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SU’s Policy Innovation Lab a first in Africa
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking (Anél Lewis)
Published: 08/04/2024

​Stellenbosch University (SU), through a partnership with the Presidency, the German government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this week officially launched Africa's first Policy Innovation Lab.

​Established at SU's School for Data Science and Computational Thinking​, the Lab explores how data science and artificial intelligence tools can be deployed to address problems within the policymaking environment. “South Africa faces serious and complex developmental challenges," explained Policy Innovation Lab lead and associate professor, Willem Fourie. Using a multifaceted approach and through dialogue with experts at universities around the country, and stakeholders from the public sector and civil organisations, the Lab will support policy innovation to accelerate the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In his welcoming address, SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers hailed the Lab as a “cutting-edge" initiative that resonates with the University's aspiration to conduct transdisciplinary research with societal impact. Although still in its infancy, the Policy Innovation Lab is already making a significant contribution, noted De Villiers. It's official launch at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) included a high-level dialogue about digital transformation in the public sector. Many of the Lab's projects are conducted in cooperation with the Policy and Research Services branch in the Presidency, its government partner. De Villiers also noted that the Lab is already collaborating with partners to build proof of concepts to show the value of data science in policymaking.

Other projects are run through the Policy Innovation Lab's membership of the ARUA-Guild Cluster of Research Excellence on the Politics of Sustainable Development. “SU is immensely proud to incubate projects at the intersection of research and societal impact. The Policy Innovation Lab will foster partnerships that drive positive change, to ensure a brighter, more sustainable future for us all," said De Villers.

The Lab also has a social impact focus. It is actively supporting the drafting of South Africa's second SDG report, referred to as a Voluntary National Review (VNR). Already in its final stages, the VNR will be presented at the United Nation's High-Level Political Forum in July 2024. “We are excited about the recommendations that will emanate from this report to address the pressing challenges we face," commented Fourie. “Our entry point to the SDGs is SDG 17*, particularly its focus on the importance of policy coherence and policy coordination. This is why its current projects focus on improving coordination and efficiency in South Africa's policymaking and reducing duplication and policy conflict through the application of data science and AI tools and approaches.

As the custodian of the South African network of the Gates Foundation's Goalkeepers initiative – a project aimed at amplifying stories in SDG impact from across South Africa, its work also has a strong social impact focus.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Regional Representative for southern Africa, Matshidiso Masire, said the Lab “presents a pivotal step for igniting positive change in an ever-evolving world". She commended SU for its “unwavering commitment" to fostering collaboration with government, academia, civil society, and the private sector. “We are thrilled to partner with SU, the Policy Innovation Lab, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), and the South African government to share a common commitment to innovation."

The Lab provides an important platform for interdisciplinary research, added Thulani Mahlangu, Chief Technical Officer of GIZ. “It reflects our shared vision of innovation and inclusivity." Ultimately, the Lab, through its partnerships, will be part of the digital transformation required to improve South Africans' quality of life, concluded Lawrence Matemba, chief policy analyst in the Presidency.

*SDG 17 reads as follows: “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development."

Caption: Prof Petrie Meyer - acting Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Thulani Mahlangu - Chief Technical Officer, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, Prof Willem Fourie - Policy Innovation Lab lead, Prof Wim de Villiers – SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Thami Ngwenya - Deputy Director General in the Presidency, Matshidiso Masire - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Regional Representative for southern Africa, Prof Hester Klopper - Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Strategy, Global and Corporate Affairs, Prof Kanshukan Rajaratnam – Director: School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, Lawrence Matemba - Chief Policy Analyst in the Presidency, Pulane Kole - Chief Policy Analyst in the Presidency, Prof Sibusiso Moyo - Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies​

Photo: Stefan Els