Cape Town leads the world with an innovative and groundbreaking template for learning from crisis to build resilience

An exemplar of transdisciplinary collaboration and research, the Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative mobilises a strikingly diverse set of high-powered skills and capabilities to create palpable social value.

Initiated as a joint undertaking by Conversations that Count, CineSouth Studios and the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative and supported by generous donors, the project brings together high-end dialogue facilitation, filmmaking and academia in a fruitful fusion of minds and effort focused on the shared goal of learning from crisis to improve social outcomes.

By convening the key societal actors involved in the crisis and the most knowledgeable experts, rigorously documenting observations and learnings, creating situations for challenging conversations in which new insights can emerge, engaging researchers and scholars in the material, and disseminating the results locally and globally, new knowledge is created and urban resilience improved.

The endeavour is underpinned and animated by a view of knowledge, systems and society: during a large stressor event such as a water crisis, individuals learn new things about many critical aspects of the working of the complex adaptive system under conditions of distress, but this knowledge is necessarily partial, subjective, fragmented and dispersed, mostly private and undocumented, often contestable and disputed.

In the absence of deliberate, concerted effort, personal and institutional memory fades as the crisis passes from view, contested narratives remain siloed and unreconciled, any lessons that may have been learned at the individual level are in the end irretrievably lost. Inevitably, under this scenario, society is doomed to blindly replaying its own mistakes in an unbroken cycle of repeated systemic failures.

Against that dishearteningly familiar default scenario, the Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative presents the promise of a clearly defined programme of work yielding critically examined findings and carefully considered, succinctly distilled lessons, practicably applicable and widely disseminated – a robust body of knowledge, with concomitantly improved social outcomes next time a crisis hits.

The project entails firstly the gathering in one place of first-hand, in-depth knowledge from the key people involved, in filmed interviews collected in the academically curated Cape Town Drought Response Film Library, secondly convening and facilitating a series of sectoral and inter-sectoral workshops with pivotal decision-makers to agree lessons learned, and finally the dissemination of results through the media, academic journals and seminars, and a documentary feature film.

Born from local circumstances, the benefits of this intervention extend far beyond the Cape Town water crisis, with replicable lessons for urban resilience worldwide, applicable to water and non-water stressor events alike.

Creating new knowledge: three steps


Current status of knowledge: dispersed, subjective, partial, fragmentary

The Western Cape drought and the resulting Cape Town water crisis yielded many insights and lessons for the individuals who were involved in the drought response, but this knowledge is dispersed among them and is partial and subjective, in each case limited to the individual’s specific functional role, vantage point and experience during the crisis.


Collection of knowledge: Drought Response Film Library

Step 1: Gather this knowledge in a single resource for research by identifying the senior people across key sectors who were closely involved in the drought response, conduct and film professionally facilitated and academically informed interviews with them, transcribe and index the interviews, and post the filmed, transcribed and indexed interviews together with a bio of each interviewee on a bespoke website, accessible by all project participants.


Distillation into a body of knowledge: test, develop and consolidate thinking in workshops and research

Step 2: Conduct a series of professionally facilitated and academically informed sectoral and inter-sectoral workshops with groups of interviewees where selected extracts from the filmed interviews are used to trigger discussion, and distil conclusions and lessons learned in notes circulated to participants after workshops; conduct academic research using the content of the Drought Response Film Library and the documented workshop outputs as source material.


Dissemination of new knowledge: through media and research publication

Step 3: Make the new knowledge available through access to the Drought Response Film Library by project participants and the global research community, dissemination of distilled lessons by circulation to participants and to the public through the media, publication of academic research results, as well as a documentary feature film for international release.