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Social topology, towards a richer and more sustainable future

The Science and Technology in Society (STS) forum will shortly be held in Kyoto, Japan. Since 2004, the forum has dealt with the ‘lights and shadows of science and technology’, and I understand that more than 1,000 people from over 100 countries have already taken part. About half of these participants have been scientists, including a considerable number of Nobel laureates, a quarter have come from the political world, including heads of state, and another quarter from the business community, including top-level executives. The overall objective is to build a richer and more sustainable future by viewing developments over the next 100 to 500 years on the basis of the current state of scientific knowledge. A remarkably long-term perspective, but not one that is unusual in that part of the world. We have researched this question with regard to the water sector at KWR and found that Japan does in fact have a strikingly Long-Term Orientation. But can we actually direct the future over such long periods? Is there such a thing as a common thread provided by the past that might give us guidance for the future? If so, I hope that it shows us the way to a society in which life is good for all of the (20!) future generations concerned. I believe this involves three essential dimensions, all of which have to do with integration.

The first dimension refers to Temporal Integration, that is, to intergenerational connection and the effective transmission and development of ideals and societal values. The second has to do with Vertical Integration, by which I mean the quest for an egalitarian society in which differences in wealth, from a societal perspective, are relatively small. And the third dimension relates to Horizontal Integration, whereby the geographical differences in the first and second dimensions are so small that they generate collaboration and dialogue and not conflicts. In short, the first has to do with binding generations in time, the second with social solidarity and the third with the shared concept of a just society. I would like to describe all of this as the quest for the Social Topology of a humane and sustainable Anthropocene. A single world that is in permanent development toward a richer and more sustainable future under the pressure of time. Such a world would of course develop over the course of centuries.

So, in this context, what kind of key developments should we be concerned with in the water sector? What is changing the world?

I have made a comparison of the most recent views expressed about this from three different perspectives: that of the world of science via the Scientific Foresight Unit (POA) of the European Union; that of the corporate world (World Economic Forum); and, lastly, that of the world of politics (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals). What I looked at most closely was whether water was included in these perspectives.

POA names ten scientific and technological revolutions that will mark the future. They are found for instance in the areas of transport-related innovations (Electric Vehicles, Magnetic Levitation), Quantum Technologies and Big Data & Health. Water does not feature explicitly. I think that water, from a scientific perspective, is a typical example of a non-monodisciplinary, but essentially transdisciplinary, field of expertise. That is, it integrates knowledge from a variety of different disciplines.

For its part, the World Economic Forum, with a number of large corporations at the helm, attributes a key role to water. From this economic and business perspective, water is an important factor of production. Moreover, it also endorses the fundamental principle that everyone should have access to sufficient water of good quality.

This is also echoed by the political world which, in the framework of the United Nations, has formulated Sustainable Development Goals in the area of Clean Water and Sanitation. From a political and societal perspective, the notion that access to sufficient and safe drinking water should be a basic right for every world citizen has now become firmly rooted. This makes it a fundamental right that must be enjoyed by every person on the planet in the future.

I see water primarily as a societal and technological system that has connected people with each other through the centuries, and will continue doing so in the future. This connection is based on the idea that water is a Common Good as well as a Fundamental Right. Water is so vital to a healthy society that it connects us scientifically, technologically and economically. Much of the knowledge and expertise in this sector takes the form of infrastructure. At times this has led to the creation of typical landscapes – the result, for instance, of building polders or taming of rivers with dikes. But the introduction of sewerage systems and the installation of distribution networks for drinking water have also played a part in shaping cities. Water-related infrastructure is frequently also very visible and survives through the generations. Indeed, some of this infrastructure has even achieved culture heritage status – take, for example, the Pont du Gard aqueduct in France, built in 50 CE, the Rialto Bridge in Venice (1600), but also the more recent case of the 1936 Hoover Dam in the US. Water is therefore primarily a connecting technological system, which integrates knowledge from a great number of disciplines. In this context, it is important to realise that the further development of such a technological system can entail so-called sunk-costs effects. In essence, this refers to the behaviour whereby we continue investing in a particular technology because we have already invested so much in it. The kind of dramatic consequences – including the downfall of entire societies – that this virtually compulsive behaviour can lead to have been extensively studied. A well-known water-related example is the highly developed society of ancient Mesopotamia, where the persistent use of particular irrigation techniques led to soil salinisation and ultimately to civilizational collapse.

I think that this all shows that the water sector provides a good mirror of society: it incorporates political (justice), commercial (economic incentives) and scientific (theoretical principles) trends and problems in an integrated fashion. This persuades me of the value of re-examining the Social Topology of the water sector with an eye to the sustainability challenges our societies confront today – particularly in view of what we now know about the sunk-costs effects in the more distant past. In other words, is our water sector in fact optimally designed, given the enormous environmental challenges the world faces? One possible conclusion of such an analysis could actually be that we will need to design a new, far more integrated utilities sector. A socially cohesive technological system whose objectives are centred on a circular economy, and in which the bar is, necessarily, set very high. A societal system that is resilient to the pressure of time and flexible, so that it can avoid sunk-costs effects while being well suited for the sustainability challenges we confront.