Maverick Life

South Africa, Maverick Life

No Filter, Vol. 2: Solving problems from the bottom up

CHRONICLE presents a monthly series about the young, talented South African womxn re-imagining spaces, defining their places and building the foundations of art movements, businesses, boardrooms and laboratories. This month’s instalment chronicles a day in the life of sustainable development specialist, Lauren Hermanus. By AYANDA CHARLIE and LEILA DOUGAN.

Given the dire state of our country’s water and energy reserves, one can find comfort in the knowledge that individuals such as Lauren Hermanus live among us. A specialist in sustainable development, Hermanus focuses on the green economy, sustainable energy and urban resilience. She works with individuals and organisations locally and around the world in curating, studying and designing solutions that support more environmentally sustainable social and economic development.

If you’re working in a dynamic and complex system, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty,” said Hermanus. “And so, all the time in all the work that I’m doing, I am interested in finding those methods that really can work with uncertainty and do work with uncertainty in a way that I think is more responsible and more ethical,she said.

Driven by this sentiment, Hermanus co-founded the Massive Small Collective with Andrew Campbell in 2016, a global network of researchers and practitioners focused on incremental and citizen-led urban development. She juggles this with her research work for the international GreenWin project, which promotes green business models that create economic value, while solving environmental challenges. And between 2014 and 2016, she served as the green economy co-ordinator for the Western Cape Government, working on “greening” public spending and developing the first green economy indicators in the country. It is initiatives like these that earned her a spot on this year’s Mail and Guardian 200 Young South Africans list.

Even with the environmentally conscious policies and commitments that our post-democratic government has made thus far, Hermanus says we need to do more to ensure that we protect those environmental systems we need to survive and to thrive.

In terms of policy and regulation, we are really progressive. But, like all countries, we still create environmental destruction and generate huge risks through our economic activities. We still have an energy system that is dominated by coal and fossil fuels, for example. We need to understand why we are locked into this path: who benefits, who carries the risks, and who has the power to intervene,” said Hermanus.

Doing its bit to address said water scarcity is the Genius of Space project, based in the community of Langrug in Franschhoek, Western Cape. With a light in her eye, Hermanus will tell you that this is a wastewater management system that epitomises the bottom-up approach to sustainable development. The idea behind it is simple: using natural systems to filter greywater, to improve the quality of water entering our rivers. What makes it special, however, is that the project has been developed from ideas imagined by the people of Langrug – for the people of Langrug.



It’s looking at a very specific location, with specific resources, people and conditions, and trying to respond to what’s there. And then also not coming in with a pre-made plan that was developed in a government boardroom somewhere far away. But [it is] actually trying to develop that plan with the people who are the beneficiaries of that intervention.”

From projects like these, Hermanus hopes to develop methods that can be adapted to other environments in urban areas across our country and ultimately the world. Moreover, she envisions a culture of intervention that is more inclusive of its beneficiaries and perceives them as collaborators and determiners of their own destiny. DM