Cities and communities face serious challenges related to poverty, waste management, environmental sustainability, water quality, health, loss of biodiversity, and many more. While these are real challenges, a lack of knowledge on how to address these is often not a barrier, but rather putting knowledge into practice is. Cities often lack the time, capacity and knowledge to address these pressing challenges, those of which local universities possess to address these challenges. Matching cities and universities to take advantage of the others’ needs and capacities has been challenging but through Educational Partnerships for Innovative Communities Network (EPIC-N) such barriers are now starting to be addressed in Durban. EPIC-N is an award winning university-community partnership program that works at a large scale to advance the needs of communities while training the next generational workforce and leadership. It is a simple idea with the aim of working with Schools and administrative structures within universities and communities to achieve positive outcomes for all involved.
The Durban EPIC-A pilot is a new approach, testing transdisciplinary methods within the Durban Research Action Partnership, which has been in place between eThekwini Municipality (Durban) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) since 2011. The Durban EPIC-A pilot approach was adapted from the EPIC-N model to suit local institutional conditions through the implementation of two UKZN modules that were trialled between 2018 and 2019. The Durban EPIC-A pilot, under the leadership of Dr Cathy Sutherland at UKZN, also included research on water and sanitation. The aim is for the implementation of a full scale EPIC-A partnership between eThekwini Municipality and UKZN, within two years of successful completion of the pilot. The Durban EPIC-A pilot has addressed key research needs which have been identified by the Palmiet Catchment Rehabilitation Project’s (PCRP) Community of Innovators/Practice (interested stakeholders within the Palmiet catchment) as part of the Palmiet Action Plan, as well as research needs in coastal governance and water and sanitation (eThekwini Water and Sanitation Unit).
The focus of EPIC-A is not only on promoting interdisciplinary approach but there are other important achievements achieved through piloting this model:
- Capacity building for emerging researchers and training for students. Three PhD students were appointed as mentors for 16 EPIC-A students and for coordinating the programme.
- Implementing the Durban EPIC-A pilots within the existing project which already has a project action plan and research questions.
- The programme has created an important and valuable platform for innovative teaching and learning in BEDS at UKZN, building on existing well established partnerships Cathy Sutherland has with officials and community groups within the municipality
- Three areas of speciality were identified for the EPIC-A programme in both phases: water and sanitation, informal settlement upgrading and the value of ecological infrastructure. These themes are aligned with the Action Plan of the existing project, the PCRP and the research interest of the BEDS team to ensure co-funding benefits.
- The involvement of municipal departments: the success of the EPIC-A model relies on the commitments between the university and local municipality. For the pilots, the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department (EPCPD) agreed to run the internship model of EPIC-A which is not done in the US where EPIC originates
- Students have drafted the disaster management plan for Quarry Road West informal settlement and they will present this to Disaster Risk Management of the city so the second pilot, because it focused all students’ attention and efforts on one issue, the floods in Durban, will result in a tangible output for the municipality.
- EPIC-A students presented maps and knowledge to the community on the impacts of floods using the drone images, this process showed the real impacts of flooding and supported civic science and community-university co-production of knowledge.
Although there were achievements made in piloting the EPIC-A model in eThekwini Municipality, there are challenges or lessons learnt which need to be resolved before the full implementation of the EPIC model:
- Providing incentives for students. This needs be planned carefully especially for full implementation of the programme. For example, funded internship/s can be awarded to the best student/s in each EPIC-A model, based on funds and availability of space within the municipality. The incentives or stipend given to students prove to be useful considering the recent #FeesMustFall campaign by students across the country.
- The expected outputs and outcomes from students’ reports were not clearly explained before inception of the projects.
- Limited time for students to engage on projects or try to answer questions which the municipality needs answers for
- Expanding this programme to include other departments both at the university and in the municipality. Currently it is EPCPD and UKZN BEDS involved in the programme. The success of a scaled-up EPIC-A depends on different departments participating
The success from the two pilot modules led to the decision of supporting the full implementation of the EPIC programme where the idea will be to expand the programme from working with one discipline to 6 disciplines and involving other municipal departments. Plans are underway for funding the full implementation of the programme with a permanent EPIC-A coordinator who will be based at the university who will be responsible for the running of the programme. The EPIC-A pilots were coordinated by a Climate Scientist from EPCPD, eThekwini Municipality, Smiso Bhengu, and Cathy Sutherland and PhD students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The success of implementing the EPIC model requires champion from both university and local government (municipality) to set up research agenda or programme for students.
The implementation of the Durban EPIC-A pilot acknowledges contributions made by EPIC-N Global Secretariat and United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for their technical support and UKZN for funding the Durban EPIC-A pilot through National Research Foundation (NRF) funding: Professor Steven Johnson’s DST-NRF SARChI Chair in Evolutionary Biology, which has a research project on developing a Community of Practice for DRAP.