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.

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.