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!

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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.

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:

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Christmas is coming! Reach out more, waste less.

Don’t judge me – I LOVE CHRISTMAS. Love it. As much as I did as a child – possibly even more, because I now have my own child to share the joy with (my partner’s family never got into Christmas festivities much so he suffers through my excitement as any dutiful husband would!).

However, I’m not a fan of all the crap. All the plastic. The foam. The glitter. The waste.

What I like about Christmas is that it gives us all an excuse to reach out to people who we ordinarily might not make the effort to reach out to. Because we’re busy. Because they’re busy, and little Susan has swimming on this day, or little Mike has a birthday party to go to. Or the singletons – too cool for family activities, or too busy with work or hobbies. That’s ok, it’s modern life.

I enjoy having people over. My house is humble. It will never win any awards or be in any magazines. It can barely fit my family and all our belongings, especially now that we both do a lot of work from home. But our doors are always open to friends and acquaintances, for a chat, or just to hang out. At Christmas time I actually have an excuse to ask people over to our tiny abode and not just ask to “Meet up for coffee?”.

I also think that somewhere along the way, we forgot how to give and receive gifts in a way that is pleasant and genuinely brings joy. We receive gifts and automatically think of our reciprocal obligations. We give gifts because we feel we have to, or stoutly refuse to do so because we don’t want to conform to what we perceive to be a commercialization of an outdated tradition. It means there’s a whole seasonal economy being supported by the buying and selling of things people didn’t necessarily need in the first place.

Let’s also not forget that Christmas isn’t a happy time for everyone. It is a stressful time for many reasons and can be quite unpleasant for some. The Wayside Chapel in Sydney serves over 3,500 meals on Christmas morning to those who are lonely or homeless, and many other charity organisations have similar Christmas drives.

Christmas can bring people together and actually be a lovely time of year for joyously giving and graciously receiving, or it can be a lonely and anxiety-ridden event.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on how we can make Christmas a more pleasant, more sustainable, and less wasteful time for those around us, and ways that you can think of to reach out to others.

So however you celebrate (or not) this Christmas season, I hope that you’ll be happy and safe. Pass it on.