What unconscious racial bias in the workplace looks like in 2021 and what we can do about it

Listen up. If you’re a decent-sized organisation that prides itself on building a diverse and inclusive culture, and interacts with a similarly diverse contractor pool, you may need to reflect on not only your internal interactions but your external ones as well. Being an organisation that people take pleasure in doing business with is something to aspire to because this reputation helps you build a robust, mutually beneficial, and reliable supply chain. So let’s begin…

If you’ve ever spent any time as part of a minority group in any society, chances are you’ll already know what unconscious bias is, and likely even experienced it yourself. I’m applying an Asian-Australian lens to this article to reflect my own cultural background.

The concept of unconscious bias, or implicit bias in the workplace is not new. SBS wrote a fantastic piece back in 2017 on reducing unconscious bias, noting that the brain’s amygdala is the main controller of our sub-conscious actions and that we tend to feel less empathy for those who are different to ourselves.

I first encountered unconscious bias training in the workplace in 2015 and it made me stop and think – was it possible that people I encountered in my professional life had a subconscious tendency to prefer working with those who they felt were most like themselves? What unconscious biases did I have?

What is the Bamboo ceiling

An article by the ABC that interviewed several Asian Australians identifies cultural biases, stereotypes, and systemic barriers as factors preventing many of them from leveling-up in their professional fields. Understanding workplace behaviors and viewing cultural differences as an asset is therefore crucial in order to break the bamboo ceiling.

To be fair, at that point in my career I had done fairly well for myself – after relocating from Australia to work for Thames Water in the UK in 2006, I had worked hard to attain Chartered Engineer status there, and had been nominated by my organisation for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Young Engineer of the Year Award. Within 4 years of arriving in the UK as a young female in a male-dominated sector, I was managing my own projects and leading multi-disciplinary teams, working closely with different parts of the business on other strategic initiatives. When I joined Atkins, a consultancy which at the time had 17,000 employees globally, I was deemed a good choice to be given line management responsibilities and to be one of the first cohorts to attend the Women in Leadership course being offered.

We can safely say that as a foreign, female engineer and emerging leader, I was well-supported and would not be held back by some of the issues we discuss today.

And yet in 2021, in modern-day Australia, I hear that niggling thought in the back of my mind during the numerous interactions I’ve had with a particular client: Is this implicit racism? Is this person having a bad day? Is there an excuse for this attitude and behaviour that tends to only emerge behind closed doors when we are alone? Or… could it possibly be… because I’m different?

We have made so much progress. But how much progress have we made in reality? The UK government scrapped unconscious bias training for civil servants, claiming that it hasn’t changed attitudes – a move described as short-sighted by Forbes amongst others.

The employment rate for ethnic minority workers compared to white workers versus the cultural diversity in modern Australian society also tells a story. The Human Rights Commission pinpointed unconscious racial bias as the reason that only 1.9% of Asian Australians attain executive management positions compared to the 9.6% of the community who identified with having an Asian cultural background. Asian Australians consistently achieve academic success and still miss out on leadership opportunities despite often coming from disadvantaged schools when compared to white peers.

Walk through the offices of any water utility organisation in Australia and you’ll see ethnic and gender diversity, yet when you look at their leadership teams, their Boards, and their senior managers, this diversity is not reflected.

We know enough to understand that this is not deliberate – long term cultural change takes time, but leaderships would do well to recognise that organisational culture starts from above, and that being a company that walks the walk will lead to greater success – which also means taking intersectionality into account.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Long term cultural change takes time, but leaderships would do well to recognise that organisational culture starts from above, and that being a company that walks the walk will lead to greater success.

Intersectionality – racism, sexism, and other isms.

The Diversity Council of Australia defines intersectionality as “the way that multiple aspects of diversity (e.g., our age, care-giving responsibilities, disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity) come together or ‘intersect’ to form part of our identity – and therefore our experience of inclusion at work”. It is increasingly recognised that it is important to consider intersectionality to dismantle systems and structures that result in inequality.

There’s been so much attention paid to levelling the playing field for women in the workplace in the past few decades – Gloria Steinem challenged the idea of gender-specific roles, whilst more recently Sheryl Sandberg inspired women to be unapologetic in seeking career advancement.

Yet when we look at the intersection of gender and race in the corporate pipeline, we can see that not only do men outnumber women at entry level, but this marginal difference (52% men to 48% women) becomes strikingly more apparent amongst C-Suite executes (77% male to 23% female). Introduce race into the equation and we can see that at entry level, there are half as many men and half as many women of colour compared to white men and white women, and you can forget about equal representation at C-Suite level, with only 9% men of colour and 4% women of colour.

The DCA undertook a study of culturally diverse LGBTQ talent and reported on the numerous often intersecting issues experienced in the workplace by the respondents.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Why should businesses care?

“Because it’s the right thing to do” would be too easy, wouldn’t it? So here are 5 reasons to consider:

  1. Performance culture

A culturally diverse workplace is often a high-performing and profitable workplace. And why not? When employees feel respectfully empowered, morale improves and creating an environment that nurtures a more innovative, performance-driven, and productive human capital, and resulting in improved retention of talent.

The DCA’s Inclusion@Work Index, surveyed over 3,000 working Australians and showed that inclusive organisations have improved performance and innovation, better customer service, more satisfied and secure staff, and less harassment and discrimination. 

  1. Mental health of employees.

Mental health issues are estimated to cost the Australian economy up to $60 billion dollars per year in healthcare and lost productivity so there is a strong economic case for early prevention. We know that unconscious bias is a contributor to anxiety and stress in the workforce, so addressing these issues is key to improving employee mental health outcomes. Human Resource organisation APM identifies the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace to employees and employers as:

For Employees:

  • Greater sense of safety and belonging
  • Stronger resilience and ability to adapt to change
  • More open to discuss and manage mental health issues
  • Improved conflict resolution and problem-solving skills
  • Increased empathy and understanding of customer needs

For Employers:

  1. Increasingly diverse client and customer base.

The Diversity council of Australia conducted research on our ability to interact effectively in Asian countries and cultures, and with people from Asian cultural backgrounds, to achieve work goals (“Asia Capability”) and found that a third of Australia’s workforce has very little or no overall Asia Capability. This is despite the fact that the fastest growing immigrant group in Australia are Asian-born.

If we are to claim a place amongst our geographical neighbours and share a playground with the Asian economic powerhouses, we must embrace cultural diversity in the workplace and not be afraid of it.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash
  1. Your employees are a reflection of your brand

Businesses spend a lot of time and effort in ensuring that employees reflect the culture and values of an organisation. If you are failing to call-out seemingly minor instances of racial bias, you may be doing your brand a disservice. You can be sure that if you’ve noticed, your clients, contractors, and regulators will notice too.

  1. Racism is bad for business

If the above reasons weren’t enough for you, according to research by Deakin University, funded by Vic Health and the AHRC, the cost of racism in the workplace is costing the Australian economy up to $45bn/annum. Of course, it’s hard to evaluate within an individual workplace what impact the unconscious behaviour of your staff is in monetary terms, but considering what is at stake – loss of productivity, greater turn-over and negative brand association, can you really afford to not pay attention to discrimination in the workplace? The answer should be a resounding No.

What can businesses do?

If we know we can’t eliminate unconscious bias, perhaps as businesses, we should instead be planning for it.

Tamanna, Bank employee

We all want to do the morally and ethically commendable thing, but put simply and more brutally, racism is bad for business. The first step to tackling it is to understand how unconscious bias can negatively affects your team.

And once we know better, we need to do better.

Here are 8 ways to start.

  1. Recognise racial bias and have the conversation

Only by recognising that it exists and its impact on people and businesses can we address it. Moving beyond paying lip service.

Examples of racial bias:

There are many examples of racial bias, with much evidence-based research into the intersection between race and other factors. I’ve only just touched on a few of these below.

Affinity bias – this occurs when people feel a stronger connection to those who have had similar life experiences to you. Without realising, you are creating an “in group” and an “out group”. A particularly acute example I experienced on more than one occasion during the NSW lockdown was when in a friendly conversation I asked a Client how they were coping. Her response was that her part of town was not problematic, despite being the epicentre of an initial outbreak, because those living in her suburb were (and I quote) “quite hygienic … and following the rules” – the context being that the worst hit suburbs happened to be the most ethnically diverse and home to large numbers of essential workers.

In the workplace, this type of bias can lead to bad hiring decisions, good ideas being dismissed, and employees feeling undervalued. In a separate conversation with the same Client, she questioned why a particular hire was chosen from overseas, when she believed that there should be a perfectly suitable local candidate – as much as a local hire would have been easier, unfortunately in this instance they were not the best candidates, and the new recruit went on the make valuable contributions.

Of course, as with many cases of implicit discrimination, these things are easily dismissed – we generally want to assume that people are always acting appropriately – even if they are not kind, that they are at least politically correct. However, when someone is always questioning why a person of colour, who is well-respected in their field and presents well is being put forward instead of someone else of a similar standing, you can’t but help raise an eyebrow.

Micro-aggressions – During a meeting that I had recently, the Client, without apology or any attempt to correct herself once she stumbled, failed to pronounce the name of the person who had been the project lead for months, and instead of taking the time to learn it, moved on. An unpronounceable name in itself would not be unusual – unfamiliar names across any culture can be difficult to read or say out loud; but to dismiss someone’s name as too difficult, particularly given that it was a short, two-syllable phonetic name, speaks to an inherent indifference and a disrespect for cultures other than one’s own.

Confirmation bias – Another conversation in the workplace revolved around undertaking a review of similar work that had been undertaken in the international space. The Client automatically dismissed certain countries, stating that work from said countries could not be reliable. If you are currently running through countries in your mind that this could relate to, you are probably leaning in to some confirmation bias, which can result in blind spots and missed opportunities. Another example is when male lawyers are believed to want partnership more than their female counterparts and are then given more support or assistance to achieve their goals, further confirming that they “had what it takes” to begin with.

Attribution bias and attribution error – This occurs when we ascribe certain beliefs about groups of people in such a way that results in a less favourable assessments of that group, and/or a more favourable assessment of ourselves. I’ve come across one example of this throughout my career, and even been blinded by it myself as a young Client (inexperience can do that) – attribution error is applied regularly to contractors. I’ve seen it stifle opportunities for real collaborative thinking – the assumption that a contractor or someone external to your organisation wants something different to you can mean that you aren’t having honest conversations with someone who can not only ease your workload and strengthen your team, but will drive your goals when they have a clear understanding of what they are.

  1. Power dynamics

Studies on the interaction between gender, race, and workplace power have shown that greater inequality is experienced the higher the organisational level. There is an unequal power between Employers and Employees or between Clients and Contractors and not recognising this stifles collaboration and creates an environment where teamwork suffers. Instead, recognise that being in a position of power means that you may also need to make space to hear, recognise, and explore other peoples’ realities. In this way you lead the collaboration as a Client-partner, not merely as a master being attended to by a servant in a transactional relationship.

  1. Show leadership

Tamanna, who works as a manager in a leading Australian bank, believes that organisational culture is key; “If your organisation teaches leaders to leap into legal risk management instead of engaging in meaningful conversation to understand a situation when an issue raised, then no amount of training is going to improve your culture”, adding that soft skills can achieve progress where a more legalistic route may result in both parties taking more firmly entrenched positions.

“Leaders should not be afraid to review and reconsider decisions that have been made and make new ones where appropriate – it’s OK to make mistakes as long as we are brave enough to address them”. If I ever saw a call for CEO’s and senior executives to acknowledge and challenge their own inherent unconscious bias, this is it.

  1. Review your team

Does the diversity of your team reflect the diversity of your customer base? If not, why not? Benefits to business of diversity have been well studied. You can do a quick review of how diverse and inclusive your organisation is by using some of the tools such as this one from the Australian Human Rights Commission and read this for some tips on developing your own scorecard. There is also the APM’s Disability Diverse and Inclusion Checklist here if you’d like to add another dimension to your assessment.

Tamanna adds “If we know we can’t eliminate unconscious bias, perhaps as businesses, we should instead be planning for it” – this might seem revolutionary, but business plan for all sorts of real and perceived risks all the time. Not recognising racial or other biases is a business risk in itself.

  1. Internal dialogue

Check in with yourself. Are you making excuses for your behaviour or is the decision/judgement that you’re making really fair?

  1. Training

Skills4 includes key topics such as conscious inclusionmicro-aggressions and allyship to bolster its Unconscious Bias Training package to maximise the chance for real and lasting effect on the workforce. Be selective in the type of diversity and inclusion training you roll out make sure to address implicit bias.

  1. Recognise Intersectionality

Australian researchers developed an educational package called the Intersectionality Walk (IW) in order to help organisations attract and retain minorities of diverse backgrounds. In a pilot study applying the IW package, they found that participants had an improved understanding of intersectionality and over the course of the study had learned ways to bring about institutional and structural change.

The researchers state that “An individual is more than the sum of the
identifiable ‘demographic’ categories. The IW aims to demonstrate that two people sharing a common demographic or even two or three characteristics do not translate into experiencing the workplace (and indeed the world) in a similar way” – this means that managers with strong interpersonal skills are required to bring out the best in their employees.

  1. Get to know the people you work with – as fellow human beings

Lastly, get to know the people you work with. This does not really need to be said, but you’d be surprised at how many sites there are supplying “Questions to get to know your staff/co-workers”. When you get to know people, you see them as more similar to yourself, and you learn about what drives them and how they work best. This leads to better rapport, greater efficiency, and better outcomes, not to mention you’ll be known as someone that others want to work with.

It’s only then that we can begin to manage our unconscious biases and become the leaders of tomorrow.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Featured image courtesy of Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash


Systems thinking, respecting the Yarra River, and the future of water stewardship at the Water Innovation Lab Australia 2018.

OK, there’s a lot to cover here because I just got back from a transformative week with 60 other people in the Yarra Valley – home of the Yarra River, which has been the lifeblood of Melbourne and surrounds since before Europeans arrived. For tens of thousands of years it was called the Birrarung, and the cultural and spiritual heartland of the Wurundjeri people. It is to their elders – past, present, and future – that I pay my respects.

So what is the Water Innovation Lab?

The Waterlution Water Innovation Lab unites “young” (in quotation marks because I don’t think of myself as young!) leaders from across the globe in one place to think holistically about emerging global trends and how established patterns of thinking can be broken. The end goal is to develop solutions that integrate the values and approaches of different disciplines and segments of society.

Over a one week period, we visited numerous sites around Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, speaking to Melbourne Water, their 3 metro water retailers, Melbourne council, and a range of inspirational resource guests from industry partners such as Clearwater, Resilient Melbourne, WSAA, ICE WaRM, and the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, just to name a few. We then withdrew to a camp site in the Yarra Junction to reflect, share knowledge, and innovate, using systems thinking tools that the Waterlution facilitators shared with us.

Melbourne’s Western Treatment Plant

Here’s a little thing I made after we visited the Western Treatment Plant – unlike any conventional wastewater treatment plant I’ve ever seen, the WTP is picturesque, tranquil, and VAST! If we had the luxury of land space we could turn all our treatment plants into places of natural beauty.

Western treatment plant

Find out more about Melbourne’s Sewage Treatment.

What is Systems Thinking?

I admit, before last week, Systems Thinking was something I’d heard of but knew almost nothing about. It is a way of tackling problems from different angles, exploring the relationships between the different “why” variables, as well as identifying influences, dynamics, motivations, processes and patterns.

The Systems Thinker site highlights that many of the solutions or interventions we design (and as engineers and planners, solving problems and delivering solutions is what we do), often address symptoms of a problem and not the underlying cause. This is more likely to result in the solution having unintended consequences.

This was one of the graphics used to highlight the differences between linear and systems thinking:

Tools of a system thinker

So collectively we identified a range of complex problems that we were passionate about and wanted to spend the next few days working on (I’ve written briefly about complex or “wicked” problems here). We defined complexity based on how much agreement and how much certainty currently surrounds the issue.

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My team chose to explore issues relating to the water-energy-food nexus – a topic I’m interested in, as you may already know.

Then using a systems thinking approach, we broke off into teams and what came out was, in a nutshell, this:

Waste transfer market

I’ll go through the systems thinking behind this, and explain the concept further in another post. Although we got a lot of positive feedback from the industry partners and resource guests, a more deserving team ended up winning the seed funding and mentorship prizes.

Some insights from WILAustralia 2018:

Waterlution’s founder, Karen Kun, posits that water could be the catalyst for decreasing global inequality. Until now I had always thought of water as being the cause of global inequality and system stress – we use the terms “water wars“, “water conflict“, and “water scarcity” to link water to emerging social and political trends. Waterlution, for all the language cliches used on the website, genuinely lives and breathes their guiding metaphor of building connections through water. Through their lens, I realise that water can be the catalyst, if we each act as instruments of positive change.

Some of my key insights from the week were:

1. We all have some kind of connection to water in our day-to-day lives

Each person’s narrative may be different but without even realising it, we have more in common with strangers than we thought. What is your water story?

2. It’s hard to properly engage with aboriginal and vulnerable communities if we don’t build genuine and lasting relationships.

“Engagement” at a project level relies on trust, dialogue on an equal footing, and shared visions – these things don’t happen overnight. Build authentic relationships within the communities you serve.

3. Systems thinking

In order to solve the increasingly complex problems we face (climate change, resource security, inequality, poverty, etc), we need to break down traditional ways of thinking and approaching problems. Successful system thinkers are also able to work collaboratively across disciplines, sectors and other divides.

4. Water companies can play a significant role in creating liveable cities if they are given the opportunity to do so.

When council, water authorities, community, business and industry come together to identify patterns and the underlying structures surrounding some of our complex problems, they can design interventions that are more than just band-aid solutions. Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy is a good example of an initiative that benefits the whole community.

5. People with diametrically opposing ideas, and different values can still come together to create clever solutions.

If we’re willing to challenge our own biases and boundaries we stand a far better chance of working together successfully than if we view the world only through the lenses that we are accustomed to.

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On our last full day, we shared one insight each with one another, and there are so many more to capture that I don’t think I’ve done this section justice.

What comes after this week of water-based systems thinking?

My group hopes to pitch our idea to others in the water industry to see whether or not the concept has enough substance to be something we can pursue. We will need to explore the barriers and implementation a bit further, and seek out the support that we have identified that we will need to build a basic prototype.

And who were the innovative thinkers on my own team?

and myself.

I see a future where people working in the water sector no longer see solutions in terms of things we can build or repair. We will think about communities. We will think about blue and green infrastructure. We will think about our first nation peoples and vulnerable groups in society. We will be forward thinkers with values rooted in our past and present. We will be compassionate and collaborative leaders.

For me, I see a lot of exciting posts in the pipeline about some of the amazing work that the people I met last week are involved in – from the International Indigenous Youth Council, to some of the other interesting innovations and ideas that members of this group are involved in. As always, watch this space!

Want to see what the future water stewards will look like?

Here are some of them – what makes them remarkable is that they care not only about our water, our future and our communities, they also care about each other and work life balance!

WILAustralia2018 - nexusjournalist

A question that resonated in my mind the Monday after I got home was one that someone put to the group one evening: What will YOU do differently come Monday? Memories fade, and returning to our everyday lives will bring us back to old habits and lifestyles; but hopefully our “Monday moments” will last a long while to come.

More on Water Innovation Lab 2018

To read more about the experiences of the inaugural Water Innovation Lab Australia cohort, check out the following blogs:

  • Emma Milburn – Marketing Manager, Iota Services at South East Water

Who were our amazing facilitators?

I can’t end this without a shout-out to Seanna Davidson, Dona Geagea, and Katia Bratieres, who made this space possible and who looked after all of us for the week; as well as the other fabulous resource guests – you can have a peek at the list here.

The beginning: smart phones, food production, sanitation. Let’s start the change and save ourselves.

We live in an age of technological advancement that the world has never seen. According to a Deloitte study of global mobile consumer trends, 78% of global consumers own smart phones. The number of connected mobile phones worldwide in 2014 exceeded the actual global population, and this isn’t confined to just the cities. A study of rural connectivity in Indonesia showed similar adoption and usage of smartphones in rural communities compared to the rest of the country.

This is no surprise to anyone. A smart phone gives us the power to do business and be connected to the global community in ways that have never before been imaginable.

However, we also still live in a world where 1 in 3 people don’t have access to a decent toilet, and 844 million people don’t have access to clean drinking water (this figure is arguable depending on your definition of clean, and a whole bunch of other factors we can go into in another post). It is a world where we are more connected than ever before, and yet a child under 5 dies every 2 minutes due to lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Cholera is totally preventable.

By the end of this century, the world’s population is expected to exceed 11 billion people, with over 60% living in urban centres. Although this means that more people will be located closer to modern amenities and jobs, it also brings a number of other social issues associated with urban poverty.

Water, Food, Energy and the world we live in

I’m not the first, nor the most vocal in saying that we have to think about the future. I know you’re already thinking about what we can do to make a difference. You already know that we need to do more than just update our Facebook statuses and switch our lights off once a year on Earth Day or feel good about sorting our recycling (and I’m not suggesting for a minute that any of these things are not worthwhile).

By 2050, the world will need to:

  • Feed an extra 2.4 billion people by increasing food production by 60% (and they’ll want meat – lots of it!)
  • Cater for an increase in 50% demand for fresh water
  • Produce 40% more energy than we do today
  • Adjust to a loss in 10% biodiversity, and prevent further loss

We’re talking about a mere 3 decades from now (2017 at the time of writing). From my years working in water infrastructure in London – a city of 7 million residents, I think about how challenging it is to upscale drinking water production by even 5%, and I have a good idea of what we’re up against.

People have a social conscience but are time poor

Take this conversation I had with a friend (a full-time doctor in a public hospital and mother of 2 young children) earlier this year, that was prompted by a question I posed to my readers about #plasticfreejuly. She’s the no nonsense, get-it-done type:

“Everyone has a too hard basket. I barely have time to sleep – so my efforts stop at anything that requires extra time out of my chaos. Choosing wisely at shops is OK, going to 5 different shops to do shopping unfortunately belongs with making bread and beewax [wraps] – which is not [a good use of time] for me. People can go several weeks without food, but die after 11 days without sleep”.

The world is full of sleep-deprived workers, parents, and students – all contributing to the global economy in some way (yes, even that college student spending money down at the bar is a contributor), and all contributing to, yet potentially part of the solution to, this wicked problem of ours – how do we make all our resources go around, and how do we make it as fair as possible for everyone?

Our core beliefs – what unites and divides us

All over the world, we are becoming more polarized in our ideologies, and yet more than ever we need to work together, across boundaries of all kinds if we’re to overcome all the threats from social, political, economic and climate uncertainty that we are faced with.

Tackling the issues of sustainable development isn’t confined only to those with the education or status to make a difference. It can’t be. Each of us has the ability to reach across a widening gap in everything we do. By opening our minds to others and by taking the effort to understand and not judge, no matter how strange, hostile or unpleasant another person’s views seem. This is how we take the first steps to being agents of change.

Let’s start the change

Let’s have a dialogue. Let’s share ideas. Whether you’re a professional who works in sustainability, a parent who wants a more certain future for their children, a student who dreams of changing the world for the better, a skeptical bystander, or anything in between, I’d love for you to tune in here and share your thoughts with us.

I’ll be sharing thoughts, success stories, useful links, and resources. I’d love for you to do the same, right here with me. If you’re a company that sells sustainable, ethical, and useful products, we’d love to hear about it (But please see my Policy on unsolicited advertising).

I’m going to end here by quoting one of the people I admire, Dr. Jane Goodall, who inspires me with her belief that every individual matters. She believes that every individual can make small differences in the world, and that it’s though all these small differences can we make the world a better place:

“Only if we understand, will we are. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” 

Other things I want to write about but haven’t gotten around to doing so yet:

  • Food safety
  • Security of water and electricity supplies
  • Economic growth

Please stay tuned!





Life after Covid-19: Remote working in a post lock-down world

Exhausted. Despondent. Unrelenting. Pessimistic. Uncertain. Failure… these are some of the adjectives that a friend of mine gave me when I asked her to describe what her experience has been as a parent working from home during this Covid-19 isolation period. It is a sentiment that has been echoed by many a working parent across the globe as they adjust to new demands and additional pressures of wearing multiple hats throughout the day.

Unsurprisingly this period of social distancing and isolation has produced higher levels of stress, anxiety and general sadness. I imagine that the process of getting used to this new, albeit temporary way of life follows a typical Kubler-Ross change process with the same emotional lows, but sitting on the verge of easing Covid-19 restrictions, have we integrated this new way of working into our lives and are feeling more positive now? Have organisations filled the infrastructure gaps to better handle teams of remote workers?

I posed the following questions to a variety of different water industry professionals from around the world and the responses were varied:

As a working parent in the water industry, what degree of work-life balance did you have before lockdown?

What have been the main advantages and disadvantages of completing your job from home in the current climate?

In future, do you think your employer or organisation will have a better ability to allow remote working?

For me personally, putting the brakes on restarting my career was definitely disheartening, but in the context of daily lock-down struggles – the infamous toilet paper shortages, and anxiety over staying safe during a pandemic – I realized that having the choice to stay home with loved ones, and without ignoring all the struggles of the working parents who are wearing multiple hats at this time, was a privilege. Having this privilege doesn’t negate the stresses of the current situation, but at the very least you have more tools at your disposal to deal with it. Here is what else I found:

Some companies are better equipped than others to allow remote working

“It’s interesting to see that – despite years of being told it wasn’t possible – flexible and remote working is not only possible, it also levels the playing field by removing possible barriers for those with caring responsibilities and disabilities – giving organisations access to the well documented benefits of diversity”.

Jayne Little, CEO Skills 4 Ltd.

“My work is amazing in terms of flexibility and we thankfully had moved to agile working at the end of last year”, says Sinead who works in Project Communications for a water utility, “We already had all the structures we needed in place for it. Post-Isolation I’ll still be working from home a few days a week … [I’m] getting out for walks way more than pre-covid too”. Certainly finding time for exercise has always been a problem for many workers and governments have promoted staying active during this period of lock-down.

The internet is full of newly uploaded articles and videos on how to work remotely, from easy Zoom tips and tricks, to the best ways to manage remote meetings, and videos to stay active. It gives one the impression that the workplace will never be the same again post Covid-19.

As a single parent, Hana, a senior technical author in the construction industry, had the flexibility to work from home a few days a week, attending only important meetings in the office and using the time she would otherwise be commuting to work more productively at home. During lock-down, she has had to start earlier in the morning and finish late at night, but has found that her 6 year old, Max, has developed in his independence and imagination as she works to complete her tasks during the day.

However, site based roles require a great deal of in-person collaboration, and the water industry functions most effectively as a partnership between numerous entities, from public-private partnerships to exclusively private sector engagements between consultant, contractor, and water retailer. Site based construction work, conceptual planning, and successful stakeholder engagement has always happened in the flesh, and whilst this period has introduced new ways of engaging, some roles will always require a degree of in-person presence.

Working from home during lock-down has changed family routines

Brian, a director, says that in a sense he has a better work-life balance now, but also says that educating his kids from home means slicing up the day, “which leaves work to be done [in the] late arvo/early evening … So that cuts into family time”. Adrian, a manager in water maintenance whose role is split between office and site-based responsibilities points out that the constant interruptions that arise naturally from homeschooling young children is one of the largest drains on mental energy, and feels that the extra time spent together is not necessarily quality time.

In early January this year, I signed off the paperwork to confirm the start date for my youngest child’s daycare placement. Within weeks, on the 30th of January, the World Health Organisation had classified the Novel Coronavirus pandemic as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, leading to closure of borders and the eventual shut down of nations worldwide.

In March the NSW government issued a Public Order under the Public Health Act restricting gatherings and movement outside of the home. Faced with dreaded uncertainty the roles that I had been seeking got shelved. The world of business hates uncertainty and one recruiter for a Business Sustainability role that I was due to interview for explained it to me simply as “Businesses have other priorities at the moment”. All of this was akin to having the rug pulled out from under me just as I was getting back on my feet after maternity absence, but I also realized that in a perverse way it was a blessing.

Image by Daniel Lee

When schools closed, I began homeschooling my eldest (I’ve realised that teachers prefer it if we called it “online learning”). My baby was out of the daycare system, and I depressingly had no idea if and when I would ever have a career again. Having a career and being a parent in Coronavirus times is a whole different ballgame, with many struggling parents realizing that juggling worklife and family life is simply impossible.

My friend Farhana, an engineer in Integrated Water Management, said to me “Life definitely doesn’t get easier for working parents. Kids will add new challenges … Some days, there will be uncertainties and other days you will feel proud of yourself. It will need a shift in mindset to accept the changes and to set your career path according to what’s suitable”. Farhana has loved aspects of being at home with her two young children despite the additional challenges, finding her colleagues to be very understanding of each other’s circumstances, or of her toddler sitting on her lap during a Zoom call.

The amount of support you have greatly impacts how well you get through this

“My hubby is still going to work everyday, so it’s just me at home”, says Delia, a Water Utility worker. “Pre-covid I had great work life balance and usually worked 1-2 days a week from home – yes I get to see my kids more but I don’t feel like it’s quality time”. Throughout March, absenteeism rose dramatically as parents were urged to keep their kids home. In April $1.6b worth of government initiatives were introduced to help parents who were essential workers, but this did not ease parenting pressures for most people. Maria, a research consultant working in Uganda says “Life at home with all the daily life chores and active time with toddler and baby just doesn’t allow for much more without preschool or other help at home”.

Karen, a freelance consultant who lives and works in France says “Work-life balance is its own beast when you have three small kids … I have fewer hours to get as much done work-wise and much more to do in managing the household”. However, Karen, whose work involved extensive international travel prior to lock-down has also used this time to improve the space at home for her family, working with her husband to re-do the garden.

A career shift from the roles I’d held previously was my aim when I first decided to return to work – one that still allowed me to work flexibly in order to balance the needs of my young family with my own desire to get paid doing something I was good at. This period in lock-down only further emphasized to me how much easier life is when employees have flexibility to be at home and feel supported whilst still fulfilling their contractually agreed duties.

This period has highlighted any gaps in infrastructure required for longer term remote working

Pre lock-down, my own experience of water industry organisations, both public and private, was that until the recent years that saw a big push to innovate, the industry has been slower to adopt new technologies. By nature, the industry is conservative but has had to adapt to the more rapidly changing demands of clients and stakeholders in recent times, in part due to climate change pressures; but if we are to innovate the industry, we must also innovate our ways of working and engaging.

“If we are to innovate the industry, we must also innovate our ways of working and engaging”.

The last few months have seen an increase in the use of technologies like GIS (geographical information system) and GoAigua, helping water companies to adapt to changes in supply and demand, and novel methods to analyse wastewater for virus fragments – allowing the water sector to assist government in making public health decisions.

Traditional engineering designs are often completed by multidisciplinary engineers sketching out design concepts on a paper together, before passing it on to a draftsman to convert into a CAD drawing or 3D model. The value of 3D modelling, from completing successful bids, to estimation, to stakeholder engagement is now known and we cannot underestimate the amount of collaboration that goes into the creation of these models – learning to do so successfully from remote locations is crucial.

However, Neil, a CAD Leader for a Water Utility in the UK points out that many people who are working at home are doing so in make-shift environments, which would not be suitable for longer-term remote working. Organisations also have a responsibility to ensure that employees have an ergonomic work-station set-up to minimize physical strain on the body from constant sitting and working with screens, which would still be applicable when employees are working from home.

Jason, a CAD manager working in Sydney also highlights data and information networks as an issue, stating, “Our drawings, electronic resources and even schedules all reside on central computers which were not set up for the volume of data to be transferred externally. This has led to excessive load times and often computer failures”. He also points out that drafting teams often need access to large format printers, and design manuals which are often not available electronically. He adds, “the physical copies are heavily annotated by a dozen designers … helping to ensure that key learnings from past projects are implemented”. As a team leader he also spends large portions of his day assisting with minor technique improvements or trouble shooting simple issues, sitting side-by-side with a colleague.

Perhaps in addition to highlighting existing limitations of working from home, this period has also caused many to adapt to a different way of working. Frederick, a Water Researcher who also recently completed his PhD noted that “Studying/working from home was an adjustment at first … I’m now much better at digital tasking than before, even doing martial arts training that way!”

Having tested the limits and capabilities of our existing IT infrastructure – arguably what is left to do in order for remote working to work seamlessly for businesses is to address current infrastructure shortcomings and continue the shift in cultural work practices. This would allow the sector to continue addressing the upcoming challenges we face. However, businesses must also consider their human capital.

Many organisations are woefully equipped to ensure the ongoing mental well-being of their employees

Despite the leaps that the engineering sector has taken in the past decade, from providing access to Employee Assistance Programmes to engineering firms working to normalize discussions around mental health, many engineering organisations are still falling short in their efforts to support their employees, particularly for FIFO workers, women, and other minorities, potentially due to outdated beliefs that employers are only responsible for an employee’s physical well-being.

In relation to remote working post Covid-19 and the inherent isolation this brings, many companies are simply not ready. “You can give people phones, Skype, instant messaging apps … these don’t replace the need to be amongst others [for our own] mental health”, says Neil, who has advocated for a greater awareness of the mental health impacts of prolonged working from home. The value of break times around the water-cooler should not be underestimated, in addition to the informal project-related chats that occur during these breaks.

Adrian highlighted that being remote from colleagues and clients removes the ability to read non-verbal cues, and requiring a far greater awareness of what others are communicating in order to minimise the stress that arises from miscommunications.

Given the rise in mental health impacts that we have seen in recent months, there is reason to believe that ongoing isolation leads to decreased mental and physical well-being, which organisations should care about because, apart from the obvious moral responsibilities, it will ultimately will affect business performance and continuity.

Australian businesses reportedly lose up to $6.5billion each year by failing to provide early mental health services/treatment to their employees. There are also legal obligations of employers under Australian legislation to recognize and promote mental health as part of part of creating “a safe and healthy workplace … [and] building a safe work environment, one that will not create or exacerbate mental health problems and where workers with mental illness are properly supported”.

Where do we go from here?

I have been grateful that I don’t also have to fulfill the crazy trifecta of paid employment as well as parenting and teaching right now. Here’s what I’ve found in interviewing my fellow water sector colleagues who have:

  1. Spending more time at home with the children has had both positive and negative outcomes depending on how much support you have and the quality the time spent together;
  2. Working from home with kids requires work to be split up into blocks, sometimes late at night;
  3. No commuting means more time for exercise, work, or to spend with family;
  4. Remote working has led many people and organizations to work more effectively in the digital world, but limitations still exist;
  5. Despite this, organizations have a long way to go to safeguard the mental health of all their employees, particularly those working remotely;
  6. Face-to-face meetings are good, but in future perhaps we will have learned to spend this time more meaningfully.

As we emerge from lock-down, governments continue to encourage safe social distancing on public transport and working from home until a more permanent solution can be developed. The size of our office-based workforce may change forever.

I can imagine that many managers will feel more confident managing remote teams and we will see a workforce that comes into the office only for meetings, workshops, or collaboration exercises. Will this lead to more quality time spent together as a family? My roots are grey and I haven’t been to the gym in what feels like forever. As I ask my 6 year old (still in his pyjamas because I ran out of energy to make him get changed) for the umpteenth time to complete his writing task for the day, whilst bouncing my toddler on my knee and swatting away her attempts to type on my keyboard, I can only say – maybe?

Happy Diwali

I haven’t had a chance to write in the recent months, in large part due to the joyful arrival of my baby daughter.

I would have liked to write a short piece on Diwali and the triumph of light over darkness – similar to the post I wrote at Eid earlier this year; but instead let me just leave you with a message of peace, love, and light.

May the coming year be a wonderful one for you and may your kindness be paid back a hundred-fold.

Indonesia’s key exports and the importance of water stewardship

This post was originally published as part of the Australian Water Partnership’s Kini Initiative. To see original post, click here.

The Alliance for Water Stewardship is involved in a number of demonstration projects across Indonesia. Here is why the success of these projects in modelling good water stewardship is important to the country.

Basja Jantowski’s interview on Water Stewardship in Indonesia and the work that she has been involved in with the Alliance for Water Stewardship is highly relevant as Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world. Furthermore, as Basja mentions, Indonesia’s geographical position makes it a key exporter to the rest of the region, with agribusiness forming one of three major sectors in Indonesia.

Indonesia is ranked number 16 in the world by GDP and is reliant on a number of water-intensive exports such as:

With exports representing 19% of GDP and agribusiness responsible for employing 45% of the 127 million person strong Indonesian labour force, the agricultural sector plays an important role in addressing the SDGs. In fact, the current government’s National Medium-Term Development Plan 2015-2019 ties in to the SDGs with its emphasis on social, economic, and environmental development, as well as on the development of law and governance structures.

The importance of water stewardship in Indonesia 

Basja mentions the need for greater awareness on the linkages between risks such as deforestation and urbanisation, and water stewardship. Issues of water stewardship in the context of agribusiness are just as important. An example of an initiative that aims to bridge the current knowledge gap that exists around critical water risks to business is the CEO Water Mandate – an aspirational commitment to the management of water in areas of business relating to:

  • Direct operations;

  • Supply chain and watershed management;

  • Collective action;

  • Public policy;

  • Community engagement, and

  • Transparency.

How water intensive is palm oil cultivation and production?

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, and together with Malaysia, supplies over 86% of the world’s palm products. Although highly productive and an important source of income for many poor rural communities in the region, meeting the increase in global demand means that the industry is a main contributor to the deforestation of intact tropical rainforests and loss of biodiversity in one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth. Palm oil cultivation also results in the decline of water quality and the release of greenhouse gases from wide-scale deforestation and draining of mature peatlands.

Photo of roadways surrounded by palm plantation, by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash.

There is a clear need to better understand the impact that palm and other monoculture plantations have on the quality of local freshwater sources and resulting downstream stresses. Water footprint studies have shown that water consumption by palm plantations depends on location of the plantation and growing period of the oil palm, with seasonal rainfall potentially supplying most of the water requirements for oil palm growth and irrigation making up any shortfall. The methodology for calculating water requirements over a crop cycle requires further development, with the 2014 Muhammad-Muaz study recommending that a “water stress index” local to the growing area also be incorporated into any calculation.

What does this mean for water stewardship?

Basja highlighted that we need to work on addressing existing knowledge gaps relating to the role of water in creating sustainable and prosperous communities. Key to achieving this is building trust and close relationships between various stakeholders. In addition to direct engagement with businesses, governments and the community, there also still exists a knowledge gap relating to water consumption patterns of one of Indonesia’s key export commodities – oil palm products. In any numerical modelling exercise, appropriate input data and assumptions are crucial to providing accurate and meaningful results on which policy decisions can be based. Therefore water footprint modelling should be conducted carefully when discussing large scale water consumptive activities in any country or context.

Water and Religion – reflections on Eid

Today marks the end of the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan, Eid-al-fitri, Aidilfitri, Idul Fitri, or other variations, depending on where you’re from. It is the year 1439 AH, marking the number of years since 622 AD – when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers journeyed from Mecca to Media.

This led me to reflect on the special role that water plays in many religious rituals – not just in the Islamic faith, but in all of the major religions and in many other faiths as well. A study of 230 countries conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2012 found that more than 8 in 10 people around the world identify with a religious group – six years ago this amounted to 5.8 billion people worldwide.

Photo by Mattia Serrani on Unsplash

The water practices associated with these religions almost always requires clean or pure water. In Islam, water is used in a number of rituals, including washing of the physical body before each of the 5 daily prayers – a symbol of cleansing of the spiritual self. In the absence of clean water, clean sand may be used.

In Shinto – the indigenous religion of Japan, deities are believed to inhabit natural objects such as trees, rocks, springs, and mountains. Places for cleansing oneself are part of shinto shrines and water bodies are believed to have purifying properties.

Hindus believe in the sacredness of water bodies and rivers. Physical cleanliness is closely linked to spiritual well being and morning cleansing with water is part of daily religious life. The Ganges River is held to be one of the most sacred rivers in the Hindu faith, and it is believed that the waters of the Ganges possess healing powers, and purifies those who bathe in its waters.

Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

It makes me think of access to clean water and the impact that this lack of access has on peoples’ abilities to practice their religious beliefs in the manner that they would want. At present, 844 million people worldwide don’t have access to clean water close to home, and 31% of schools don’t have access to clean water. This doesn’t even discuss the darker realities of illnesses and deaths caused by lack of access to clean water. The holy Ganges is severely polluted, and yet millions still bathe in it in the same way that worshipers of generations past did.

Whether or not you believe in a deity, and whether or not you belong to a faith group, maybe today is also a day to think about the role that water plays in day-to-day ritual and well-being. A day to realise the value and importance of this thing we take for granted because it’s there just about whenever we need it. A day to appreciate that those who don’t have that access depend on us all – not just on governments – to ensure that there’s enough to go around both for today’s people and for future generations.


“Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were joined together as one united piece, then We parted them? And We have made from water every living thing.” – Quran 21:30


“If we were to walk in the woods and a spring appeared just when we became thirsty, we would call it a miracle. And if on a second walk, if we became thirsty at just that point again, and again the spring appeared, we would remark on the
coincidence. But if that spring were there always, we would take it for granted and cease to notice it. Yet is that not more miraculous still?”
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700–1760)


“And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes” – Bible, Ezekiel 47:9

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

A couple of charities and sites you can support to help with this cause:


Interview: There’s only One Water – CEO David Sparke on rainwater harvesting, and assisting natural stormwater treatment processes.

I was recently fortunate enough to visit OneWater’s ( CEO, David Sparke at his warehouse offices in French’s Forest, Sydney. I got to interview him, meet his team, and chat over a cup of tea on a brisk autumn day. I also took a peek at some of OneWater’s primary and secondary stormwater handling technologies and the engineer in me was impressed by their simple practicality and ease of maintenance. David himself was a keen advocate of stormwater treatment and harvesting, passionately sharing his views on many topics relating to development, planning and water quality in Sydney and surrounds.

Below is the transcript of our interview, annotated from its original raw format for better readability:

Who is David Sparke, and what work does OneWater do?

M: I am here with David Sparke of OneWater. David is the CEO and has been very generous in his time to sit down with me today to do this interview. Let’s start.

D: Thanks, Marlene. David Sparke is my name I’ve been involved with OneWater since 2002 when I established the brand. OneWater was based on the fact that there is only OneWater resource, regardless of how we interact with it in its various forms.

I have had a lifelong interest in water and an association with water. I started off my career with Sydney Water or what was then known as MWSDB, working on constructing gravity mains for sewers in the Northern Beaches. I then continued my career in a bureaucracy before retiring from that to do some undergrad and postgrad studies in international marketing. I eventually came back to water, and built up a business based on management and transfer of water. This evolved into rainwater harvesting, which became topical around the mid to early 2000s when political and media goodwill drove rainwater harvesting projects. The approach was to give people incentives to install rainwater harvesting systems, principally in the domestic space. The introduction of community water grants further created an incentive for schools and community centres to install harvesting systems. This period was quite successful for us.

Since then, Australia has experienced the GFC, along with a decline in housing starts, which shrunk the construction sector, and substantially affected water businesses. We restructured into finding solutions that promoted water quality and water as a resource. At this time I got involved with Austrade on a few water missions to the United States and into China, and gained a good understanding of the water markets and conditions that exist over there. Australia is highly regarded due to our experience from the 2000s, so we’ve got quite a good marketing position and global sense to drive the water market globally.

So what has happened to our attention on water in the last decade?

D: I think water has been overtaken to a large degree by the focus on energy but they do work hand in hand – there’s a Nexus between the two and water is now becoming a little more prominent again on the basis of shortages.

OneWater’s processes avoid adding chemicals or other elements into the water, which is often part of many traditional treatment systems, but which further contaminate the water. We view nature as the ultimate water treatment process and we have to support nature as much as possible to allow the normal processing of water that occurs in natural systems to happen. The OneWater system allows contaminants from say industrial sites (including roads) to be managed by various means in diversion, segmenting small areas and independent treatment – often including an oil/water coalescing system.

M: Thanks David. It’s fascinating that you highlighted Australia’s prominence at one point, ahead of many other developed countries in terms of rainwater harvesting and treatment. You’re able to draw parallels between the water quality in Australia and places in Europe and elsewhere. How do you feel we compare now post GFC [Global Financial Crisis]?

D: Well it’s my view but I think we’ve substantially fallen behind in a lot of aspects in at least the last 10 years. In Australia now I think the emphasis seems to have shifted to landscape architecture as the solution for water quality and the ubiquitous GPT, which in my view is misconceived as a primary treatment device, it’s no more than a separator, and that’s not sufficient for good water quality. It doesn’t sustain ecology – which, when discharging to the waterways, is often the benchmark by which we can say that we are treating water well.

M: Just for our audience could you expand a little on the GPT acronym?

D: GPT stands for gross pollutant trap, which in municipal infrastructure is the primary go to device for stormwater treatment. Ultimately a pits and pipes drainage solution does not adequately address water quality – it’s basically handling the effects of water flow on the surface. 

During a peak stormwater event, the GPT may not be able to cope, or it blocks up, and no treatment is done. Many GPT’s also claim to capture hydrocarbons but the designs and high velocity flows makes this highly improbable. GPT’s also fail to reduce the soluble contaminants that result due to other major issues of algae contamination, oxygen depletion, anoxic reactions with the captured organics and rotting litter with water quality significantly degrading in a relatively short time. The OneWater systemized product solutions and engineered design prevent this by treating all the flows; and by regularly maintaining reset the devices after a storm water event, this approach ensures superior potential for contaminant reductions before release to waterways or wetlands. This systemized treatment train provides support for nature to complete the tertiary treatment. 

Photo by Oliver Swinburne on Unsplash

The OneWater way of handling stormwater

M: Thanks. So OneWater gets involved in rainwater harvesting, stormwater treatment as well as treatment and transfer packages for conventional sewage treatment. You also provide the engineering Design Services associated with these products. Could you give us some examples of some of OneWater’s more notable projects here in Australia or elsewhere?

D: We had a major position in the Sydney market for schools and community projects where we did roof capture and storage, to be used for services such as toilet flushing, air-conditioning, and maintenance needs. These were successful projects that led me to believe that our solution needed to look at the rainwater that ends up on the ground where the majority of our water falls. Roof water capture is convenient as a cost effective solution, but when water ends up on the ground it picks up any contaminants in the catchments. 

M: Yeah that’s a very good point actually because if we’re not treating the diffuse sources, the problem just grows and grows as water travels through the catchment. Someone once described it to me as being like death by a thousand cuts by the time it gets out to the bottom of the catchment.

How can we improve the way we manage stormwater in Australia?

M: You recently gave a great presentation at the Australian Water Association seminar on valuing liveability. What do you see are the opportunities within Australia in particular in our Urban centres for improving the way we currently manage our water and wastewater?

D: In that presentation I had a couple of outlines of the Sydney Basin and it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to see that we don’t have a holistic plan for managing our water sources and I don’t think that that will contribute to  Sydney’s liveability into the future. We’ve got some major projects like just outside here – a $500-million project, but all that’s been installed is drainage. All the vegetation has been cleared to facilitate the infrastructure in place yet the whole ridge has been drained, and it doesn’t to me indicate any focus or any commitment to environmental protection and water quality discharge.

M: That’s a really interesting point David, there’s a lot of land clearing going on in Sydney but also in many other large urban centres around the world. What do you think is the key message here regarding the way we have to deal with storm water and also build new infrastructure?

D: Groundwater represents potentially up to 80% of our available potable water. We’ve also got surface water, and we’ve got harvested water. We’ve got sewage treatment plants which discharge into inland rivers – the Nepean Hawksbury and South Creek. That river system surrounds the Sydney basin. We’ve got a series of ocean outfalls with only screening before release. That water is still a resource if we treat it properly. 

Harvested water can be retained until it is needed.  If a storage volume of at least 100 cubic meters were available there would be a reserve of water to utilise. This form of water conservation ensures that stormwater is not wasted.

M: Hence the term OneWater because it’s the one resource.

D: It’s the OneWater and we have support nature in doing the tertiary treatment, and for the sustainability of our natural water resources. 

Photo by Aman Bhargava on Unsplash

Integrating water ideologies

M: You’ve done a fair bit of work, David, in overseas markets as well. How does Australia compare in terms of adoption of sustainable technologies, as well as the government drive to roll out sustainable technologies, or any other differentiating factors that you’ve noticed?

D: We’ve had a few water missions into China. China has their sponge city ideology, which relies on infiltration technology. In my view this is only a starting point in looking at a more holistic solution. China has got 3 different environmental (climatic) conditions, including a relatively a dry central area, and a tropical south. That presents challenges for an ideology that spreads across the country.

In Australia, we`ve got WSUD (Water Sensitive Urban Design), the USA has LID (Low Impact Development), the British and Europeans have SUDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems). Although largely similar, we haven’t got a benchmark that everybody can follow and achieve.

There was a NSW state government urban growth discussion paper on water quality, setting vigorous contaminant reduction standards, but the industry was not ready to deviate from the status quo. In water conservation terms, for example in NSW, an original target of 40% reduction in the use of potable water from mains source has exceeded expectations over a 10 year period and it has now been moved to 50%. I’d like to see the aspirational targets for contaminant reduction set for industry, which industry can then plan and attain over time.

We need strong leaders or champions in the stormwater market to push for better water quality and for maintaining the environmental conditions for the ecology. 

Reasons for investing in stormwater quality

M: I think you make a very good point there about our attitudes to stormwater. I was at a WSUD conference earlier this year where somebody mentioned that they worked for the Hong Kong drainage department, and that we need to stop thinking about stormwater as something that needs to be drained away, but rather a resource that we need to treat and make better use of.

To those that are still wondering whether or not to invest in water harvesting or urban rainwater treatment or landscaping, could you go through some of the pros and cons?

D: Stormwater pollution and qualitiy needs investment, and it’s a good market. Major infrastructure projects often treat stormwater as one of the 8 or 10 elements of the project and it consequently does not receive proper prioritisation. Collaboration by an astute investor with our SME creative skills could greatly benefit many projects. I’ve created a conceptual design to improve water quality and back that up with having product solutions that are flexible and not necessarily restricted to projects that are civil works. With a good investment regime, Australia can pick up a lot more of the leadership that’s needed in stormwater and help drive that. As I say there is a substantial market there.

I think I’ve created an approach that can be implemented and I think it can create a strong process model, but I do need some support. As an SME it needs the right investors to do that, and collaboration to pick up and drive good outcomes for stormwater.

M: So correct me if I’m wrong but basically what you offer is a better long term solution that utilises natural processes as well as using a few engineered products as well?

D: The basic concept is that we can’t get the value and the amenity out of water by channelling everything right through the catchment, right through to the bottom of the catchment before we do anything about it. My concept starts at the very top of the catchment so that we’ve got good quality water, we’ve got a fantastic urban amenity and the use of water and the waterways are protected all the way along, and it just seems logical that the top of the catchment is where we need to start. The products that I’ve designed facilitate that catchment issue and can assist in creating our liveable cities of the future.

Last words from OneWater

M: So what’s your vision for OneWater going into the future?

D: I’d like to see a new approach to stormwater management. I use the term harvesting to the whole of the process. The process needs some hydraulic residence time for nature to do it’s work but we shouldn’t be using stormwater and our waterways as a disposal channel. We have to remove those contaminants to a land-based facility and view them as resources that can metamorphose into alternate products. I’d like to set up some collaborations to get some investment and lead stormwater to where it needs to be – positioning it for sustainability and resource resilience.

M: You’ve shared a lot of really good insights with us David. Are there any last things that you’d like to add?

D: I think we can easily apply the product design that I’ve created. It’s well thought out. It’s science-based. It’s materials based. It takes account of the drainage and the regulations and the guidelines for water quality and I think we need to get beyond the heavy engineering concrete pits and pipes and see the value of alternate solutions.


### Author’s note: The Nexus Journalist receives no commission, income or royalties from the publication of this interview, and holds no vested interests in OneWater’s products, services or other offerings. Views and opinions of the interviewee do not necessarily reflect the author’s views ###

On being authentic and inspiring change


Too often I come across people who try too hard to be what they’re not. We all do it sometimes – put an exceptional person or idea up on a pedestal and aspire to be more like them.

One thing to remember though is that every person has that unique spark that makes them an inspiration to others. Some might call it your “talent”, or in the corporate world, your “USP” (unique selling point). I like to think of it as the best version of yourself.

We all have a set of values and guiding principles that we live by. We all have something that excites us and sparks joy. We all want to do well in our everyday lives, recognising that every person has their own paramateres for defining this, and to feel proud of what we do.

I say bring that spark to the forefront – wear it like a badge of honour, and cast off the carefully crafted and cultivated outer layer of organisational culture – you know the one, it makes you say things like “we need to do more with less”, and “do I have your buy-in on this?”, or “We need to empower our staff to make better decisions”…. No. Just don’t.

Be your authentic self and you will not only be respected as an authentic and trusted member of your team, but believe it or not, you will also sound smarter and be a more pleasant person to work with. You will then be the one who others look to for leadership, even if you’re not in a leadership position.

Then you can crack on with changing the world!

Innovating our businesses to remain relevant in the age of big data

I had a great catch up with an ex colleague recently. A charismatic people-person who managed me briefly during a tumultuous company restructure around 8 years ago – another continent, another career, another lifetime ago.

We got to talking about innovation, and the lack of appetite for it in our particular industry in Australia compared to other countries where we have both worked. This has been partly driven by a number of factors, including economic downturn and the usual cycle of redundancies, caution and low morale that follows; but is also partly down to traditionally conservative views held by the Australian public sector – even those that have been partially or wholly privatised in the last two decades. The private sector, who we always associate with having the economic means and the will to innovate, are consequently less compelled to do so if Clients aren’t willing to pay for the efforts.

Is Australia a nation of conservative thinkers?

Making some broad generalizations, Australia’s geographical isolation as an island-continent means that there is an inherent isolationist culture. Australian politics has a history of mobilizing racial fears, or marginalizing minority groups for political gain. In such a confrontationist environment it is often a safer and more popular option to just maintain the status quo rather than rock the boat with new ideas.

The construction industry in Europe has for at least the past decade, if not more, adopted an approach of maximising off-site construction and testing, with strong justifications for doing so:

  1. Less time spent on site, leading to:
    • shorter construction programmes,
    • fewer on-site personnel, and
    • reducing occupational health and safety risks.
  2. Optimising modular off-site design and designing for transportability, meaning:
    • reduced production costs,
    • improved on-site logistics and specialist skill requirements.
    • bottom line cost savings.
  3. Less down time due to injury and less down time due to delays = lower project costs and construction programme.

The ingredients required for innovation

However, innovation doesn’t happen instantaneously. It is a creative process that may require trial and error, and the coming together of different types of thinkers with different personalities.

Too often I hear the upper tiers of management decree that “we must innovate”, but there isn’t always a budget or the patience from these same people for innovation. “We need to work smarter” – but usually within the limitations of their existing ways of working.

If we want to be the young go-getting nation of achievers – Malcolm Turnbull’s “Innovation Nation“, we not only have to contend with our comparatively high energy and wage costs relative to our key competing nations, we also need to allow innovation to happen. For large corporations this means:

1. Separate an innovation team:

If we want to innovate our companies we need to identify the right talent and separate an innovation team from day-to-day responsibilities – let them come up with new ideas. This might be hard with today’s budgetary constraints, but remember that Dyson innovated for 10 years before turning their first profits, and now they’re a world leading technology brand.

2. Strong leadership:

We need strong leadership to recognize existing problems, see the future and lead companies through the challenging transition to the age of big data.

3. Collaboration:

A single company or a single person rarely holds all the best ideas. In fact Lego – a globally successful organisation that has remained relevant through the generations, recognise that 99.99% of the brightest people in the world don’t work for them. They collaborate with customers and other partners to create products that people want to buy.

4. Ensure your staff remain relevant:

In 2006, then CEO at Australia Post recognised that the industry was on the precipice of a technological era that would render many of their roles redundant. They re-skilled many of their employees to ensure continuity of the business.

5. Allow your staff to think BIG:

The best innovation sessions I’ve attended have been the ones where at the start, a facilitator declares that “No idea is too stupid or too ridiculous” – I notice in these sessions that most people will come up with very good ideas, workable, practical and sensible. Others will come up clever ideas that we all wish we had thought of. Then there are the ideas that everyone initially dismisses as being too hard, impractical or just weird. Like when the scientist Brian Cox comes up with the idea of mining minerals from the Kuiper asteroid belt in outer space. Crazy? Apparently it’s an idea that some of the world brightest (and richest) minds are already looking into. Don’t dismiss the wild ideas too soon.

6. Set Innovation Metrics:

Companies love reports and governance, but innovation takes time, so set some metrics you can measure your team against if  you don’t want someone to decide that an innovation team is an unnecessary cost to the company.

See. Lead. Realise. Evolve.

I’m going to leave you with this tag line from Business Transformation services company, Squiz. It’s their roadmap for helping business leaders to drive change and remain competitive in today’s ever changing world.

SEE the change

LEAD the change

REALISE the opportunity

EVOLVE to remain competitive


Next time you’re tempted to tell your employees to “Work smarter, not harder”, remember, you’re better than this, so are they, and so is your company.


5 things I learned as an engineer when I studied Integrated Water Management

A professional engineer discovers Integrated Water Management (but I had no idea what it was really).

I had spent nearly 8 years working as an engineer (mechanical if you must know) in the water sector – in construction, consulting, and for a water utility company by the time I decided that I needed to further my education and learn something new. By 2009 I’d gained enough experience to get my Engineering Chartership – an important feather in your cap if you want to approve engineering designs and mentor younger engineers.

I knew I wanted to pursue a career in water. I was also at that stage in my career where I could see a vast field of opportunities ahead of me and wanted to put myself ahead of the competition, even though I wasn’t entirely sure at that point whether I wanted to pursue promotion in a technical role, or move into management.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Like anyone else who grew up in the age of discount air fares and easy travel, the world was my oyster, so I started looking up courses in water management that I could do – from the United Kingdom, to the Netherlands, to North America, and Asia. I finally landed on the Master of Integrated Water Management, delivered of course, in Australia where I grew up. By this point I was living in London, with no immediate plans to move back to Australia. Luckily I was able to study by distance education. Online teaching technology was still relatively new and not without hiccups, but it worked. I tied the compulsory field trips in with visits to family, and worked full time, whilst studying part time over the next 3 years. It wasn’t easy.

What I learned during my studies in Integrated Water Resource Management

Coming from a background of hard-nosed contract managers and gruff construction engineers, the world of IWRM was totally different. In my cohort of students there were professionals from all sorts of backgrounds – educators, environmentalists, engineers, hydrogeologists, ecologists, lawyers, economists and more. It was truly humbling and educational just being around them. They came from all over the globe – Kenya, Zambia, USA, Canada, Chile, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, Vanuatu and Australia to name just a few countries. This course wasn’t going to just be about the best methods for excavating rocky soil, the best process for treating sewage, the safest way to construct a building, or most cost effective way to deliver a project. No it was so much more, which I’ll cover in other posts going forward.

For me, the 5 stand-out lessons were:

1. Rivers truly are the lifeblood of a city.

Rivers have throughout history provided societies with the means to grow food, live comfortably, transport goods, and stay hygienic. Amazing cities have grown up around rivers over the centuries, and slowly we’ve cleared away the trees and vegetation lining the river banks that protect them from erosion, flooding and pollution. Now that we know the importance of rivers in creating livable cities, governments worldwide are undertaking riparian restoration projects to return rivers a more natural state.

I learned how this can be done.

2. There are economic and social costs of not managing our natural resources carefully or engaging with local stakeholders

In the short term, fighting over who has the right to build on a particular piece of land or extract from a particular part of the river costs projects time and money. In the long term, if a project hasn’t considered the impacts to the environment or to local communities of a new scheme, the costs to the environment or community in terms of economic productivity, ecological impact or collective happiness may outweigh the benefits provided by the scheme. This is neither good for the Client, community, nor the company delivering the scheme – potentially costing $20 million per week. It is easy for a company that is just following instructions of a Client to pass environmental assessment and community engagement off as the Client’s responsibility, when in reality everybody holds responsibility in a project’s decision-making processes.

We have a duty to identify both short and long term scheme costs and benefits, and properly risk assess with communities in mind.

3. Everyone has competing values – they’re not necessarily right or wrong, just different

I once asked a respected professor how we decide what the “right” decision is on a project. Take for example a mine that excavates a mineral that is used in everyday products that we can’t live without – the mine provides a service that people need, and contributes to the economy. It provides jobs for the employees of the mine and for the local community. Yet it leaves an irreversible impact on the environment, often quite detrimental, which can’t simply be offset by planting some trees elsewhere. This impact on the environment may also have its own economic impacts in the longer term, or perhaps impact the cultural traditions of indigenous communities.

Know that our actions have consequences, no matter how good the intention.

4. We are faced with Wicked Problems

The previous point brings us to Wicked Problems. The fact that the world’s natural resources are finite and our population is ever growing means that we are faced with complex social problems that often have no solution. A wicked problem may by dealt with using approaches to improve the situation for those affected, but since each problem is unique and dependent on context and perspective, there is no template for how one should approach them.

Learn to listen to Wicked Problems and don’t assume there is an easy answer.

5. We need to rethink how we define the success of a project

I’ve spent my career delivering and managing projects. A successful project is often defined by whether or not the Client’s Brief is met on time and under budget. In recent years another key metric used is Client feedback – is your Client happy with the way you delivered the project as well as the end result? Yet it’s not often that projects are monitored and evaluated over a longer time-frame – over the life of the installed asset, or over a generation of the affected communities.

We don’t budget for ongoing monitoring and evaluation. We tend not to measure less tangible benefits such as social impact, goodwill, compliance or customer satisfaction. That doesn’t mean they are any less important.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project 01 on Unsplash

Actually there’s a sixth lesson

I’m forgetting one last important thing that funnily enough I hadn’t appreciated until I was more deeply immersed in my coursework. It’s women. Women are a catalyst for social change in ways that have been invisible throughout history, and women will continue to be the driving force for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and for effecting social change going into the future.

As a mother to a young boy I wonder what the world will be like when my son is a grown man. I will teach him that he is important. I will teach him that there are still places in the world where he will still be told he is more important than his female counterparts, and that this is unlikely to be true. I will teach him that there are also adversities facing young men that we have yet to address properly. Yet he will know that women in the community undertake many invisible jobs – jobs that have not yet received the proper recognition in our society. Women also wield influence, and have some great ideas and inspiring energy for making their societies a better place to live.

We need to let women do what they do best, but also recognize and celebrate their achievements.

Sorry for the long post. I’m not quite sure how to end this, so I’m just going to leave this here: