Jaarbeeld 2023

EGU 2023 – Inspiration, collaboration and social relation

Blog 3 of 4

This April, KWR was well represented at the General Assembly 2023 of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna. This conference is astonishingly large: thousands of talks, posters and side activities are enjoyed by over fifteen thousand live visitors (and by even more that are seamlessly tuned in online). Accordingly, the disciplines covered are overwhelmingly diverse. Physical, ecological and social fundamentals; technical instrumentation and digital methods; short and long-term policy and governance: each is discussed with respect to everything that resides between the core of our earth and the atmospheres of exoplanets!

At the fringes of a large array of hydrology sessions, a community that focuses on the urban water system has gained a foothold, giving even me a place to ply my Water Infrastructure trade. More than ever, though, I feel equally inspired by the ideas presented at sessions that I never would have seen at a default WIS conference. As I enjoy a remarkably smooth train ride home, I’m writing you to share some highlights that make me happy to have travelled to this ‘off-brand’ conference.

The headers of the paragraphs below paraphrase insights gained from some of the visited sessions.

Figure: curious researchers, professionals with an integral perspective, coordinating colleagues, or kids in a candy shop?

Natural hazards are human-made…

[…or at least partly, since natural phenomena turn into disasters only when they exploit the vulnerabilities in human systems.]

First of all, let’s focus on the fact that the EGU veritably breathes climate research. I attended a ‘Great Debate in the Geosciences’ where prominent climate scientists reflected on questions like why policymakers are still slow to respond to the warnings of the scientific community and whether climate scientists should take a more activist position to help things along. On the technical side, I was thoroughly impressed with the community’s insight into the rhythm of the earth. With remarkably elegant models, various speakers explained how we can understand and describe the various cyclic or meta-stable, interrelated patterns in phenomena like the turning of the oceans, the growth of the forests, the formation of the polar ice caps and the level of the seas. The speakers immediately went on, of course, to show how these rhythms will soon be disrupted by irreversible Tipping Points – either severely or brutally, depending on the chosen IPCC climate scenario. I suppose there is nothing new for me as a citizen, but there is no substitute for hearing these things as a scientist firsthand from the source.

Speaking of rhythm, however, there were definitely other inspiring topics to marvel at. In a session about Exploring the Art-Science Interface, composer Hiroto Nagai presented a stunning piece of music that consisted of combined geodata time-series from, i.a.: shortwave radiation, precipitation and even climate history data uncovered from layers in the polar ice. In a completely different session, on Fibre-optic Point and Distributed Sensing, I listened to songs of whales visiting Norwegian fjords and to tremors shaking up the lunar surface, both recorded with a glass fibre technology that we ourselves piloted at KWR the previous week to demonstrate its uses for leak detection and network condition monitoring.

Willingness to cooperate is a key ingredient for adaptive capacity…

[…as are (financial) resources and awareness. Even when adaptive capacity seems present, though, adaptive action is not guaranteed]

Every time I visited an ‘unrelated’ session, I couldn’t help but feel like intruding upon a tight-knit, celebrating family. Those fears turned out to be baseless, of course, and I found some common ground pretty quickly. In a session about Natural Hazards, I exchanged contact information with a modeller who was very eager to add the drinking water system to his integral model of the recovery of interdependent urban infrastructure. In a session about soil science, I met a scientist working with a technique perfect for validating a model for porous pipe material degradation we have been working on. The best thing: he was looking for people able to help him model his experiments!

In a session with my own family (co-convened by Ina), we exchanged ideas about Digital Water and Interconnected Urban Infrastructure. Especially inspiring were the presented Testbed for Smart Water Infrastructure and the Gamified Hydraulic Model Builder. I will be looking for opportunities to expose our Dutch utilities to these developments soon. I finished my own presentation with an open invitation to students and PhD candidates to come to KWR to work together on our latest exercises in Network optimization. Indeed, someone in the audience approached us later on, and we will have a visitor doing exactly that this summer; amazing!

The social fabric is essential for the resilience of communities…

[…and should therefore receive more attention during disaster response measures and reconstruction.]

A final thing I very much enjoyed about visiting EGU was doing so with twelve colleagues from six different teams. We hardly saw each other during sessions but joined breakfasts, lunches, coffee breaks, and diners, and, of course, the group app brought us together in a new way that will no doubt enhance our future daily life at KWR. A good example of how this ‘professional vacation’ is both fun and functional was a riveting, two-hour-long discussion I had with Xin and Peter about how we can help the utilities think about system flexibility and adaptive design in a structured way. A cross-team collaboration on the subject is inevitable now and will likely keep us busy for several years. Did we have to go all the way to Vienna to do that? Yes! It is my honest expectation that it would have been far more difficult to find both the mindset and the time slot required to achieve such a thing during our daily life of meetings and active research.


Returning inspired and invigorated, I think back to when I started out as a researcher. I always had some mental difficulty ‘justifying’ going to conferences. If that sounds familiar, hopefully, my highlights will help you reconsider and maybe, in two years’ time, I will see you in Vienna.


For more impressions, read the blogs of my colleagues Ina Vertommen, Peter van Thienen, and Janine de Wit.