Dr Basirat Ashabi Oyalowo is a lecturer and researcher at the Department of Estate Management, University of Lagos, where she also manages the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development. She is a founding member of the Global Alliance for Inter-and Transdisciplinarity (ITD Alliance).
Dr Oyalowo delivered a session on sustainable cities at ACU Summer School 2021, which explored the theme 'Urban disasters: Risk and vulnerability in a pandemic'. Hosted by a different ACU member each year, ACU Summer School is an annual event that convenes students around the Commonwealth to discuss themes of global importance.
In the past 10 years, 83% of all natural disasters were caused by extreme weather induced by climate change such as floods, storms and heatwaves. Such disasters exacerbate the need for sustainable housing solutions for those displaced.
From vaccines to data collection and patient tracking, the pandemic has revealed the power of universities in helping tackle global challenges. However, when we think of other challenges and priorities – such as sustainable housing policies – how can universities drive solutions to local problems?
Sustainable housing is a critical part of the wider climate change dialogue, and universities have an opportunity to skilfully knit education and research together to solve societal problems and become strategic partners towards change.
Four ways universities can drive solutions to housing problems
Firstly, universities can drive change through their ‘third mission’ which, in higher education, refers to the goal of addressing societal challenges. Universities don’t just benefit those within the campus walls. Beyond acting as incubators for teaching and research, universities can apply and translate academic knowledge into practical solutions, such as sustainable housing.
As universities themselves generate a demand for housing for staff and students which they can’t always accommodate with their own facilities, institutions are engaging in opportunities with real estate interventions. For example, through its Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development, the University of Lagos in Nigeria is engaged in collaboratively developing housing improvement loan products for the thousands of low income property owners that constitute its neighbours.
Another example is Manchester University’s ‘innovation district’ in the UK – an investment of GBP 1.5 billion in a ‘tired central campus’, which will bring in residential blocks and commercial units to increase housing accessibility in the city.
Secondly, the housing sector can really benefit from universities coming together as associations with a mandate to drive change. A case in point is the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), which the University of Lagos is an active member of. As the host of the ARUA Centre for Excellence in Urbanisation and Habitable Cities, the University of Lagos rallies nine other African universities to participate in a network of researchers looking at urbanisation and associated issues.
Through the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development at the University of Lagos, and the eight research clusters that it hosts, the University has been fostering collaboration. In the last year, it has brought 58 non-academic collaborators in contact with researchers as they deliberated on the solutions to transportation in urban Africa. These activities are already bringing global attention not only to the local problems in African cities, but to the researchers themselves.
Other milestones include publishing a book on Housing and the SDGs in Africa, and a study on informality and inequality in urban Africa is nearing completion in up to eight African cities, with close to sixteen multidisciplinary writing teams with funding from GCRF UKRI. Through these scoping studies, the University of Lagos seeks to establish baseline situation reports that would constitute evidence for future decisions.
Thirdly, is the link between pedagogy and future careers in the housing sector. As the generator of knowledge in undergraduate and post graduate studies, universities can play a vital role in providing housing education. In my experience, aligning course content with practical real-world experiences that give students room to express themselves creatively, impacts the uptake of housing careers and drives change in the long term.
Finally, high quality research management is at the core of universities’ impact on society, constituting a body of knowledge and community of practice on its own. It supports the works of academia in identifying funded research in the housing sector, putting up a strong proposal after setting up a project team, executing the grant, and finally translating research into tangible impacts that people can feel in their homes, streets or workplaces. A well-developed research management structure can bring to life regeneration projects to address complex social, economic, environmental and infrastructural problems. The Research and Innovation Office of the University embraces this task with much vigour.
Weighing in on the future
Through three pillars of education, society and research, and operating as corporate entities with a duty for social responsibility towards neighbours, universities can play an active role in supporting local communities, by influencing sustainable housing policies in their own cities and driving solutions to local problems.