Box 2.3

Box 2.3 The necessity of clarifying assumptions: mapping rationalities of key stakeholders in the Urban Flooding CityLab

Author: Warren Smit

2 min read

In the Urban Flooding CityLab in Cape Town (see case, ‘The CityLab programme in Cape Town’), dealing with the conflicting rationalities of the participants was a major challenge, but also an opportunity for integrating different perspectives and different types of knowledge. The Lab brought together different stakeholders to share insights and undertake collaborative research on the flooding of informal settlements in Cape Town. The focus of the research was on interviewing key stakeholders involved in the governance of urban flooding in order to identify their rationalities with regards to the causes of, and possible solutions to flooding, and the technologies and resources they mobilized. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault (1997), rationalities can be described as the socially and contextually shaped ways in which people see, interpret, and act in the world. The mapping of different rationalities, through interviews and analysis of documentation, showed that the officials of different local government departments had very different understandings of the nature of the problem and the solutions, which were closely aligned to the disciplinary backgrounds of the officials in each department.

The officials of the Disaster Risk Management Centre (DRMC), who came from a disaster risk science background, largely viewed the city in terms of hazards and risks posed to residents, infrastructures, and service delivery by natural phenomena or human activities. With their disaster risk reduction lens on the flooding issue, DRMC staff identified the source of the problem as simultaneously one of people living in unsuitable locations and of excessive rainfall and high water levels. In practice, the focus of DRMC officials was on disaster risk relief. Roads and Storm Water officials were from a civil engineering background and saw the problem of flooding as essentially too much water in certain places, which needed to be disposed of through better storm water drains (and better maintenance of storm water drains). Informal Settlements Management officials, who were mainly housing practitioners, saw flooding of informal settlements in Cape Town as mainly a problem of people being in the wrong place rather than as a problem of excess water; this is because the flooding problems they have to deal with are generally caused by people occupying low-lying, poorly drained areas that are not (in their present state) suitable for residential use. They thus saw the issue as a socio-political problem, with the solution as relocation and/or informal settlement upgrading.

These different rationalities can potentially be an obstacle to collaboration, but through mapping these different perspectives and through bringing together different stakeholders to integrate the different perspectives into a more holistic understanding of the flooding of informal settlements, it was possible to identify synergies and opportunities for collaboration and co-ordination. This was done through a series of workshops that brought together different stakeholders (mainly various government departments and various civil society groups) and allowed space for presentations from participants and for one-on-one networking. The approach was also institutionalized through working with the City of Cape Town’s Task team, a structure on which all the local departments involved with flooding were represented.


Suggested readings

  • Shearing, C. and Wood, J. (2003) ‘Nodal governance, democracy, and the new “denizens”’, Journal of Law and Society 30(3): 400–19 <>.
  • Ziervogel, G., Waddell, J., Smit, W. and Taylor, A. (2016) ‘Flooding in Cape Town’s informal settlements: barriers to collaborative urban risk governance’, South African Geographical Journal 98(1): 1–20 <>.



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