Conference culture in South Africa is quite peculiar because it is truly easy to confuse a conference with a workshop, talkshow or dialogue wrapped in an echo-chamber. The Southern African Transport Conference will be turning 40 years in the near future. I believe that it is high time that the tide of engagement had a narrative too. There is so much talent embroiled in this conference from young researchers all the way to more seasoned practitioners, all of which aim to share insights and bring a conversation forward. It is in this platform, that I developed an idea about what research writing could and should be about, at the same time, the space urged me to ask deeper questions about what conferences are for in the transportation sphere.
As a point of departure, the SATC is an internationally recognised space for transportation research and debate in Africa. Each day, the sessions are preceded by a presentation from a thought or practice leader which is followed by some questions and comments. This brings young practitioners and researchers to the fore, helping us understand and translate presentations into and with respect to some of our unconventional confrontations. In the sessions, topics range from rural transportation and capacity building to technical engineering spaces all of which are related to passenger and freight transportation. There were also more abstract themes from design thinking in transport capacity building to non-linearities in infrastructure decision making. Furthermore, the conference is oriented around sponsoring students, encouraging student essay competitions at universities related to the current theme and is a great point of encouragement for any young researcher.
Looking back at the conference after visiting it only in 2017 last, and only publishing through it in 2015 or so, I sat in my office and asked myself: why not share more here? Initially, my reluctance came from simply being preoccupied with ground level research— boots included. Yet, with all the evidence available, it exists within the circles of those involved in the research but it is not available to the public. This lead me to blogging about transport— the gap in transportation thought in SA that was easily accessible and perhaps interesting.
However, the competence and technical skill associated with writing good quality research papers is what the SATC is for. It is a space in which researchers can get their work reviewed, commented on and developed in directions beyond the traditional path. It is also a place where research assumptions, techniques and arguments are challenged, explored and delved in deeper. On the darker side of the spectrum, it can also be a place that is so competitive, that sharing an interesting idea might result in others replicating it— even doing it better without acknowledge the qualitative source. This could make some researchers feel encouraged, others uninterested— however, what matters is that the platform exists to not only debate, but to compete and evolve our research competencies and knowledge hubs in transportation.
The future policy maker is much more than a legal expert with technical insights, they are already densely creative, tactile and rather experiential— this is the future of conferencing: reality, unvirtual (if there is such a word).
What is the future of conferencing? My view is that the SATC is well behind the global narrative around transportation conferencing. It was this year when the conference was live streamed, this was good— but the response rate or inclusion of questions was very slow. But, what fascinates me is that the basics are great: (a) papers are reviewed; (b) focuses on a national development narrative in each theme; (c) selected papers are structured along important research streams; and (d) private business and public officials are involved and participate. The future of conferencing however is very different: the value of physically attending the conference emirates from physical contact with colleagues and researchers in a manner that is virtually impossible in online. Yet, much of the emphasis is placed on researchers reducing their carbon footprints and not meeting as often via travel: what if the research act itself requires a large carbon footprint in order to reduce future emissions? Are there economies of scale when researchers actually meet and ideas are exchanged? Virtual conferencing is certainly going to be part of the engagement mainstream in African cities, but it will not replace the dung and dust, or the sunroof and leather seat scent; let alone the grilled meat; or hootering taxis desperately reflecting a tactile reality.
Beyond the online experience, the Spatial Transformation of Cities conference from the South African Cities Network pushed the envelope as much as the African Centre for Cities do in terms of conferencing. I believe the future of conferencing will lean more deeply on minds meeting, over presentations; real and in-depth exchanges, over questions and answers; and truthful engagements that challenge the echo-chambers to bring new contexts and textures beyond the text of the papers. This future might involve participants, like the reviewers actually getting to read the work before arriving at the conference. It will also involve new types of stakeholders that are not part of the research world traditionally, but are the subjects of the research: taxi companies; bus drivers; labour unions; and other segments.
Yes, someone will read this and think: “Yes, I’ll start a conference on transport”. No, there is no need to do that without improving the ones that exist and leaning on their inherent legacy and watching this legacy evolve. Furthermore, we need a parallel curriculum which I see programmes like Disruptive Natives or Transport Truths are filling quite well. What participants in the transportation, access and mobility sphere need to pay attention to is “translation” from research to practice at scale. This is where Disruptive Natives and conversation platform does with young entrepreneurs; while Transport Truths does it through capturing, true narratives from people who touch and feel the transportation experience. Or even adopt the International Transport Forum’s model in which researchers and practitioners are put in one room and their ideas are exchanged in depth– this is turned into a report, White Paper or even position papers which policy makers account for.
There is a future in this narrative, but translating it from conversation to policy is exactly my issue in the Novelties of Mobility. The future policy maker is much more than a legal expert with technical insights, they are already densely creative, tactile and rather experiential— this is the future of conferencing: reality, unvirtual (if there is such a word).