“Exploratory Research covers the topics of the future”

Interview with Geertje Pronk, Exploratory Research programme manager

KWR programme manager Geertje Pronk works on Exploratory Research (VO) every day. The aim of VO projects is to identify and experiment with developments so that drinking water companies can think about strategic measures for the future in good time. Pronk goes into detail about what VO is and who is involved, and describes inspiring studies.

“VO is a component of Sector Research. It focuses on issues that may become relevant for drinking water companies between five and ten years from now. So these projects are innovative, but they also involve uncertainty. VO studies look at new developments that have not yet been identified by drinking water companies. In Sector Research, we have thematic studies, such as Resources, Distribution or Hydroinformatics. The difference with thematic Sector Research projects is that we can take more risks and try out new topics or technologies. In the time ahead, we want to work on raising the VO profile, which is why we are publishing this newsletter as well. We want to establish contacts with water companies, share our observations, and hear from them about potentially interesting topics.”

Scanning the horizon

“We look for topics with ‘horizon scanning’, a method for identifying emerging technologies and future developments. They can come from anywhere. The operations of drinking water companies, for instance, or the scientific literature, trend watchers and scientific conferences. During that scanning work, we try to include as many dimensions as possible, such as economic, ecological and demographic factors. We produce trend alerts about these areas. On that basis, our theme coordinators provide suggestions for VO projects that they feel are important.”

“The VO Steering Committee then selects the most relevant topics and decides on the final VO studies. This group includes a futures analyst, a programme manager, the chief scientific officers (CSO) and a member of the KWR MT. They all contribute specific perspectives. Personally, I have my programme management outlook. What does a programme need? What ties in well with our other activities? Which topics are already being addressed elsewhere? Where is innovation needed? Using this integrated thinking, we try to involve a range of disciplines.”

Monitoring soil moisture

“A great technical example is the Drought Monitoring project, which combined different disciplines. KWR technician Martin Korevaar works on electronics at home as a hobby. He came up with a sensor that Brabant Water clients could install in their own gardens to measure soil moisture and decide whether to water their lawns. The idea was to raise client awareness in the field of water conservation. Our data scientist built a digital platform that provided clients with advice about watering.”

Social scientists also worked on this study. They observed that people followed the advice about watering and that they were more aware of their own watering habits. Approaches like this can make a valuable contribution to saving water during dry periods and flattening peak loads at water companies.”

Case study with deep learning

“I would also like to mention the Deep Explorations study. Deep learning is a term that is often thrown around and we wanted to clarify what it means. What can you do with it? What is the potential? In a case study, we looked at where large amounts of data were available and where the data could be of interest. That is how we turned to the identification of microplastics in drinking water. Deep learning helped us to work up analyses of spectrograph images. Processing that information manually involves an incredible amount of work. Algorithms helped to filter and identify the microplastics. This was a VO project with a more technical and scientific focus that also led to academic publications.”

“Drought Monitoring and Deep Explorations are nice examples of projects that lead to follow-up. Sometimes, we organise follow-up projects or develop lines of research on the basis of a VO project. That is one of the things we want to achieve. But we can take risks in VO projects and so there will be no potential follow-up in some topics. That’s fine as well; it doesn’t mean the project hasn’t been successful.”

Sound approach to exploratory research

“For us, VO is a way to explore and interpret new developments for the water sector in a well-researched and systematic way. We are eager to move forward with it. There are a lot of developments around the corner. With VO, we hope to contribute to solutions and anticipate future developments.”