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.

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