“As a hub we essentially have more collective brain power”

Interview with Shaun Smith

Dr Shaun Smith is a postdoctoral researcher at the Transforming Infrastructures for Sustainable Cities hub of Pathways to Sustainability. He investigates the governance of infrastructure across traditionally conceived 'domains', such as electricity in water, and has extensive research experience in African countries. What does he mean with ‘infrastructures’ and ‘governance’? And how does he bring the transdisciplinary research ideals of Pathways to Sustainability into practice in Los Angeles and Maputo?

Los Angeles river
Los Angeles river drought. Credit: iStock/LeoPatrizi

Shaun, could you briefly explain what your research is about?

“I investigate the relationship between water and energy, particularly in terms of how water and energy systems are governed. I try to understand this infrastructure governance and how the nature of infrastructure governance shapes pathways to sustainability. In particular, I focus on the connections between the different sectors. I call this ‘cross domain infrastructure governance’. For example, the regulations in the water sector affect the energy sector and vice versa.”

Which case studies do you use?

“Currently I work in Los Angeles (LA) in the United States and Maputo in Mozambique. I chose these case studies to find out if there is any difference between the global North and the global South. Moreover, both cities face major environmental challenges: they have experienced major droughts over last couple of years. These droughts force both cities to re-think how they manage their water systems. LA is increasingly turning to ‘local’ water sources such as wastewater recycling and groundwater reservoirs. The city currently has a very forward-thinking, progressive coalition around these matters. It has taken bold political decisions to make the water operating systems more sustainable.”

In its drought management, Los Angeles is increasingly turning to ‘local’ water sources such as wastewater recycling and groundwater reservoirs.

Shaun Smith
Postdoctoral researcher, Transforming Infrastructures for Sustainable Cities hub

How do the water and energy sectors interact?

“What is interesting, is that LA has an integrated water and energy institution. Very few cities globally have that, most manage these issues separately. However, what you find if you look deeper into it is that the integration of these sectors doesn’t necessarily mean that the resources are also managed in an integrative way. Often, key actors such as utilities largely perceive energy and water as ‘costs’ and not as key decision-making factors. They obviously desire to reduce costs, however, there are very few common platforms for making joint-decisions about water and energy.”

How do you conceive sustainability in your research?

“I look at sustainability in terms of more inclusive and ecologically sensitive forms of infrastructure delivery. That’s how I use the term sustainability; local actors often have other perceptions of what sustainability is. This influences how the infrastructure systems develop in practice. For example, a solution for drought is storing groundwater. But there are many different ways groundwater storage can be interpreted, depending on what you consider to be a sustainable form of water delivery.”

Portable generator using renewable energy
Portable generator using renewable energy developed for the film industry in Los Angeles, aimed at replacing diesel generators. Credit: Shaun Smith

Your research is transdisciplinary in nature. How do you work with societal partners?

“For my research I work a lot with utilities. These are often looked upon critically by researchers and not always included in research. But in LA utility workers in water and energy are very sustainability-attuned. I had a lot of conversations with them. In Maputo the engagement with energy utilities has been sustained through many projects, and I have had the opportunity to discuss with them how they view the sustainability challenges at hand.”

“Unfortunately the fieldwork in Maputo got delayed to the outbreak of the corona virus. But I’m familiar with the city due to the fieldwork I did for my previous postdoc position about sustainable energy access in Maputo. We are now planning to work with Mozambican researchers for local data collection in the coming months. After that, we hope to go back to the fieldwork cities and engage the utilities and cities governments on the practicalities of working across different sectors. We plan to run a city learning lab in LA, for example, among city level infrastructure actors. We’d like to do learning exercises where we make the connections between water and energy more explicit and encourage mutual learning between different transdisciplinarity actors.”

First take the initiative to establish a real connection with societal actors, build a certain level of trust and understand each other’s perspective.

Shaun Smith
Shaun Smith

What do you consider most difficult in transdisciplinary research?

“Achieving true transdisciplinary research that is co-defined with all stakeholders from the beginning, with deep connections and the definition of joint research questions with stakeholders, is difficult to achieve for a junior researcher. I try to get as close as I can within the possibilities of my research.”

What would you recommend to others who do transdisciplinary research?

“First take the initiative to establish a real connection with societal actors, build a certain level of trust and understand each other’s perspective. Take into account that establishing a true connection requires time. As a researcher you need to identify those actors that are often not frequently engaged and understand their language. Sometimes this requires stepping out of your own discipline. I’m a social scientist, but in the water and energy sectors there’s a lot of people with different backgrounds, particularly engineering. So looking beyond my own academic discipline is inherent to my research.”

What does it mean to you to be part of the hub?

“As a hub we bring together a group of researchers, both senior and more junior, who research similar topics but from very different perspectives. We get the chance to bridge perspectives. Learning about these perspectives is always very beneficial and can lead to different activities, such as the transdisciplinary workshop series we’re organising on circular cities. By bringing together our different perspectives we can push understanding further. As a hub we have more collective brain power, essentially.”