FRACTAL: Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands

Submitted by Anna Taylor | published 7th Oct 2015 | last updated 19th Oct 2021

FRACTAL overview

In the 21st century, addressing climate change necessarily includes building urban resilience by ensuring that people, infrastructure and economic activities are able to withstand and function well under a new set of conditions. Africa's future is dominated by a growing number of city residents. This creates complex climate risks and vulnerabilities, such as water scarcity, health threats, transport disruptions and electricity shortages, that connect cities with distant places they rely on (such as hydro-power plants in other districts or neighbouring countries). Climate change substantially complicates the development policy and planning landscape. These decision-making challenges are aggravated by the lack of scientific climate information that is readily accessible and applicable at the city regional scale.

FRACTAL (initiated in June 2015) is a 4-year project coordinated by the Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town, with an 18 month costed extension (until March 2021) to explore the sustianability and scalability of knowledge co-production processes to strengthen urban climate resilience. The overarching aim of the FRACTAL project is to advance scientific knowledge about regional climate responses to human activities (such as burning fossil fuels, changing land surface cover, etc.) and work with decision makers to integrate this scientific knowledge into climate-sensitive decisions at the city-regional scale (particularly decisions relating to water, energy and food with a lifetime of 5 to 40 years).

FRACTAL has been designed to work across disciplines within the scientific community and foster strong collaboration between researchers, city government officials and other key decision makers in southern Africa. The FRACTAL project operates in Windhoek, Maputo, Lusaka, Cape Town, Durban, Blantyre, Gaborone and Harare.

FRACTAL is funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) through the Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) program.

Project Partners

FRACTAL research consortium members:

FRACTAL city partners:

University of Cape Town: Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG), African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI) and African Centre for Cities (ACC)

University of Zambia

Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Oxford

Lusaka City Council

Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

University of Namibia

ICLEI Local Government for Sustainability

City of Windhoek

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)

Eduardo Mondlane University


Maputo Municipal Council

Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI)

City of Cape Town

Met. Office Hadley Centre

University of KwaZulu Natal


eThekwini Municipality

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Chinhoyi University of Technology

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

University of Botswana

European Commission (EC) Joint Research Centre

Malawi Polytechnic


Learning from and extending FRACTAL

Key learning themes that have emerged from phase 1 of the FRACTAL project include:

  1. Climate information distillationThe extraction of the essential meaning and most important aspects of something. Key since the proposal phase was how to distil context-relevant, actionable, robust climate information at relevant decision-making scales from a plethora of sources. This concept has been further developed through experiences in cities and in the climate information cluster. Drawing on city learning experiences, a framework has been developed and tested to support transparent co-generation and development of meaning out of multiple sources of climate information for decision making. Practically, distillation has been demonstrated through the city learning lab processes in the first phase of FRACTAL, during which real climate information needs were identified by city technocrats and other stakeholders (e.g. to increase water security). The main outputs that have been developed within this learning theme are: a set of Climate Risk Narratives (CRNs) for six FRACTAL cities; a set of CRNs for sites in HyCristal project; a climate information distillation working paper; a briefing note on what climate information distillation is and why we need it, as well as a case study paper on climate information services in Harare. 
  2. Receptivity“A way of understanding what is needed for people to be able to open themselves up to engaging with and assimilating different perspectives, frames of reference, values and interests that others bring. Receptivity goes further than simply opening up. Receptivity entails actively and critically reflecting on one’s own knowledge and that offered by others (i.e. recognizing various assumptions and framings). This forms the basis for expanding or enhancing one’s ability to make less partial, narrow judgements, and to shift ones practices and actions based on a broader view of the system and what changes are underway and are sought (by individuals, organisations and collectively)” (Scott and Taylor, 2019). The concept of receptivity emerged inductively through experiences in cities, with participants observing and reflecting on the benefits of hearing multiple perspectives during the learning labs and other engagements. Increased receptivity has been observed and expressed by many different participants of these processes; to understand the frames of reference for those contributing to decisions in cities, as well as the various forms of research disciplines. At a practical level, an example of receptivity was demonstrated during the “spilling the beans” game that was developed as an output of FRACTAL; various ways of understanding resilience were interrogated and shared. A working paper has been developed to explain the concept of receptivity and a shorter impact story is under development.
  3. Transdisciplinary co-exploration and co-production for urban climate resilience:
    The ethics implicit in these processes support new ways of working together to deal with complex, emergent problems, bring stakeholders with relevant knowledge and decision-making power together to understand the problem from many perspectives and prioritise solutions, knowledge and information. These concepts have been at FRACTAL’s core since proposal stage and the team is now in the process of articulating how city learning experiences have influenced understanding of these concepts. Practical examples of transdisciplinary (TD) co-production during the first phase of FRACTAL include inter alia co-development of CRNs and city-specific CaDD processes. The learning labs in cities are also all examples of transdisciplinary processes, during which several knowledge outputs were co-produced. In terms of co-exploration, several “aha” moments have occurred in labs between climate scientists and planners/decision makers that allowed new and better questions to be framed. Such moments also occurred through exercises such as terminology game, AHP, systems mapping, role plays, climate information spectrum, unpacking climate information box etc. A working paper entitled Transdisciplinarity, co-production, and co-exploration: integrating knowledge across science policy and practice in FRACTAL has been produced, as well as Unpacking the learning lab approach

All of the above mentioned Working Papers and Briefs can be found under the resources tab on the FRACTAL website.

Many of the insights from the 1st phase of the FRACTAL project are brought together in the third issue of START’s ProSus Magazine under the title Building resilience in southern African cities.

The FRACTAL team successfully secured funding for a costed extension (October 2019-March 2021) to answer questions of scaling associated with transdisciplinary co-production for (urban) climate resilience in (southern) Africa, most notably those of sustaining and streamlining. Through the activities proposed in the costed extension, the team aims to produce knowledge on inter alia: i) suggestions for scaling or replicating different transdisciplinary co-production approaches and techniques that have been implemented in the first phase of FRACTAL; ii) actions to enhance sustainability of climate resilience learnings from these techniques; and iii) potential indicators for monitoring the effectiveness of various transdisciplinary co-production and co-exploration processes.