Lauren Tavener-Smith has a mission: to produce research that informs transitions to more equitable and sustainable cities in South Africa. As part of this, she says, she aims to play a role in shaping a next generation of activist researchers who are trained in robust research methods, which they put to work to collaboratively solve real word challenges.
Tavener-Smith is an economist who, after having had a real-life turning point experience, is now working on her doctorate, which explores how we can scale and sustain sanitation services in our country’s informal settlements.
She says: “As an experiment to better understand what I was studying, I tried to live on a dollar a day while hitch-hiking around and labouring on permaculture farms in South America. After unknowingly drinking contaminated water, my entire experiment was blown when I had to call my dad to pay my hospital bills – poverty has no safety nets.” This experience set her on the road with her current research and has given her life a focus and a clear goal.
She says a labour economics class during her third year at the University of KwaZulu-Natal woke her up to the fact that most other South Africans did not share her reality.
“I was introduced to heterodox ways of thinking about issues of structural unemployment, inequality, poverty and privilege and this experience gave me the shift in perspective necessary to propel me onto the path I am now on.”
“The type of research I am interested in involves producing knowledge in relation to complex, or difficult to define, real-world social, economic and environmental problems with the people affected by, and affecting, the problem. Sailing a small model ship of order into a vast sea of chaos has been, and still remains, a struggle. But I do believe co-producing relevant knowledge is an ideal worth struggling for.”
She believes we need to be working to create strong assemblages of change between universities, informal settlement residents, municipalities, technologists, designers, entrepreneurs, artists, in fact all people who affect and are affected by the challenges which are all of ours – present and future – to bear. — Ilse Ferreira