by Kekeletso Makau, Communications Administrator at the Africa Centre for Evidence, University of Johannesburg, former Corporate Communications Intern at the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa and 2020 IIASA External Relations Fellow

In mid-March last year, I was introduced to Nicole Arbour and the broader Communications and External Relations Department at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). This was in my capacity as the incoming External Relations (ER) Fellow and current Corporate Communications Intern at the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa. The announcement of my ER fellowship came in just days before South Africa’s first lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the beginning of a new normal, where I, like many others would have to rely on multiple digital platforms and tools to work, communicate, and in some instances, engage for social interactions.

As I was spending more time online, learning more and more about multiple digital tools and how to optimally use them to “get stuff done” timeously under COVID-19 lockdown, the timing was perfect to assist in the conceptualization of a new online virtual platform. This would serve as a community building tool, developed to bring together the global systems analysis community that includes IIASA current staff, alumni, and National Member Organization (NMO) members, committees, and collaborators. Working in partnership with the IIASA CER team as part of the NRF Strategic Partnerships (SP) directorate team, I was well positioned, and felt empowered to deliver on this stakeholder relations exercise, owing to the support I enjoyed from the whole team.

Working on bringing together researchers in the field of Systems Analysis in South Africa (and the broader Southern African Development Community region) on the IIASA Connect platform was a highlight that continues to be one to this day. As a communications professional, I enjoy storytelling, and I enjoyed the privilege to read up on our network members, from emerging researchers to the well-established names that need no introduction. It has been insightful and inspirational to my own journey in science communication.

The successful launch of the IIASA Connect platform in October 2020 was evidenced by the support of leaders, in particular, IIASA Director General Albert van Jaarsveld, NRF deputy CEO of RISA and then Vice-Chair of the IIASA Council Gansen Pillay, and Deputy Vice Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University and former South African Systems Analysis Centre (SASAC) Director Thandi Mgwebi, who delivered an insightful keynote address on leveraging networks for increased systems analysis impact. The successful launch event felt like a pat on the back to me, as this was a project commenced under uncertain COVID times. Within months we were able to gather members of the SASAC community and continue to facilitate engagements in an effort to offer benefits to our members for being part of an exclusive networking platform that enables their growth and fuels their passion for advanced systems analysis research.

I am currently one of the Regional Outreach Leads focused on the South African systems analysis community on IIASA Connect. In my use of the platform, I have found it to be a highly interactive tool, with an interactive map you encounter after successfully logging-in. It is always fun seeking out familiar faces on the map from different regions of the world. The opportunity to engage live with high profile members of academia from your own region and abroad has been made (more) accessible on the platform, thereby enabling more opportunities of research collaborations with scientists you wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. For me, it means having credible sources of content and inspiration for my writing. Having both researchers and policymakers on the platform, makes IIASA Connect the ideal tool to bridge the existing gaps in the science-to-policy interface. Information is shared through the live feed, making it easy for a user to navigate to the source site and read up on information that I would have otherwise not came across or considered.

To be part of such a big stakeholder exercise from start to finish has been fulfilling, and the journey continues. The IIASA Connect platform, much like my career in science communications is still in its early stages. We are fully aware of the work that still needs to be done to reach the tool’s optimal capacity to the benefit of our network members. We are excited about the prospects it brings to science diplomacy, particularly for South Africa as an IIASA member country, our researchers and policymakers alike in advancing engagements between these two parties and using the platform to achieve the SDGs and agenda 2063 for the African continent. For me personally, it is an open access to the world’s best researchers to learn from, fuel my science communications journey, and advance my external relations expertise.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.