has inflicted on the soul.” I cannot see how anyone can comprehend the current historic moment – both globally and in SA where a once noble liberation movement has decided to retain a thief as President – if they cannot grasp this deep profound truth. Reconnecting a politics of the soul to a reconstituted theory of the economy and nature must surely lie at the heart of the new struggle for freedom in the c.21st – click on this link to the FB post. 


Eve Annecke’s TEDxtalk and TEDxCapeTownWomen

Eve Annecke talking at TEDxCapeTownWomen on becoming invisible, and how to be a worthy ancestor at the interface between a loving universe, her African roots and a world made mad by too much visibility. As is always the case with Eve, every word and every idea in this amazing talk is utterly original – something so rare in this world where social media has turned us into mass replicators of other people’s tropes. Redefining sustainability as the art of being a ‘worthy ancestor to the future’ is pure genius. It establishes a new way of anticipating the future that connects who we are, how we be in this world, and what the future could be. If forecasting is about predicting the future, and foresight is about compiling narratives of the future, then anticipatory thinking is about the evolutionary potential of the present, i.e. the future is connected to action in the ‘thick present’ (as Roberto Poli puts it). Eve’s talk is a brilliant rendition of this way of thinking-being.


Chinese growth and useless spaces

According to my colleague Serge Salat from Paris, as much as 40% of Chinese GDP growth is driven by investments in new buildings and associated infrastructure. However, there are now 80 million empty apartments. This bubble is going to burst, no doubt. But from a resource use perspective, this means up to 40% of Chinese growth that is, in turn, a major driver of global growth, is based on sinking money into cement. For the past 20 years over 50% of all cement use was in China. China used more cement in the three years 2011-2013 than the USA used in the whole of the c.20th. Cement demand in China is dropping, according to the largest cement company HolcimLaFarge. Mix all this together, add so political salt, and you get a looming crisis. Is anyone aware of the oncoming brick wall that Chinese growth is inevitably going to hit relatively soon?

Habitat III, Quito – reflections by a colleague


Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, took the city of Quito, Equador, by storm from November 17 to 20, 2016, with attendees filling the Casa de la Cultura between Quito’s old city and the Mariscal. Paul Currie, a researcher with urban Modelling and Metabolism Assessment, the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition and the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, participated in the conference and offers some reflections here:

Quito made a perfect setting for the conference, given its location in the global South, equipped with precarious cliffside housing, urban sprawl, limited highways, buses and cars spewing exhaust, an abundance of street vendors and a spectacular mountainous location in the midst of four active volcanoes. The concept of disaster resilience is quite apt, given the 1999 eruption of Pichincha volcano covered the city in ash. The city was also in the middle of it’s fiesta de la luz, drawing thousands of Ecuadorians to see the light shows projected on ornate churches – though such a description does no justice to the spectacle. As with any of these large events, the city takes on a new electric life and we’re left unsure if this is how it normally feels to wander Quito’s streets.

The conference drew together over 25000 single-day attendees of a rumored 45000 registrants. These attendees were united by a fascination with the form, processes and relationships of cities, and the starting point for most discussions was a unified acknowledgement that cities face challenges and that cities are the key to addressing global socio-economic and socio-ecological issues. From there, the points of divergence are the different language we use to describe these challenges, and the varied perspectives, approaches and agendas proposed to address them.

The 20-year latency between Habitat Conferences (The previous ones took place in Istanbul in 1996 and Vancouver in 1976), means that the global context has shifted drastically, and the world is in need of a renewed focus of its development priorities. This is seen by the recent concentration of mega-events that have resulted in the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 to name a few.

Habitat III created a forum in which we could question together how cities have been developed, both as shining beacons of human ingenuity and creativity, and as structural enforcers of inequality and exclusivity. With this in mind, many note that the New Urban Agenda, the centerpiece of the conference, will not work if we overlook global and local inequity. The New Urban Agenda acknowledges a wide range of systemically discriminated groups including ‘women and girls, children and youth, persons with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, older persons, indigenous peoples and local communities, slum and informal settlement dwellers, homeless people, workers, smallholder farmers and fishers, refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons, and migrants, regardless of migration status.’

While the NUA has a very clear desire to promote sustainable urban development, as visualised by the word cloud below, it is critiqued for not establishing its own targets or a means to measure the success of it’s many suggested interventions. What’s more, while it effectively stands as the embodiment of SDG Goal 11 to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, it is very poorly connected to the goals and targets in the SDGs. This is highlighted as a missed opportunity by David Simon, of Mistra Urban Futures, in a conversation about the Habitat process. The power of cities as concentrators of people, welfare, innovation, as well as social diseconomies (crime, disease, poverty, inequality) and ecological impact, makes them the almost perfect levers for propelling global sustainability as embodied by many of the 17 SDGs.  However, successful implementation of the NUA will be left to the interpretation of its broad rhetoric by local and national actors, many of whom are under-capacitated. Despite this, Simon explains that the NUA is the first UN document to ‘recognize the critical role of sub-national authorities and non-state actors’ – a major achievement for the UN system.



The Sunday before the conference began, a Mayors assembly shared voices from the heads of cities, which I felt set the tone for the conference and highlighted the varied nature of urban challenges and priorities worldwide:

Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, challenges the Mayors to raise their voices to speak for their people.

Ada Colau, the Mayor of Barcelona shared enthusiasm that ‘the right to the city’ was incorporated in the NUA

Tri Rismaharisni, Mayor of Surabaya shared that ‘gender equity works for all,’ saying that gender parity will be the foundation of sustainable development.

Dennis Coderre, Mayor of Montreal argued the importance of local government, which is more engaged with people’s daily lives and needs, and called on national governments to realize the importance of cities and local authorities.

Miguel Angel Mancera, Mayor of Mexico City suggested that cities should receive funds directly without intermediaries.

Gustavo Baroja, Prefect of Pichincha, argued that we must break through the binary distinction of urban or rural as both are inter-reliant.

Michael Muller, Mayor of Berlin, asserts that we must turn the NUA from a piece of paper into actions, citing his challenge of bringing refugees from the periphery into the city.

Emil Elestianto Dardak, the Regent of Trenggalek, encourages us to adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

Kumar Rai Bipin, of the Urban Board of Delhi, declares healthcare as a fundamental right and urges that slum areas are upgraded and not relocated.

Daniel Martinez, the Mayor of Montevideo, argues that we need a radical declaration of economic realities: that we will not achieve justice if we cannot address the lack of resources. Fighting for a social economy which redistributes wealth is a requirement for sustainability.

Mohamad Baqer Qualibaf, Mayor of Tehran says that ‘nobody can be a mayor if they are not in love with their city’ and motivates that cities should be constructed for their citizens

These desires were voiced in the buzz-words plastered around the conference, calling for cities that were sustainable, resilient, smart, participatory, inclusive, and in the multitudes of presentation and exhibitions throughout the conference.

With the adoption of the NUA, the global urban reality is unquestionable, and along with it, the manifestation of all urban challenges, intrigues, speed bumps. This is specifically important for African nations as before the Habitat III process, there was a prevailing denial among many governments on the continent that urbanization is happening, that it is caused by natural growth, or that it could deliver social and economic benefits.  This denial may have been the most limiting obstacle facing urban practitioners, as urban policies would be missing vital tools, or focus primarily on anti- or de-urbanisation mechanisms. With acceptance of an urban reality, what now remains is for governments, through engagement with other stakeholders, to embed the ideas of the NUA in national agendas and develop local targets for developing just, sustainable cities.