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Knowledge partnerships for urban futures: policy-oriented research alliances (2021)

This programme focused on the imperative for closer collaboration between government and research institutions, in particular to strengthen evidence-informed public policy on complex urban issues. While the need for this co-operation has long been evident, the practical implementation of partnerships to this end has been elusive. Powerful structural factors succeed in preserving the boundaries and insulations between these institutional forms (government, universities and research councils), and overcoming these obstacles to collaboration requires thoughtful and innovative interventions, as well as clearer insight into the enabling (and disabling) conditions for fruitful transdisciplinary knowledge flows.

Furthermore, approaches towards more sustainable urban environments must take into consideration various complex and more-or-less unpredictable system dynamics – including economic, social, political and environmental factors. Systemic approaches require multiple capabilities, including those of private sector, finance, civil society, academia and media, and collaborative engagement between these diverse sectors and actors. Inherited structures and procedures of governance tend to be predicated on models of the past, rather than the needs of the present and future. A shift from insular architectures of governance to collaborative and interconnected partnerships is needed. These are likely to be predicated on stronger knowledge bases, enhanced institutional capacity for transversal and associational governance, and mechanisms for nimbleness and responsive capabilities that can address unanticipated shocks. Long-term investment in high-quality strategic data, and in skilled personnel with adaptive dispositions (including an eye on horizons beyond the political churn), can help forge resilient, anticipatory capabilities in the city-region.

This was a project with two broad components:

  1. with Gauteng Planning Division, the establishment of selected strategic knowledge partnerships between government and universities in order to enhance evidence-based governance and to develop models for policy-oriented trans-disciplinarity; and
  2. research into global and local practice (with GCRO itself written up as a local case study) in the domain of forging university-to-government knowledge exchange, and approaches to managing policy-oriented research partnerships.

The Partnerships Brokerage component:

The GCRO, together with Prof. Ivan Turok from the HSRC, convened a number of workshops since 2016, with a variety of research specialists and government officers, to form a network predicated on the study of city-region economies. The workshops have focused on the priorities and approaches in the study of city-region economies, including inclusive and township economies. Key initiatives included:

1) A three-part pilot firm-level survey of industry in Gauteng:

  • A study of tradable services in Gauteng (undertaken by Prof Ivan Turok and Dr, Justin Visagie of the HSRC);
  • A study of business owners identified in the Quality of Life Survey (led by Graeme Gotz of the GCRO);
  • A census of manufacturing enterprises in selected industrial sites in Gauteng (led by Prof Simon Roberts of CCRED at the University of Johannesburg).

Discussions were initiated on the establishment of a long-term ‘Quality of the Economy’ Survey.

2) The establishment of two research Chairs dedicated to city-region level economic research:

  • The Gauteng City-Region Chair in Trade and Investment, at the University of the Witwatersrand (incumbent: Prof. Ronald Wall)
  • The Gauteng City-Region Chair in Inclusive Economies, at the University of Pretoria.

There is a great shortage of researchers, and good-quality data, on the social economy of the city-region. Funding by government for purpose-specific research enterprises at universities was seen as a key strategy for generating high-quality strategic insight into the dynamics of the city-region, as well as producing succeeding generations of researchers and specialists in urban development.

However, for a variety of reasons, the establishment of these Chairs was discontinued, and instead a proposal was developed to establish capacity for city-region economies research at the GCRO itself (provisionally titled ‘inclusive economies’). It is intended that this capacity, once established and working in partnership with the regional universities, will drive the purposes outlined above.

3) The GCRO convened a number of meetings and workshops towards the planning of a Regional System of Innovation for Gauteng. This involved:

  • Collaboration with a number of GPG departments, including the Office of the Premier, the Gauteng Department of Economic Development, the Gauteng Department of e-Government, and the Innovation Hub.
  • Workshops were held with various Gauteng-based stakeholders, and specialists in the field of Innovation.
  • The national-level Department of Science and Technology volunteered to assist this initiative, and undertook to convene further consultative workshops on behalf of the Gauteng initiative, with an interest in its duplication elsewhere. Gauteng’s approach was also presented to the Technology Innovation Agency.
  • Consultations were held with the unit responsible for regional innovation systems at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, in order to explore the possibility of collaboration with expertise from that quarter in the development of Gauteng’s regional innovation ecosystem.

Research into the Conduct of Knowledge Partnerships and Associative Governance more generally

Experience has shown that short-term consultancies and contracts seldom result in the forms of nuanced insight needed to tackle complex (often ‘wicked’) urban issues. The alternative is to forge long-term partnerships between research specialists and policy-makers that allow for reciprocal knowledge flows and the growth of mutual insight and cooperation. Examples of these are relatively rare, but valuable. Linked to this is the challenge of co-operative or associative governance (within and between government departments, and between government and other actors) needed to address key city-region development initiatives.

The GCRO stands itself as a model for institutionalizing science-policy collaboration between universities and government, and the GCRO’s distinctive model has drawn attention locally and internationally.

The GCRO is involved in a variety of international and local collaborative research initiatives to understand and develop this domain of enquiry.

  • GCRO has an ongoing partnership with University College London’s (UCL) department for Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP), and the Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne. STEaPP specializes in issues of university and government knowledge transfer and partnerships. STEaPP and GCRO have frequently co-organised and hosted international panels and presentations, including at UN Habitat and International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) conferences, often including senior colleagues from Gauteng Provincial Government. The work has focused on the challenges and rewards of investment in the science-policy nexus, especially at the level of urban governance. A co-authored STEaPP-GCRO paper was published. The GCRO collaborated with STEaPP and the Connected Cities Lab in the production of a major study on urban observatories commissioned by UN-Habitat, and the GCRO was profiled in two focus-group webinars with other observatories internationally in 2020.
  • The GCRO presented on its distinctive model of collaboration at a number of international and local fora, and facilitated workshops with administrations seeking to emulate the model. The GCRO partnered with the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission to present a series of Master Classes for policy-makers and policy-researchers from across Africa (December 2018), and joint presentations at the 2019 UN-Habitat Assembly in Nairobi with the JRC and the UN’s Global Urban Observatory (GUO).The GCRO was similarly featured in an international seminar hosted by the UCLG’s Metropolis organisation in June 2019. Significantly, these global multi-lateral organisations (UN, UCLG and EC) are now profiling the GCRO (and including our Quality of Life Survey) as a desirable exemplar, both as a partnering policy-research organisational form, and the kind of granular research designed to inform policy interventions in complex urban settings.
  • The GCRO participated in the BRICS+ Megacity Governance research project, which brought together urban policy research groups from five city-regions (Moscow, Shanghai, Delhi, Sao Paolo and Gauteng) in a series of comparative studies, with an edited collection as an output. The study developed a broad conceptual architecture for understanding the dynamics of complex city-region governance, and used these concepts to illustrate how approaches to urban governance have evolved in distinctive ways across these very varied societies.
  • The GCRO has been presented as a unique case study in the area of knowledge partnerships locally. The GCRO was commissioned to prepare a report for the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation entitled 'The Gauteng City Region Observatory: A case study report prepared for DPME' as part of the Learning Facility for the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development (PSPPD).
  • The case study (published in 2017) acknowledges that such partnerships are generally characterised by sustained, longer-term investments by the partners, and continuing, multi-year sets of activities, aiming for incremental accumulative effects.
  • The DPME has subsequently requested the GPG and GCRO to develop a chapter on city-region scale of planning for the forthcoming Five-year Implementation Plan of the National Development Plan.

Perhaps the most demonstrative moment for the value of an organisation like the GCRO was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the health and economy of the city-region. Importantly, the GCRO was able quickly to produce spatial mappings of the likely varying vulnerability of communities to the impact of the pandemic, and then on a continuing basis was able to provide data-analytics and other support to provincial government throughout the pandemic. Critical insights into the progress of the pandemic were produced by the GCRO’s analyses. Among other things, reflections on the governance implications and responses to the pandemic became a particularly resonant source of dialogue and exchange during the course of the pandemic, illustrating the form of supportive partnership that is possible in these engaged relationships.

This capability within the GCRO, and the quality of the relationship between the GCRO and its government partners, were together built up carefully over time, and it was this well-established analytic capacity and relational trust that enabled the swift responsiveness from the GCRO and the receptiveness from the relevant quarters within government. This illustrates the need for institutionalising this kind of capability, for both the long-term benefits that accrue, and for the ability for agile responsiveness.


Washbourne, C.-L., Culwick, C., Acuto, M., Blackstock, J. J., and Moore, R. (2019). 'Mobilising knowledge for urban governance: The case of the Gauteng City-region observatory'. Urban Research & Practice. [Online first]

Moore, R. ‘The Gauteng City Region Observatory: A Case Study Report Prepared for DPME’ Service Contract No. DCI-AFS/2013-333-292 Internal Activity No. 1.1.6. August 2016.

Recent presentations

Rob Moore & Graeme Gotz (April 2021) Adaptive Governance: What have we learned from the pandemic? The Centre of Government Workshop, Gauteng Office of the Premier. 7 April 2021.

Rob Moore & Graeme Gotz (August 2020) Adaptive Governance in the Pandemic. South African City Studies Conference. 31 August, 2020.

Rob Moore, Gillian Maree, Richard Ballard and Jesse Harber (August 2020). The Spatial Impact of COVID-19 and the Public Transport Response. Presentation to the Gautrain Management Authority Strategic Board Lekgotla. Johannesburg, 19 August 2020.

Rob Moore, Julia de Kadt & Alexandra Parker (August 2020). Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Gauteng. Presentation for the Urban Observatories and COVID-19 Webinar. 3 & 6 August 2020.

Rob Moore & Christian Hamann (June 2020). Overview of the GCRO and its Work. Presentation to the City of Johannesburg Mayoral Executive. Johannesburg, 24 June 2020.

Rob Moore (February 2020). Cities and Data: Urban Monitoring & Governance for Sustainable Cities. World Urban Forum. Abu Dhabi, 11 February 2020.

Rob Moore (February 2020). Mainstreaming Research into Policy. Presentation for the World Urban Forum Researchers Roundtable. Abu Dhabi, 9 February 2020.

Rob Moore & Ngaka Mosiane (October 2019). Demographics, Mobility and Spatial Reconfiguration. Public Transport Knowledge Seminar. Pretoria, 29 October 2019.

Rob Moore (October 2019). Perceptions of Crime and Safety. Presentation for Premier’s Strategic Dialogue on Crime and Safety. Johannesburg, 8 October 2019.

Rob Moore (September 2019). The Gauteng City Region, and the GCRO – An Overview. Presentation for Chinese delegation visiting Gauteng for innovation partnerships. Johannesburg, 6 September 2019.

Rob Moore (August 2019). Demographics, Mobility and Spatial Reconfiguration. Presentation for Gautrain Management Authority Board Strategic Lekgotla. Johannesburg, 21 August 2019.

Phil Harrison, Rob Moore & Margot Rubin (July 2019). Towards transformative governance: exploring governance capabilities in Johannesburg and its wider city-region. The BRICS+ Governance of Megacities Research Project. Sao Paolo, 29 July 2019.

Rob Moore (July 2019). Knowledge for Governance of City-Regions: The Gauteng City-Region Observatory. Public Lecture, UniNove University, Sao Paolo, 30 July 2019

Rob Moore (June 2019) ‘An overview of approaches to the Gauteng Innovation Ecosystem’. National Innovation Coordination Workshop. Technology Innovation Agency, Pretoria, June 2019.

Julia de Kadt and Rob Moore (June 2019). 'The GCRO's Quality of Life survey: an overview', Metropolis International seminar: Metropolitan policies and indicators of social cohesion. CIDOB, Barcelona, 27 June 2019.

Rob Moore (June 2019) ‘Working in the Data-Policy Nexus in South Africa: The Gauteng City-Region Observatory’. Presentation for Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, Seville, June 2019.

Rob Moore (May 2019) ‘Data for Sustainable Urban Development: The Gauteng City-Region Observatory’. Presentation for 1st UN-Habitat Assembly Innovation for better lives, Nairobi, June 2019.

Rob Moore (March 2019) ‘Associative Governance for Economic Inclusion’. Poverty and Urban Hunger Summit, Johannesburg, March 2019.

Rob Moore (February 2019). ‘Deepening Evidence-Informed Economic Development’. Next steps for GGDA – GCRO Partnership, February 2019.

Last updated: 21 April 2021.


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