Guest blog: What’s the value of a PhD? Some musings from a confused knowledge worker

I’m delighted to have my first guest blog!  This piece was written by my colleague Michael Boulle who is thoughtfully embarking on his PhD journey.  Many thanks to Michael for sharing this with us – Michael can be contacted on

Over the last year, I have been contemplating the value of doing a PhD. This coming from a position after finishing a masters that I was adamant I would never do a PhD… to thinking it was not necessary… to a gradual softening to the question and becoming open to it… and now getting to a point that almost in spite of myself, I am not able to avoid it!

So why as someone who is concerned with how I can make a meaningful contribution to the work on just, low carbon transitions would I consider such a seemingly slow, irrelevant journey as a valuable way to respond to an urgent problem?

on a journey

Over the last seven years I have inhabited this strange climate mitigation policy world, mainly from the position of a university research unit in South Africa which participates in policy processes in South Africa and other countries in the global South; and then from a think tank in Germany. Emerging out of my experience, a pressing question is concerning me: Are we as knowledge workers having the impact that we could have in supporting the implementation of just, low carbon transitions? Given the slow progress in climate policy implementation, it would appear we are not. Surely, as individuals and as a community of practice, we need to deeply reflect on why this may be the case?

Some features stand out in particular as demanding attention:

Although the slow implementation progress should be clear cause for concern, the climate mitigation community lacks a critical view of itself, or a reflection on ‘how we do what we do’ and the implications for implementation of climate mitigation policy. Preference seems to be for a narrowness – in how we think about and approach the problem, in the knowledge we produce, and in terms of who is in the room.

Despite the talk about equity and country-driven approaches, northern hegemony persists in climate policy processes in the global South. Processes are typically dependent on external experts generating a narrow body of evidence to support policy processes in recipient countries, on a project by project basis, with little attention paid to how different pieces fit together and what this ad hoc approach is achieving. In place of introspection there seems to be an optimism driven by increasingly ambitious scenarios. But progress in scenarios shouldn’t be confused with progress in the real world. What impact in the real world have we actually had?

From my perspective, some of these problematic features seem to be symptoms of a lack of commitment to deeply embed our work in a context, to grapple with how to go about this process of knowledge generation and what knowledge we produce, for our work to have relevance, within a context, beyond its niche climate policy community.

So where to from here? To make my own contribution it would seem a PhD journey would offer one of the spaces, as a knowledge worker, to radically reflect on my own role in this strange world we have created. And by radical, I mean recognising the need to interrogate root causes of some of the issues we are facing, as a chosen principle over an obsession with end-of-pipe solutions. What might this look like?



Researching the employment implications of South Africa’s power sector transition

I recently concluded a piece of research into the employment implications of South Africa’s power sector transition; a literature review. The objective of the study (undertaken for Meridian Economics and commissioned by South African Wind Energy Association) was to assess the current status of information on this current and highly politicised topic.

I was warned early on in the process by a stakeholder in the field that I was entering ‘murky’ waters.   How right he was! As I read, my mind boggled at the complexity. I grappled to identify its source/s. Some of the complexity was tied up in the different agendas and perspectives operating within the field. Some was related to methods and metrics used. Timeframes provided an additional source, as did the use of language.

I was aware that being able to deliver a table comparing  numbers that different studies  put to the employment creation associated with different power generation technologies would have been a coup, and perhaps what was hoped for of my research. But I was utterly unable to do this within any reasonable timeframe and with any integrity. The columns in my spreadsheet accounting for the relevant dimensions of each study (method, data, timeframe, scale, technologies, metric etc) ran to ‘w’ and I wasn’t done.

Wind power jobs

Socio-techno-economic systems such as the South African power sector are clearly infinitely complex, with interconnections and causal drivers operating at multiple levels. Further, complexity theories hold that the future is fundamentally unknowable, with deep uncertainty a basic assumption. Yet this doesn’t imply that we can stop at the finding of ‘its complex’ when attempting to understand them better. (Although how I wished the theory did justify taking this route at many points in the research!)

In grappling with the sources of complexity, I reflected that they could perhaps be usefully divided into two types. The first is a lack of clarity or uniformity relating to the metrics used and the methods employed – although perhaps this is not true complexity but rather complication. The remedy for this is standardisation (as distinct from simplification), attention to underlying assumptions and a more responsible use of research findings than has been demonstrated in the press recently.

The second type of complexity sources is more inherent: the issue is just complex. And complexity theories warn against simplifying what is inherently complex, as doing so can mislead users of the research. Rather, complexity thinking holds that the challenge here is to reveal this complexity in a useful way. This means, perhaps paradoxically, more studies, more metrics, more methods and invoking a greater number of perspectives.

Reduce the complication and reveal the complexity. A simple take-away from a particularly complex piece of research!





Has mitigation in South Africa mainstreamed?

Over the past month I’ve been immersed in studies, workshops and initiatives focusing on South Africa’s power sector transition. Having largely removed myself from the ‘real’ world 18 months ago to get the PhD finished, I have revelled in this fast track catch up – but with a growing sense that reality has fundamentally shifted in my absence.

This sense is driven by changes in two areas. First is recent modelling of the South African electricity sector: In response to the government’s 2016 draft Integrated Resource Plan (an IRP is the tool used for planning pathways for the electricity system), the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) did some modelling of their own. This modelling reveals that, as opposed to the the government’s IRP, a power sector plan that optimises for least cost will build far greater amounts of renewable energy – more than 70% by 2050. Renewable energy is simply the most cost efficient option for electricity generation now. The CSIR’s low cost plan also emits fewer carbon emissions and creates more employment than the government’s IRP, placing the least cost plan well within South Africa’s ‘Peak, Plateau and Decline’ climate mitigation policy range.

Second, is what is occurring in the world of information technology. Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the proliferation of internet and GPS based applications are radically changing our societies and systems.   These changes fundamentally support connectivity and innovation, and have the potential to drive energy and resource efficiencies at an unprecedented pace (I’m thinking off-grid electricity technologies, electric vehicles that feed power back to the grid overnight, and drone delivery services for starters).

AI revolution

The extent of these changes were not part of our conceptual landscape at the turn of the century. Taken in combination and with an appreciation for the acceleration in the underlying rate of change, it appears that market price and technology might just do it – ‘tip’ our systems from high to low carbon within the timeframes that climate science suggests is needed.

As someone who has just written a doctorate revealing and questioning the finance and technology focus of the climate mitigation community of practice, this conclusion is a little uncomfortable to say the least!   Am I being seduced by the thinking I worked so hard in my thesis to critique now that I’m back in the ‘real world’? Or were the technology advocates right all along?

I’m interested in hearing what others are thinking about this.

But there is more. Assuming our systems have ‘tipped’ in favor of low carbon, what of ‘development’? The climate mitigation community of practice in South Africa has consistently emphasised our development context as inseparable from the country’s mitigation agenda . Will these advances in RE and IT support development?  Or will they give even greater power to the forms of capitalism that drive inequality, unacceptable in any view of ‘development’?

It seems likely to me that it will be the latter. And if so, what is the nature of South African climate mitigation work, with its twin ‘development’ and ‘mitigation’ objectives going forward?  Does this mean it will be far more about development, poverty, inequality and justice than climate mitigation?

If so, my question would be: What can we as climate mitigation practitioners bring to such an age-old agenda?

What does Basic Income have to do with climate change?

A few days ago I listened to a podcast interview with Guy Standing, a researcher and author on the idea of Basic Income.  He, together with many others, puts forward compelling reasons for the introduction of Basic (Universal) Income; where every person is given a regular sum of money by the government, sufficient for subsistence. This means that people would no longer have to work to survive. denim-jeans-money-back-pocket-7777909The theory is, however, that most will continue (or start) engaging in work or activity for many different reasons including achieving a higher overall income. Basic Income differs from welfare in that it is paid to absolutely everyone: no means test or criteria are applied.

The merits or otherwise of Basic Income are hotly debated. Some of its perceived advantages include lower inequality and a streamlined welfare system. Amongst its perceived disadvantages include its cost, and a fear that it will result in less overall economic activity.

Climate change is a super-wicked, complex problem, and because of this we lack many of the cultural, social, policy, economic and technological tools and processes needed to respond. In many cases we don’t even know what these might look like.   Further, in an era defined by complexity and complex, interconnecting systems, it is not always clear how to support the emergence of these tools and processes.

Complexity thinking provides some clues, suggesting that a high level of innovation and experimentation in a system is critical for systemic resilience.  This is because we do not know exactly what is coming round the corner, and therefore we do not know what it is we need.   The system needs a high level of responsive capacity.  In the context of climate change, therefore, we need social systems with high levels of experimentation and innovation in order to supply the necessary tools and processes on an ongoing basis.

So finally, here lies the connection with Basic Income: A Basic Income can give people the space to experiment. Because subsistence is taken care of, artists and thinkers, designers and entrepreneurs can develop and grow ideas without the time and energy sapping pressures of a job-for-income. Of course this doesn’t mean that everyone will suddenly start thinking about climate adaptations and ways of decarbonising. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and other measures can be used to direct the direction of innovation. Just imagine how many more water saving mechanisms would emerge in response to Cape Town’s water crisis if those with creative ideas (and vast experience of resourcefulness) could be sustained to develop them rather than spending their days in a fog of deprivation and depression?

Yes, there is a bit of detail-devil in this proposition, as in most. But I assume that South African readers in particular didn’t miss the bit about Basic Income’s contribution to equality? So for now, here is a provocation: Why is the Department of Environment not promoting Basic Income as one of its key climate change policies?

Licence to think

Stumbling around in the post PhD submission, ‘now-what-to-do?’ wilderness, I have been reflecting on my PhD journey through the terrain of transdisciplinarity and complexity theories (mostly – WTF was that all about?!!). But also on how this journey changed my views on academia, the role of theories and thinking in societal change.

Pre-PhD I must admit to being sceptical. I worried about how three years of research would take me out of my consulting work on climate policy: surely we need all hands on deck in the ‘real world’ at a time like this, this climate crisis is urgent! I fretted.

I also have an environmental activist in the family – and I was very aware of his perspective… got to DO something! Where is the change?

As it turned out, my thesis is very theoretical. About as far away from ‘doing’ as one could get. A colleague commented recently: ‘What we need now in the South African climate and energy space is data, data, data. Not more theory, we have enough theory’.

And yet, as I sat during my PhD (and boy did I sit) – novice philosopher on a hill doing much thinking – I became aware of the extent to which thought has influenced the material and social form of our world. Since Newton and Descartes, the West has adopted some fairly radical assumptions about how the world rodin_theThinkerworks (as a collection of disconnected, neutral ‘things’ that are ultimately knowable with sufficient research).   The industrial revolution together with great success in modern medical and the natural sciences in the twentieth century added to these, contributing the notions of efficiency, human exceptionalism, progress, consumption and material success. In short, this thinking can be argued to have created the very crises we now find ourselves confronting, such as climate change, and inequality. We have disconnected from our environment, from each other, playing competitive win-lose games in every facet of our society, a form of organisation that is taking us towards self-destruction.

And so it seems that thinking, and work on how we think and how we could think differently, is actually a very big lever for societal change. Indeed, Donella Meadows puts it the top spots in her list of places to intervene in the system, using the words ‘mindsets’ or ‘paradigms’ within which the system itself arises. Admittedly, it’s a very tough lever to budge, and it will likely take much more than just thinking to do so.   But thinking has its place, as has the theorist and academic. And possibly even more so now that we are entering a phase of active crisis.

Paying attention to the ‘weave’

Our classically trained minds love distinctions. We seek the separate and individual rather than the interconnections. We identify the ‘thing’ before the fabric or the ‘weave’ – as Montuori a writer on complexity in education describes it – that gives it context.

Two distinctions I’ve become aware of recently through a research collaboration with the Gauteng City-Region Observatory are those of ‘environmental sustainability’ and ‘social justice’.   Both are enshrined in South Africa’s National Climate Change Response White Paper, amongst many other national policy documents.   As a society we purport to value and desire both. Yet we have given only very superficial thought as to how they might be related. We accept the current configuration of our social systems – our values, our behaviours, our economic and political interactions in particular – as given. From here we can see ‘win-wins’, instances where environmental sustainability and social justice appear to reinforce each other, such as the provision of Bus Rapid Transit systems in the country’s metros. We can also see instances where they appear to stand in direct opposition, such as the continuing of the South African coal fired power expansion programme in the name of social justice as employment creation and black economic empowerment.  This vantage point shows us a flat landscape, with few, tired, options.

But what happens if we pay a little more attention to the weave that connects them? What of the economic system that fetishises GDP growth? The education system that idolises a foreign and homogenous knowledge abstracted from any sense of place? The logic that assumes mass employment creation is best achieved by sending people underground to extract carbon that has been safely stored away there for millenia in order to burn it resulting in a mass release of greenhouse gases?  How are these things related? How else could they relate? What happens when we prod at these reified concepts of ‘environmental sustainability’ and ‘social justice’ to see what lies beneath their assumed benign benevolence? Whose environmental sustainability? Justice for whom? When? Where? And at what cost?

Perhaps its time to venture away from the perceived safety of our ‘neutral’ observation point. To enter the murkiness, to find and own our own place in it.


Taking action from complexity within a classical thinking world

On Monday last week I joined with a group from Sustainable Energy Africa, a non-profit promoting equitable, low carbon, clean energy development in urban South Africa and Africa, for a lunchtime seminar to explore complex systems thinking for climate mitigation endeavors at the municipal level.

Having presented what I hoped was relevant and accessible aspects of complex systems theory, I sat back to encounter what emerged – as theory met the experience of practitioners deeply engaged with sustainable energy issues at the local level in a development context.

The first input, which came the form of a question, was reiterated throughout the remainder of the discussion: So what do we do?? How can we act if nothing is certain, if there is no way of predicting the outcomes of our action?  How can there be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to use as a guide? For example, what would complexity thinking say about the City of Cape Town acting to take the National Department of Energy to court over the right to purchase renewable energy?

‘I find this depressing’, commented a participant.

Another responded with a poem, “Gift”, by Leonard Cohen:

leonard cohen

“You tell me that silence is nearer to peace than poems

But if for my gift I brought you silence  (for I know silence) 

you would say 

this is not silence 

this is another poem 

and you would hand it back to me.”

For me, complexity thinking speaks of action literally from another world(view). And as such, the extent to which we are able to receive and embrace a complexity understanding of action mirrors the extent to which we inhabit the currently dominant worldview: the rational, linear, reductionist worldview of classical science. The worldview that aims to predict and control.

From complexity, we act whether we ‘do something’ or not. How we act, or perhaps how we ‘be’ may be the more pertinent consideration. Should the City take the DOE to court? Who knows? Many have particular perspectives and opinions on this. Whatever the City does do, a complexity view would advise checking in with a full range of knowledges and perspectives to complexify its understanding of the possible systemic responses first, and then consider these against the City’s objectives: low carbon electricity, independence, security of supply and also equality, poverty alleviation, social justice. After taking action (or acting by not acting) the City can, and should, then immediately reassess: What happened? Where are we now? Do we continue? Do we change course? This is done by checking in again against a complex systemic understanding, complex objectives and the response of the complex system. And then the City acts, or non-acts, again. And on it goes.  The system does the changing. We can, possibly, nudge it in a particular direction.

Thereby the acting and the being become one and the same in a complexity view. And the smallest action (or non-action) can, again ‘possibly’, tip the entire system.

From the SEA interaction, I came away with a deeper sense of action in complexity, and also of how hard it is for all of us schooled in the dominant worldview of classical science to accept the form of action complexity offers.


A response to last Monday’s presentation at UCT of the OECD report ‘Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth’

Were I not in a state-of-the-art lecture theatre part of the new engineering building at UCT, I might have wondered whether I had traveled back in time a decade.

The presentation of the OECD’s latest report on climate mitigation, ‘Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth’ offers little progress from how we framed the climate mitigation challenge in 2007. The glossy two page summary sheet summarised four key insights:

investing in climate OECD.jpg

The first, accompanied by detailed bar charts, reveals that a low carbon growth path will have a net positive effect on GDP across the G20 in both 2021 (1%) and 2050 (2,8%). Given economists’ rather appalling track record of predicting GDP growth over any time period, together with financiers and politicians timeframes of between 3 months and 4 years, this does not strike me as worth the headline news spot.

Secondly the report finds that there is only a 10% increased cost of investing in climate compatible infrastructure as opposed to that required to meet global development needs otherwise. What is this hypothetical ‘other’ future we climate mitigation people love so much (‘business-as-usual’ is our favourite)? There has been absolutely nothing usual about the Trumps and Brexits globally, and Zuptafication locally. But the real kicker comes in the research disclaimer (not provided in the key findings) that the planned, development-as-usual infrastructure investment falls vastly short of what is required anyway. So we aren’t investing nearly enough, but its only going to cost 10% extra to make it climate compatible. Great argument says the Elephant in the room! As the presentation proposed – just put the stable and sensible policies in place and the investment will flow…

Third, globally we are investing in sufficient renewables, but are also building almost three times the amount of coal we can afford from a climate perspective.   So this is useful, if not exactly entirely a revelation.

The final one is scarily obvious – that low income transitions will be country specific.   Sure, but what does that mean for how we support and advocate for them??

Really? Is this the best we can do in 2017? Despite the ‘country specific’ key finding the presentation showed a stunning lack of awareness of context. ‘Its all about getting the policy environment right’, South Africa’s REIPPPP was given a big thumbs up – just do some more of that, we were told. Sure, right after we re-build our disintegrating national utility, work out what to do with the coal-miners who will lose their jobs, put our President and half his Cabinet in jail and find a cheap desalination plant to prevent Cape Town’s 3+ million residents from dying of thirst come September.   No worries.

From where I sit, where the rubber hits the road for the climate mitigation challenge is not about technology or finance or stable policies or even rationale to act. Of course all of these are very important, and a huge amount of work by the global climate mitigation policy community has very usefully illuminated these aspects. But this challenge is a complex, wicked and systemic one. And as such involves aspects including how to act in the presence of powerful incumbents, understanding how policy translates into action, experimenting with how this action can take the issues of inequality, poverty, unemployment and climate mitigation forward together, and confronting the challenge of how we approach all of this in a state defined by complexity and rolling crisis. How, not what.  For how long will we keep on ignoring this, and fine tuning our 2050 GDP predictions?  In 2017 ours is a complex, dynamic, systemic world, and perspectives from a certain, mechanistic, knowable worldview are less and less helpful.   In fact, they are increasingly harmful as they tie up the valuable capacity and resources required to produce them. We now need to venture into a different conversation altogether.

So then, to the South African climate mitigation policy community who know a thing or two about complexity and crisis, I say lets turn the microphone around: what are our ideas? What are aspects of a conversation that can speak to our context and take us forward in the emerging complexity of the twenty-first Century? And how can we put this unashamedly South African and ‘developmental’ conversation at the centre of our work?



‘The best years of my life’

A couple of years before she died, I asked my grandmother about her experience of being a nurse in wartime London (WW2). Not being one for talking much about herself, she responded: ‘best years of my life’.

Now my grandmother had, by most accounts, a good life. After the world wars, hers spanned the unprecedentedly peaceful second half of the twentieth century, the peak of modernity’s success. Emigrating to South Africa after WW2, my grandfather achieved a senior position in a large corporate, she had four healthy children, material comforts, and the she found meaning and satisfaction in her role of wife and mother. Yet it was wartime London that provided her with her ‘best years’.

nurse london

What has this to do with South Africa’s challenge of reducing carbon emissions and simultaneously ‘developing’ in the twenty-first century? ‘Development’ is largely taken to be an expansion of what modernity achieved in the developing nations to the ‘undeveloped’ rest-of-the-world, the meeting of basic needs, consumerism, materialism, homogeneity, technology, progress. The question that my grandmother’s response provokes is whether this model has brought us ‘development’. Sure, hunger, malnutrition, high rates of infant mortality are not desirable. But neither is the obesity, depression and chronic disease of the ‘developed’ societies. Modernity did not bring my (admittedly very healthy) grandmother the best years of her life… These were instead found in a time of intense social solidarity under threat, meaning through immediate purpose, through collective and communal effort.

In these early years of the twenty-first century we are seeing ever more rapidly the environmental constraints that we were unable to see in the twentieth. Modernity’s offer of material comfort, and the extractive, industrial model it was based on worked to a degree, for a few, for a time. But it did not work for the environment. Whether it can work for the many now becomes a moot point – the environmental constraints are binding. However equally so is the urgency of addressing social inequality: access to information heightens both the visibility of inequality and the mobilisation of the oppressed.

In the face of this conundrum, it might assist us to ponder Einstein’s insight that solutions are not found within the same logic that created the problem. What is this ‘development’ that we seek? How do my grandmother’s reflections on her life help us to step back and ask ourselves what we really want? And from there, what other models might there be of societies that provide more ‘best years’?

Radical Economic Transformation

The academic community’s contribution in response to our political SA emblem guptacrisis, the paper ‘Betrayal of the promise: How South Africa is being stolen’ argues that South Africa urgently needs a new economic consensus, one to replace the concept of ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ which has been irredeemably hijacked by the Zuptas and Bell Pottinger. Not that there was ever economic consensus, the report points out, this the achilles heel of our 1994 miracle.

We are indeed at a critical juncture; and one of unprecedented opportunity. This opportunity lies in considering the broader context of our economic and political woes.

In the past decade the world has changed fundamentally. At the end of the twentieth century it appeared that we were at the pinnacle of our success as a species. Modern science had delivered to us a narrative that we could know, predict and from there control our destiny. We had mastery (sic) over our environment. Armed with the tools of modern medicine and science the twenty-first century was set to be our best ever.

Until it wasn’t. Until the scales started falling from our eyes and at different locations, different levels, from different perspectives, we are starting to realise that our modernist understanding of the world and our role in it, is partial. The intellectual underpinnings of the last century are increasingly ill-fitting with the dawning reality of this one: the waves of global political surprises, democratic mechanisms that are too simplistic to articulate the will of the people, an unstable international financing system, terrorism – actual and cyber, fake news, automation in the world of work, runaway inequality, the rapidly manifesting multiple environmental crises, and the strengthening and impatient voices of the long-marginalised.

This ‘brave new’ world might more usefully understood from a lens of uncertainty, complexity, interconnection, unpredictability and unintended consequences. Globally humanity has to reconceptualise how we want to be in this world, and quickly, if we are to survive.   We have to be nimble, the pace of change and complexification is relentless.   The environmental and social limits to our current trajectory are real.

Here, now, in South Africa, we have been gifted with an opportunity. For most of us the extent of the immorality and theft in our society has been very rapidly revealed over the past three months. There is shock, outrage, fluidity, momentum. As such, there is the opening for change. We have the opportunity to recognise the broader global and historical context and develop a new ‘Radical Economic Transformation’, one that is fit for the world we find ourselves in now.

How this is done is as important as what is done, if not more so. ‘Betrayal of the promise’ argues for the development of a new trust compact, and this indeed is a prerequisite.   But this is trust that has to be developed and maintained throughout the social system. This is not something that the experts and elites can be trusted with any more, although expertise is surely needed. Developing such a trust compact requires going to the people whom the current system is failing worst and asking them of their vision for the South Africa of the future. And then building; aka the change process as recounted by Jay Naidoo in his recent book ‘Change’, and the #UniteBehind movement.   This will require deep process, empowerment, listening. It is a process that must be led by the people, tapping into all knowledge systems and mechanisms to express values richly and constantly.