It's been a hectic few weeks for system dynamicist, resource economist and technology analyst Prof Josephine Kaviti Musango of the School for Public Leadership (SPL). In between her “normal" duties as postgraduate study coordinator, she had to oversee the official launching of a trilateral research chair of which she is chair holder. Despite these extra responsibilities, she's as organised as ever, and there's nothing out of place on her desk. This is all thanks to the insights that systems dynamics has over the years brought to her life.
Prof Musango will present the last lecture for the year in the Division of Research Development's Forward with Research Impact public lecture series. It takes place on 20 November 2019 at 13:00 at the SU University Museum. Her topic is “Dancing with System Dynamics".
The title reveals something that not many people know about. This associate professor has been dancing since the age of nine months old. She joined the Maties Dance Society during her masters student days in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University, and loves salsa and Latin dancing.
“I need order to be creative," reveals Musango, who is also a poet.
To this end, a dedicated diary is always at hand so that she can jot down and carefully date ideas that might come in handy later. The current copy among others contains different coloured notes for a book she is writing on systems dynamics and the soul.
“I am quite organised, yet flexible and dynamic. It allows me to see perspectives. Flexibility doesn't mean chaos. There is order in complexity. It is a way of solving problems and of understanding issues," says Musango, who hails from Kitui, a small town some 180 kilometres from Kenya's capital Nairobi, but who has been a South African resident for the past 15 years.
Musango has been using system dynamics in her personal and professional life ever since she was introduced to it in 2005 by her then employer, Prof Martin de Wit of De Wit Sustainable Options. At the time, she had just handed in her master's degree in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University for examination.
In 2008, Prof Alan Brent, then of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, began mentoring Musango. She acknowledges how this has helped her to realize her full the potential, and to expand the system dynamics field in South Africa. She went on to use the approach in her PhD in Public and Development Management, which she completed in 2012 under the supervision of Brent.
The pitch on systems dynamics is that it is an integrated approach to understand complex real-world problems over time, in order to make sustainable long-term solutions.
“In systems dynamics you are both the designer and the pilot. You are designing and redesigning while you are in flight."
Then she adds: “We are creating new perspective of thinking. It is not a spectator sport. You need to participate. I tell my students that they will feel as if they are pushed beyond their boundaries."
“It helps me to learn about myself. I use it in my day-to-day life. You can use it in your life or in the way you interact with people," she cites a few practical ways of applying it. “It's learning by doing and from the mistakes you make."
Musango makes system dynamics appear flexible, agile - and even fun. She is, after all, the lecturer who earlier this year made her postgraduate students play LEGO.
On a professional level, she has used systems dynamics modelling to help solve management and policy issues related to energy, the green economy and African urban resources. She has over the years applied it to several projects, including the mohair value chain, aquaculture management, energy and technology, and understanding of the development of a green economy in South Africa and Rwanda.
She also leads the Urban Modelling and Metabolism Assessment (uMAMA) Research Team (www.umama-africa.com) at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transitions.
Musango says that people often note that she has a solution for every problem.
“Problems do not scare me," adds Musango, one of the founding members of the South Africa System Dynamics Chapter in 2014 and a current council member of the International System Dynamics Society. “It is about taking yourself to another person's perspective, and to a neutral perspective. I can then make robust solutions from that perspective."
Trilateral Research chair
We meet up at STIAS, which has over the past few weeks become something of a “second office" to Prof Musango. At the beginning of October, it was the venue for the launch and subsequent workshops related to a trilateral research hair of which she is chair holder.
A poem that Musango wrote was put to music and performed at the launch of the South Africa-Africa-UK Trilateral South Africa Research Chair (SARChI) Mainstreaming Gender for Energy Security in Poor Urban Environments Research Chai (GENS, www.sun.ac.za/gens).
The GENS Trilateral Chair is hosted by Stellenbosch University in the SPL. It is a collaborative effort with Principal Investigators Dr Fabrizio Ceschin from Brunel University London in the UK, and Dr Amollo Ambole of the University of Nairobi in Kenya. It is supported by the Department of Science and Technology through National Research Foundation, and the Newton Fund through the British Council.
Its overall objective is to build research capacity and produce knowledge across Africa concerning gender-informed innovation and commercialisation opportunities in alternative energy technology and service
Musango explains the value of the GENS Trilateral Chair: “It is a space for learning and transforming lives, a space where researchers can find meaning in what they do. It's about having a societal impact and co-designing solutions with communities."
“I am doing what I am doing because I find it meaningful. My purpose is to be able to make someone else better than they were yesterday. That could be my students, parents, siblings, friends, strangers, and myself. It cuts through everyone. That's my purpose."
Musango's parents taught her and her seven siblings that the sky is limitless. It was an idea that resonated with her.
“It always made me curious, adventurous, and the risk-taking kid," she remembers her childhood years.
She enjoyed sport a lot at school and participated in physical education competitions. She never, however, thought of herself as a teacher or a public speaker.
That all changed after she completed her BSc Honours degree in Agribusiness Management at Egerton University in Kenya in 2002, and started teaching at a college in Gaborone in Botswana.
After a few months of lecturing, she received the opportunity to pursue a masters degree in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University. In 2008, she became a team member for a project on renewable energy led by chemical engineer, Prof Alan Brent. Her work on the project became the basis for her PhD, which she received in 2012 with Brent as her supervisor and mentor.
She still counts working and being mentored by Brent as one of her greatest opportunities of her life. It taught her the value of mentorship – something she believes she can also be for other people.
“I am always grateful to see the growth in other people as that demonstrates that I am also growing. I am fulfilled seeing students and researchers that I have supervised and mentored excel in life."