BLOG 1: How did that go? Reflections from the South Africa Experiment on the TIPC Methodology

Thinking & Analysis

By Geraldine Bloomfield, with Mahlodi Tau and Dan’sile Cindi.


“It draws out exactly what we want to say. It shows the Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP) team get it! It’s a good feeling. It’s amazing…I am still learning – I am still interpreting what I know, as what I don’t know!”


We caught up with practitioners from the TIPC South African experiment – a national project on securing the country’s water sustainability and security – to find out their news, views and feelings on the integration of the TIPC Methodology.

Integral to developing TIP is the reflection and communication about the experience – the thinking about it, the grappling with it, the doing it.  Here we hear about the first stage of the twelve-week policy experimentation that aims to introduce and interweave the TIP Theory of Change (ToC) into the project.  By conducting interviews with the in-country policy team and the TIPC researchers, we can show that how the participants think and feel about the project experience gives meaning and learning to know if the TIP direction is the right one.

Taking the TIPC methodology into practice and policy intervention for a very real, crucial issue, such as water governance, has given the opportunity to test and develop the TIP approach ‘live’. Our interviewees are the practitioners working at the interface of science-policy-practice from the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), who are part of the wider team working on the ‘Living Catchments’ project. The practitioners who shared their insights were Mahlodi Tau, Director of Biodiversity Mainstreaming directorate and Dan’sile Cindi, who is Deputy Director within SANBI.

We joined them after the initial stage of the project to get the insight into how they were finding the TIP approach. What had their first thoughts been? Where was their thinking at now on this new perspective? And how had the TIPC methodology fared so far?

Among the key aims of SANBI is to coordinate and advocate for ‘biodiversity mainstreaming’ to ensure that those who own and use the land in South Africa treat and revere the ‘ecological infrastructure’ as a valuable resource. A river is as important as a pipeline; a wetland equal to a reservoir. What drives the team at SANBI is the belief around the superlative value of this precious ‘ecological infrastructure’. SANBI positions biodiversity as fundamental in achieving social and economic development for the country. In this sense, their approach mirrors the TIP perspective, that unless ecological and social concerns are met first and foremost, sustainable economic development will not be achievable.  This is one example of why the project has true transformative potential.

Demonstrating, persuading and preserving the central importance of natural resources and ecological infrastructure with the country’s more traditional proponents of built infrastructure is a key challenge that they face. SANBI work with communities, all spheres of government, civil society, and the production sector involved in water, agriculture, rural development and mining to try to integrate sustainability aims into their built infrastructure projects. The Living Catchments is a collaborative project with the intention to strengthen the enabling environment for water governance in South Africa and encourage co-learning and building relationships between the separate actors.

In TIP-speak, these Living Catchment areas are the ‘niches’ which model how this is done to prevent water scarcity and provide a long-term sustainable solution to water provision in the country. Making the ecological infrastructure on a par with other types is a primary aim. In the SANBI Director, Mahlodi Tau’s words; ‘We take our work into their work.’ Previously, biodiversity conservation messaging was viewed as blocking development and not as a source of sustainable development. However, with the new messaging around the importance of investing in ecological infrastructure, biodiversity is gradually recognised in national economic and development policies and plans.

The niches are the Living Catchments associated with Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSA) where people involved in the common agenda around water security need to collaborate in partnership for co-learning and co-creation of solutions for developing a sustainable water management at the nexus between built and ecological infrastructure.

Primarily for SANBI, overlaying the TIPC methodology on to the aims of the Living Catchments project has provided a new vocabulary and discourse to articulate concepts and ideas that the project was already striving to reach.  The TIPC theory and methodology provide a fresh framing to work-in-progress which gives a new structure and rationale to use as an extra tool for transformation.

Replying to, when had the practitioners first heard about TIP?, which had been a presentation about the twelve Transformative Outcomes (TOs), the first response described was:

‘But we are doing this!? We are building and nurturing niches! It’s just we are not calling it that…’

This mirroring of the TIP and SANBI approach explains why the central South African Department for Science and Innovation (DSI) singled out the water project to be the first site of TIP experimentation in the country. The transformative aims are clearly present.

Carrying the TIP message from the Water Research Council, was Roadmap Manager, Shanna Nienaber. Mahlodi Tau explains:

“We heard the word ‘policy’ so we made sure the SANBI policy advisor attended the first workshop in Pretoria. Following that, Alex, our Policy Advisor, gave feedback that it was exciting, and an opportunity to interrogate our project further to see if it really is transformative”

Having chosen to incorporate the TIPC methodology to interrogate their current ‘Theory of Change’ and to reflect on the project’s true transformative potential, the practitioners shared what their expectations had been, and how reality had converged or differed.  Mahlodi Tau describes:

“My expectation was that we should use expertise wherever it may come from. Normally you get ‘experts’ to do these things – the monitoring, the evaluation, the associated log-frame…But this time, it was – we are doing these ourselves! That’s what made me very excited. That we were going to review the draft Theory of Change together and in the process create a space for co-learning. It’s going to be an opportunity for us to deepen our skills on developing theories of change. But how do we link our Theory of Change to Transformative Innovation Policy’s Theory of Change – what’s that all about?` That was when my curiosity was reenergised. ”

So the key surprise for the SA project team was that the evaluation was going to be done by them, themselves, the team that knew the process best; by growing their capabilities and using a TIP method that allowed this; and not as with the ‘business-as-usual’ approach conducted by external ‘experts’, not involved in the project. In becoming transformative agents, this ability to assess, learn and develop capability, within the team conducting the actual project, is core to the TIP approach. Participation and reflexivity are central elements.

Dan’sile Cindi, SANBI’s Deputy Director recalls how she saw TIP coming into focus around their project:

“Having seen other theories of change I thought, ‘Oh this is going to be a kind of checklist document’. What we want to do; how we’re going to do it; what we want to achieve. This was my expectation. After the first workshop I realised – (TIP) WAS HARD WORK! Everything that was in our heads really had to come out, to be articulated properly. Our project is not hardcore science and research, it is more on the social science and humanities side, where we are bringing people together. We’re not talking about numbers, and figures and graphs. There’s no graphs here!! I must admit when I googled TIP and saw this [shows the MLP graphic]. It scared the hell out of me! I thought I need to keep an open-mind, hear-out the TIP team. I was not sure whether we were the right project. But through each interaction that we have in the process, it gives me the assurance that we might just be right…I have thought that we need to align our language.  I am looking forward to doing the indicators so how we can link the indicators with the TOs (Transformative Outcomes). We might then have to reframe and rephrase some of our assumptions.”

This reflection demonstrates the evolution of understanding and buy-in that has occurred in the Living Catchments  team while undertaking the first stage of the TIPC methodology – tacit project knowledge that is drawn out; confidence levels in the undertaking raising; and commitment increasing to persevering through the steps and stages.

So, is the TIPC theory of change a good tool to articulate the project transformations?

Tau explains:

“Yes, because we don’t know any other way of doing this to aim toward transformation! You may go to international conferences and you always hear about ‘transformative conferences’, and that donors are only going to fund ‘transformative projects’. We all go along with it, like we all understand what that means. We assume we understand. So far there hasn’t been any other way of interrogating how to unpack that. What does that mean? Until we started with this process. We have now found a structured way of interrogating our Theory of Change. Will it really, really bring about change on the ground?  We can interrogate, and unpack, and challenge our aims. We want to bring change. Biodiversity underpins all of our lives. It starts here to grow our economy and our livelihoods.”

As described previously, this reconsideration of conventional economic theory stands out.  SANBI’s message to all industrial sectors is that investing in natural resource management will help reach economic enrichment. This is mirrored in what they are doing and their worldview.  This echoes through TIP. One of the central kernels of TIP thinking is that you begin with work to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and from this, then sustainable livelihood and economic development can occur. A rethinking on what it means to be ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ in reaching Transformative Outcomes.

Tau articulates: “We are a water scarce country. Very arid and dry land, faced with difficulties. Water security is a serious development challenge. It affects the whole developmental agenda of our economy and the country. Our project’s linked to the SDGs and providing water security for the country. If we can get this right and be transformative it will have great learning and resonate. If the process is transformative, and the outcomes are transformative, we will be part of contributing to the developmental agenda of the country. We will be able to say, with confidence that this has been a proper transformative project.”

Cindi reflects further in how the programme is going and what is left to learn:

It has become clearer ‘the how’ for the project. The evolution of the Theory of Change, as demonstrated in our workshop with the Mural picture, and the components that I’m leading now which has evolved into three outcomes. This has gone from one to three outcomes. The learnings are explicitly shown. We knew the linkages were there but now they are clearly shown and I like that. It draws out exactly what we want to say. It shows the TIP team get it! It’s a good feeling. It’s amazing…I am still learning – I am still interpreting what I know, and what I don’t know! There’s a lot of what I’ve realised I don’t know. And I’m ok with that. From an organisational view this is going to be a great project to help us align our further projects in being transformative projects. It will be shared amongst a wide range of stakeholders especially as it has come through DSI who work with so many.”

The team are clearly relishing the hard challenge and reward involved in moving their project, and its defined outcomes, through the TIP lens with its transformative underpinnings and principles. While the researchers are using the co-created knowledge to refine and develop the evidence and the theory that will be undertaken across other national and global experimentations to reach the goals of the SDGs.

A lesson for all

The final learning and message from the practitioners is one directly for the researchers. Hearteningly, it clearly indicates the value of a key principles of TIP – participation. It shows that learning is a two-way, complex, continual occurrence.

SANBI’s Director shared his final thoughts:

“I have one reflection on the process that I want to share around the TIP observers. Most of our work is on establishing networks, making new friends, that’s our every day job.  With this process I liked a whole lot of things but one thing that stood out [was having academic researchers] who were joining our sessions, just there as ‘observers’. We missed an opportunity there for learning from them too and making new relationships within South Africa. We could create our own TIPC moments in South Africa to strengthen the research-policy engagement and therefore the projects”

So the central dynamic of co-learning is one for the whole team – active participation is appreciated and deemed valuable to ensure an in-country TIP network is woven around each new experimentation project. This will happen in the second phase of the methodology, however, from this observation, perhaps it needs to occur from the get-go.

We conducted our project blog to absorb the practitioners’ reflections, and have learnt a valuable point that will benefit interactions going forward. A neat example of how absorbing two-way feedback, that pushes us out of our usual ways of acting, or observing, or researching, is crucial for transformations to happen. The partitioners have been prepared to voice mild and jovial contestation – “We could be good friends!” By raising thoughtful objections to being only ‘observed’, this ‘conflict’ helps develop TIPC Methodology for future experiments. Full participation is what we could strive for – a learning for all.

Practitioner-to-Practitioner Insights: The South Africa team’s tips on TIP

  • Keep an open-mind and hear the TIP team out.

  • It will scare you – be prepared to face this!

  • You will think ‘are we the right project to do this experimentation? Really?’ But you probably are.

  • The project might not fit exactly, although some aspects will and you will have to tweak, and change, and experiment.

  • Be prepared to reframe and rephrase some of your assumptions about your project.

  • Be set to get right into the specifics and to push yourselves as a team.

  • It will help you actually understand and give you tools for framing what a transformative project could be.

  • The TIPC methodology gives you the tools to interrogate, unpack and challenge your assumptions and aims for your project.

  • Through the co-learning session you give your organisation and team the tools and language of transformation to structure the conversations and interrogations.

  • TIP will more than likely both evidence your current thinking and give you the theory, research and tools to articulate it better.

  • Prepare yourself – it will be an eye-opener of a process.

  • Be okay with learning what you don’t know. Be okay with that for now. At least you know, that you don’t know!

  • The process will highlight research and skills gaps that can be filled with the further policy-academic engagement.

  • Involve everyone in the participation to maximise the learning from all sides.