Wicked problems, complex solutions? Urban transformations and energy provision in South Africa

by Federico Caprotti, Exeter University.

A ‘wicked problem’ is generally understood to be one that is resistant to resolution, where goalposts shift, actors have different aims, and the problem itself shape-shifts and become difficult to define. In our project, we’re tackling an issue – energy provision in South African municipalities – that it is tempting to define as ‘wicked’ in its complexity and resistance to progressive, positive change.

Certainly, South Africa’s energy landscape is highly complex (are national energy landscapes ever simple?). It is tied up with infrastructural and other constraints, from issues around the country’s coal dependence, overarching aims to decarbonise or reduce the carbon intensity of the economy, and political wrangling and tensions over the direction of the energy sector (and potential market) in South Africa. All of this is taking place in the context of wider economic and political debates in the country, and in a landscape of energy geopolitics with a truly international flavour, as seen in recent debates around the construction of nuclear generation capacity. Add in the socio-economic dimension, and questions around fair and equitable access to the often informally-housed urban poor, and the ‘problem’ starts to look less like a purely technical or public policy issue, and more like a textbook definition of a ‘wicked problem’.

And yet, it may be useful to sidestep arguments about whether a specific social and technical problem is highly complex or not, and to focus on its constituent parts. This helps break down intractable ‘problems’ into components that are easier to deal with, while at the same time remaining conscious of the need to stay constantly aware of the connections between them. In our ESRC-NRF project, we focus on some of these constituent parts and associated ideas, including:

Transition: in order to move towards providing ‘solutions’ to specific problems, it’s important to think about the process of debating and finding solutions. In our project, we do this by utilising an approach rooted in multidisciplinary understandings of processes of transition. Understanding transition means understanding change, and understanding change means potentially being able to influence it. The extent to which this is possible, or desirable (after all, change and the end-point(s) of change are not value-free), is something we will be taking a close look at as the project progresses.

Co-design: in our project, we recognise the need to engage with the wide range of government, municipal, scholarly, corporate, activist, civil society and NGO individuals and groups who have a stake in the future of energy supply in South African cities. This is why we’re involved not only with the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, but with groups such as Sustainable Energy Africa, who work closely with municipalities. We will also work with specific municipalities to think about processes of change and transition, and to identify and focus on bottlenecks and obstacles to change.

Complexity: staying comfortable with the complex character of social and technical ‘problems’ such as energy supply is one of our central ambitions. This means trying to avoid placing energy problems into siloed categories (the engineers deal with the power plants, the politicians deal with energy policy, the activists deal with justice, etc.). It does mean, however, bringing different perspectives into constant conversation and making sure that we talk to each other as we progress in research and co-design. This is also, in part, why our academic project team is varied in terms of academic background and working experience: the project involves geographers, energy researchers, an urban planner, climate change and development researchers, and others. Our combined backgrounds involve experience working in South Africa, the UK, China, Ghana, and other international contexts.

Focusing on processes of change and transition, remaining comfortable with complexity, and valorising co-design lie at the heart of our approach. We hope that keeping this focus alive will help us to move past the description of energy supply as a ‘wicked’ problem, and towards a real interest in potential future pathways that are more just, equitable and progressive.