Universities must rethink how they do research to imagine a better trajectory for the future

Published On: 15 October 2021|

Professor Laura Pereira did not exaggerate when she said she would be a giving a presentation from “a slightly different angle”. Billed as one of the international plenary speakers at Universities South Africa (USAf’s) recent conference, The Engaged University, Pereira’s background is not in higher education.

A researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, the Exxaro Research Chair at the Global Change Institute at Wits University, and a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University, Pereira (left) is described as “an interdisciplinary sustainability scientist”, having been trained in ecology, law, zoology and human geography.

Titled The role of academia in imagining better futures for people and planet, her presentation was peppered with quotes, from the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, to the contemporary Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri, to futurist Riel Miller, Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO.

This is our context

She said her talk was contextualised within the geological age of the Anthropocene, where humans have become the most dominant force of change on the planet.

We are in a time where climate change is getting a lot of attention, especially with the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, taking place in Glasgow from the end of October. And the CoViD-19 pandemic epitomises the disruption in human nature relationships we’re needing to deal with.

“The role of the university is particularly important in this, but it probably needs to adapt and shift to be able to have the kind of impact that the previous speaker Professor McCowan (of University College London) was talking about,” she said.

She quoted Lao Tzu to illustrate the “very poignant argument when we talk about the sustainability crises we’re facing as a planet: ‘If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading’”.

Thinking about the future and the way to envisage it differently

It can be quite difficult to conceptualise the future, as it is a very dystopian world to think about, she said. This is particularly true if one looks at projections of what’s gone before, such as carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, and their impacts. “What are the tools, the mechanisms we can use to envisage something different?” she asked.

She quoted Riel Miller to support this view: “When the future is predicted from the probable unknowable, it’s often derived from outdated assumptions”. Pereira said this is indicative of massive transformations seen in the past, where 50 to 60 years ago the ideal of the mobile technology revolution and smartwatches telling us we need to stand up every hour would have been science fiction but are the reality we’re living now.

“So how can we train ourselves, and how can we provide curricula and courses to build some capacities to help us navigate these different futures we’re going to be facing?” she said.

The projected, probable, or plausible future vs the preposterous one

Academics, especially in the natural sciences, are used to talking about the projected future and current trends. They are even comfortable predicting probable trends based on what has happened before. This can be extended to thinking about the plausible future, which can be seen in assessments such as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in August, even if everyone’s idea of what is plausible is subjective.

Now, however, we need to start opening to the idea of the preposterous future, “if we’re going to be able to navigate into the 21st century and beyond, both as academics but also just as citizens,” she said.

The preposterous future can become reality: 60 years ago, the idea of the internet would have seemed preposterous, so too would the idea of being able to get onto the moon seemed preposterous 100 years ago.

Research in participatory futures and multiple knowledges

Pereira said the university sector needs to invest quite a lot more in what is known as participatory futures research that is transdisciplinary, not only between different disciplines, but also with actors beyond academia.

This idea of participatory futures is what sociologist Ruha Benjamin, Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, refers to in the quote: “Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within”.

She said it was important to get out of our ivory towers and recognise there are
multiple knowledges out there, and “not only a Western positivist scientific idea of knowledge”. This idea of knowledge co-production is important, not in the sense of integrating all this knowledge, but weaving them together, without consensus, “without losing what makes each of them quite particular,” she said.

Research in decolonial futures

Quoting Wits academics Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall: “Africa is absent from the future. In almost every future, dystopian utopian, there is a continent-sized hole in the story. In fact, Africa often ends up epitomising the intractable, the mute”, Pereira said we need to start decoding colonial futures. That is, we need to start “to tell narratives from different parts of the world with different peoples, and backgrounds, and ways of being and experiences being brought to the fore.

“How can we build these alternatives? How can we put African futurism and where we want to go as a continent or as a country or even just as city, like Johannesburg, onto the international stage, so that the global community is engaged with them in a way we have to be engaged with a lot of the dominant stories told to us?”

Why universities need to cultivate imagination

She described the university as “a home to hold these conversations, and to create a space for bringing different perspectives together, and focusing on the imagination, which is a capacity that I think we don’t really use all that much, particularly in the biophysical sciences”.

She quoted Ben Okri to support her idea: “Knowledge is empty without imagination, without spirit, without the heart … no civilization ever became great on knowledge alone.” She said “imagination helps us transcend conventional thinking, to envision the kinds of new possibilities we know we require, if we’re going to navigate onto a better, more sustainable and just trajectory for people and the planet”. Imagination also helps us think in a novel way, she said. If we continue to do things in the same way, we are going to be perpetuating inequalities and injustices both to people, and to nature.

“We really need to be seeing the university as a space for cultivating imagination so that we can start telling ourselves different stories across all of the different disciplines,” she said. And this should not be confined to literature or the humanities. “We all need to start working in this space,“ she said.

In making her final point, she quoted from The Economist in 2011: “Humans have changed the way the world works. And now we have to change the way they think about it too”.


The chair of the session, Chris Nhlapo, Vice-Chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, asked a question about plausible futures.

Question: “I’ve seen some of your work as well, talking about traditional knowledge as a source of innovation, and perhaps you can critically reflect on the role of traditional knowledge in social innovation, and how we can actually explore that as a system.”

The response: “The first thing that needs to be done is to recognise that it’s not just work that comes out of the university that can be seen as innovative. There are a lot of practices from the past that are very innovative for us to be able to move into the future.

“The second step is to give a value to these traditional knowledge systems. I’ve been working quite a lot with traditional ecological knowledge, particularly in the food system, and there’s been a big movement towards recognising the important role that indigenous crops such as sorghum play within South Africa, in terms of its adaptive capacity to drought and environmental change, but also as being a highly nutritious grain. So much knowledge embedded in how people from the region had previously grown and used sorghum has been lost, that we need to bring it back.

“A really important caveat to this process is about recognising the kind of historical erosion that the colonial system, but also neoliberalism, has had on these knowledge systems; and that we can’t be extractivist again, we can’t just be taking, taking more and more and more from these systems that have been highly traumatised,” she said.

“Making sure that the people who hold the knowledge are recognized for what might not necessarily be in terms of intellectual property. But we need to think through, in much more careful ways, how we can make sure these knowledge systems are resilient and recognized as innovative interventions towards better futures.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.