How Universities Need to Respond to the Effects of Climate Change

Climate change has effectively changed our relationship with the planet and how we live on it. This was the shared view of three respected academics sharing a virtual platform to discuss High Tech Innovation in Africa at The National Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla.

The 2020 edition, themed #African Entrepreneurship through Technology, attracted participants from South Africa's 26 universities, across the African continent and elsewhere around the world.

Professor Derrick Swartz, now a Chief Strategy Officer for Ocean Sciences at Nelson Mandela University while holding the position of Special Advisor for the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, set the stage for deliberations on the Conference sub-theme: High-Tech Innovation in Africa. He was speaking in his capacity as a Member of USAf's World of Work Strategy Group.

He kicked off the session by saying that climate change has "triggered a loss of biodiversity" – before detailing the challenges, and opportunities, that institutions of higher education faced because of this global threat.

"Humans have altered the characteristics of the planet as a system over years of industrialisation. Climate change is an important contextual terrain in which universities are going to have to think about entrepreneurship in higher education and the innovation required to respond to that," he said.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Principal and Vice-Chancellor Designate at the University of the Witwatersrand, who was the second speaker on the same sub-theme, also premised his presentation: Making the Case for High-Tech, High Growth start-up Ecosystems in Africa, on Professor Swartz's central message.

He said: "We are having a huge impact on the planet. In the past, the planet had an impact on us. Now we have, as homo sapiens, radically altered the face of the planet physically, biologically and technologically." He said that the rise of technology, going back to the first steam engines and the Industrial Revolution, had been part of the cause of the deterioration of our home planet.

"As homo sapiens, we have radically altered the face of the planet physically, biologically and technologically," said Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Principal and Vice-Chancellor Designate at the University of the Witwatersrand. [Photo: Supplied by Wits]
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi
"As homo sapiens, we have radically altered the face of the planet physically, biologically and technologically," said Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Principal and Vice-Chancellor Designate at the University of the Witwatersrand. [Photo: Supplied by Wits]

The speakers all believed that technology – that caused many of the climate change problems to begin with – should now play a role in finding ways to protect the earth.

This was something that universities needed to play a role in.

It is time to think and recalibrate – Prof Vilakazi

Wits' Professor Vilakazi told of the challenges we need to contend with as the human species saying it was time to "think and recalibrate".

Since 2007, he said, human beings find themselves not driving technology, but being driven by it. One of the challenges he outlined was the speed at which technology was advancing. "Things are moving so fast we can't control them and our institutions of learning are not able to cope. Climate change, changing demographics – Africa has a youth bulge that is a crucial factor – and the technological explosion are shaping the world and present huge challenges."

While he saw the speed at which technology was advancing as an obstacle leaving universities to play catch-up, he said there were also opportunities, especially for universities, to play a role in finding innovative ways of reversing some of the effects of climate change.

"We need smarter, greener and more renewable ways of living in the world."

Professor Derrick Swartz
"Circular, green economics are becoming more and more important," said Professor Derrick Swartz, Chief Strategy Officer for Ocean Sciences at Nelson Mandela University, said. He added that universities could play a role in this space.

Professor Swartz echoed this sentiment when he said Technology and Covid-19 has meant that universities are facing more complex, more uncertain, less stable environments that require new, unorthodox approaches to respond to climate change, biodiversity and resource pressures.

"We need smarter, greener more renewable ways of living in the world. Circular economics, green economics are becoming more and more important." He said South Africans – and everyone on the African continent – would have to learn how to cope with extreme forms of exclusion and marginalisation as a result of this convulsive effect on markets.

"Circular, green economics are becoming more and more important," said Professor Derrick Swartz, Chief Strategy Officer for Ocean Sciences at Nelson Mandela University, said. He added that universities could play a role in this space.

The Durban University of Technology is already driving circular economies

Speaking on Afrotech, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Circular Economy, Dr Linda Linganiso, Director: Research, Innovation and Post-graduate Support at the Durban University of Technology, expressed a strong belief that higher education institutions should be responsive to the communities they serve. The circular economy, premised on sustainable development principles, advocates minimising the use of raw materials in generating new products as it aims to keep products and materials in use for the longest possible time. It encourages adoption of superior design methods that eliminate waste, disposal and pollution from the products cycle. In place of landfill solutions to the management of waste, it seeks to regenerate the natural system by optimising biodegradability of products, hence the term "circular" economy. This differentiates this system from the linear model of production and consumption – where raw materials birth products (mobile phones, cars, fridges, etc) that, once they reach the end of their lifespan, are unconsciously discarded, leading to pollution, emission of toxic gases into the atmosphere and, ultimately, the undesired climate change.

Dr Linda Linganiso, Director: Research, Innovation and Post-graduate Support at the DUT, felt that students should identify solutions to societal problems, many of which, she said, have resulted from climate change. [Photo: Supplied by DUT]
Dr Linda Linganiso
Dr Linda Linganiso, Director: Research, Innovation and Post-graduate Support at the DUT, felt that students should identify solutions to societal problems, many of which, she said, have resulted from climate change. [Photo: Supplied by DUT]

She described successful, effective projects that DUT has implemented as part of the circular economy.

"Using optimised technologies developed for the treatment of wastewater, we implemented the Waste Water Project to deal with the problem of raw sewage in rivers," she said. This was a direct response to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy's call for waste management solutions after it indicated that local industries were struggling with waste management (see the Integrated Resource Plan of 2019). DUT is providing technical advice to the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality regarding alternative and renewable technologies for generating energy from waste water. Prof Faizal Bux, Director at the Institute for Water and Wastewater Technology, is spearheading this technology.

In order to help the municipalities reduce electricity costs while reducing their carbon footprint, DUT also champions biogas technologies to generate green electricity. The university performs Techno-Economic Feasibility studies prior to setting up the biogas facilities and provides counsel to the local sugarcane industry on waste beneficiation projects.

One such project of the DUT generates diesel from biomass using waste materials. "We take the waste that is generated by the sugarcane crushing industries in KwaZulu- Natal and use that to produce diesel," she said. At this stage, the project is at the technology development stage, more precisely at technology readiness level (TRL) 5.

DUT is also currently working to perfect Biobricks production from industrial wastes.

Brickmaking maching
Room temperature made bio bricks
Using the machine above (left), DUT produces the bricks above (right) by re-using sugarcane bagasse ash, shown below (far left), combined with binding materials such as fly ash and lime. [Photos: Supplied by DUT]

Bagasse ash

Dr Linganiso describes this proposed Greenbricks project as offering a "green" method of producing conventional brick and block variations from sugarcane bagasse ash (SBA) in combination with suitable cementitious binders such as fly ash and lime. The production of such 'green' building materials intends to enable agricultural and industrial sectors in KwaZulu-Natal to minimise unmanaged waste. These industries are currently grappling with landfill management problems and high energy use in, for instance, the conventional production of clay bricks.

At the EDHE Lekgotla, Dr Linganiso added that in a society that produces millions of tonnes of waste (e.g. plastic) which continues to increase with population increases – it was essential to find innovative projects to re-use materials.

This Research Director also mentioned another DUT project that had successfully turned recycled waste plastic from the ocean into Personal Protective Equipment, products that proved to be in high need now, during the Covid-19 pandemic. She added that, using a 3D printing facility that produces biomaterials, one of their students created biodegradable plastic bags now being used in medical facilities to catch patients' urine.

What constitutes a good life, a prosperous life? Professor Swartz asked the audience

In his conclusion, Professor Swartz summed up the salient factors that need consideration – in terms of science and technology, but also in philosophical terms. "We need to think more self-critically, not just about our achievements and new possibilities as we celebrate the prowess and promise of our new technological capability. We must also reflect on its perils, limits and unintended consequences. We need to consider the assumptions on which we've built our way of life: what constitutes a good life, a prosperous life? These are philosophical, not technological issues that we need to think about.

"The great man theories of history – individualism, dominance, ruthlessness – are not values that are still germane to what is required today. Social co-operation, collaboration, reciprocity, even solidarity, are going to be key traits of how we build the ethos and goals of our companies."

The annual EDHE Lekgotla has become a premier event on the annual calendar of the EDHE programme. It facilitates information exchange and the sharing of thought leadership and best practices in entrepreneurship between experts, trail blazers in business, academics, policy makers and the budding student entrepreneurs. The virtual 2020 edition was the 4th Lekgotla since the establishment of the EDHE programme in 2016.

EDHE is one of Universities South Africa's flagship programmes funded mainly from the Department of Higher Education and Training's University Capacity Development Programme.


The Author, Charmain Naidoo, is an Independent Writer Commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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