GRROW: young generation of drinking water professionals explores the future

Looking ahead to drinking water supplies in 2070 in intergenerational dialogue

What will the Dutch system for drinking water look like in 2070? To answer that question, it is precisely younger people who will be working in the exploratory research project GRROW. After all, they will still be here then. They will put questions to their older colleagues and, with the information gathered, work together on describing the future. What will change, what will actually stay the same? And why do drinking water companies do what they do? The project focuses on the development of a new approach to studying the future through intergenerational dialogue. At the same time, it brings the young generation of drinking water professionals together. In that way, it caters to a need of many young people in the drinking water world. If all goes well, they will also continue to look to the future together. Because, in the words of one of the participants: “Everything won’t just turn out okay on its own in fifty years from now.” Read more in an interview with KWR researchers Nicolien van Aalderen and Els van der Roest, and GRROW participants Joost de Munk and Daan Wesselman. And above all, sign up if you want to get involved as well!

The youth is the future. Drinking water companies are no exception. Fortunately, in recent years, more and more young colleagues have been joining drinking water companies and KWR. That is wonderful to see because there are also many colleagues approaching retirement age. Young people can help to preserve the knowledge that has been accumulated. But do they also have enough influence on the future of drinking water supplies, which will inevitably have more of an impact on their generation than on older colleagues? An exploratory study looking at these and other questions has now been launched as part of the collective research effort for water companies. The GRROW (Generational and Radical Rethinking Of the Water Sector) project focuses on developing visions of the future of drinking water supplies in 2070. What could remain unchanged? What could be radically different?

Through intergenerational dialogue to visions of the future

Lead investigator Nicolien van Aalderen (KWR), working with her colleagues, has devised a new approach to drafting visions of the future: letting precisely the young people at water companies and young researchers question their older colleagues about the paradigms and motives underlying decisions made by water companies. What basic assumptions does the drinking water sector use and what are the main principles guiding the way the chain is structured? These intergenerational interviews will not only provide valuable information but also strengthen dialogue in individual organisations. Van Aalderen: “With the knowledge they gather in this way themselves, the younger generation will elaborate the basic assumptions for the future together and shape pictures of the future of the drinking water sector in 2070.”

Nicolien van Aalderen, KWR: “With the knowledge they collect themselves, the younger generation will jointly work out the basic assumptions for the future and form images of the future of the drinking water sector in 2070.”

Network of young professionals establishing a bridge between research and practice

Van Aalderen: “We will guide the young people who participate in this programme for a year, for example through workshops. In that way, we will also achieve another important goal: the establishment of a network of young people in the Dutch-speaking drinking water sector where they can share experiences and establish valuable connections between research and practice. Together, they can have a greater impact on the Dutch water sector and, for example, boost the research agenda for the sector – in the early stages mainly in the field of drinking water – such as the Sector Research Programme (BTO). At present, the agenda is mainly set by senior management and senior researchers.”

The network will therefore have a different role than the current networks of younger people in the water sector. KWR Early Career, Young Vitens, Young Waternet and Young PWN, for example, focus on just one institution or company. Broader networks primarily target networking (Young KNW, for example), training new people (National Water Traineeship) or a single event with students and young professionals from home and abroad (Wetskills). KWR researcher Els van der Roest: “A network of young professionals that focuses on future developments and the critical rethinking of the sector can be a valuable addition. It can serve, for example, as a sort of think-tank that goes through a research process every year or every other year to generate and hone visions of the future. In GRROW, we are exploring possible forms for this network and how it can be structured.”

Roest Els van der web

Els van der Roest, KWR: “A youth network that focuses on future developments and critically rethinking the sector can be a valuable addition to existing networks.”

New approach to studying the future

This exploratory study is a great example of learning by doing. A range of KWR researchers will work with the participants over the next year to shape the new approach in different ways, from organising intergenerational dialogues and identifying paradigms and basic assumptions to sketching visions of the future. Van Aalderen: “An exciting element is that we are not going to interview the experienced colleagues and researchers ourselves as researchers. Instead, we will ask the young people to conduct those dialogues. So we are giving up quite a lot of control over the end result. This requires very careful thinking and agreements about the approach. At the same time, it actually engages the younger drinking water people more strongly in the development of a method that is intended to boost their role in the setting of the agenda in the sector. That ‘grr’ in GRROW also kind of stands for the expectation that ‘young dogs’ will shake things up a bit: with ‘radical rethinking’, we hope to engage in a discussion about the fundamentals. Are the sector’s basic assumptions future-resilient?”

Ultimately, Van Aalderen and Van der Roest want to use the new approach more widely as well. Van der Roest: “We have decided to limit the scope of this study to the future of drinking water supplies. However, in time, we hope to use this new approach to look at issues relating to the broader water sector or the energy sector as well. This can be done at different scales: from an overall issue like climate change to small, regional issues relating to re-using water.”

Who is on board?

The first GRROW participants are already preparing but there is certainly still room for more young people from water companies or water research who want get on board. Van Aalderen: “Young people working in the drinking water sector can contact us if this way of engaging with the future and with the younger generation appeals to them. We have no rigid limit for the number of participants and the project will begin in the next few weeks. Anyone from the drinking water sector under the age of 35 is still welcome.” You can sign up easily using this form, preferably before 31 March.


Joost de Munk and Daan Wesselman have now signed up for GRROW. De Munk has been working as a process engineer at Waternet for three years on issues such as water quality, monitoring drinking water quality, permits and the shape of water treatment in the future. Wesselman has been working for a year in the Strategy and Research Department of Groningen Water Company. His focus is on long-term strategies, particularly relating to water quantity: “My work revolves around the question of how the mains network should be structured in twenty years from now so that water out of a tap will still be available everywhere. That involves a lot of calculations and data analysis.”

Daan Wesselman: “I am looking forward to meeting people from other companies and KWR and to see whether the image we have about the future in Groningen matches that of my contemporaries at other water companies.”

Motives: preparing for the future, preserving knowledge…

Why did Wesselman and De Munk decide to join GRROW? Sound preparations for the future of drinking water supplies and the preservation of knowledge played a part for both of them. De Munk: “The project fits in perfectly with my field. Waternet has to expand its drinking water production and so it needs a clear picture of the future in order to make the right decisions. At the same time, many of my colleagues are now close to retirement. Part of my job is to provide continuity and take over their knowledge. So in addition to my own work, I am also learning about what my colleagues do.” Wesselman is facing a similar challenge: “Transferring the knowledge of older employees to the younger generation is also going to play an increasingly important role for us. Obviously, you can do that in individual discussions but, ideally, I would like to see a structured approach. That also helps to tackle the phenomenon that, these days, people are much less inclined to stay with the same company their whole lives. Which means that you not only need the knowledge kept inside people’s minds, you have to record it somewhere.” So talking to established colleagues is not new to either of them.

… and meeting more generational peers

In addition, both Wesselman and De Munk are looking forward to contacts with other people from their generation in the Dutch drinking water sector. De Munk: “Don’t get me wrong: there have been more and more young colleagues in recent years but my team still consists predominantly of older people. I would like to share experiences with people of my own generation and also hear what is happening at our fellow companies. We can learn from each other, share ideas and, for example, make sure that every company isn’t individually re-inventing the wheel when it comes to improving processes. I like to look beyond my own company.” Wesselman: “Groningen Water Company is relatively small so we also have fewer colleagues from my own generation. I’m looking forward to meeting people from other companies and KWR, and seeing if the view of the future that we have in Groningen matches that of my contemporaries at other water companies.”

Joost de Munk: “Young people add more diversity to a company, and teams with as many different people as possible develop better ideas and perform better.”

Influence of the younger generation

It should be pointed out that both men feel that they are already have an influence on policy and development at their own organisations. “I definitely feel involved in decisions about the future at Waternet,” says De Munk. “I am in the project group that is looking at expanding production capacity and I see how decisions are made there. We all contribute our knowledge, ideas and experience, and then we jointly decide on one option. I certainly have the opportunity to contribute.” Wesselman: “I haven’t seen any hierarchy based on age at all at Groningen Water Company,” says Wesselman. “New, young colleagues are taken seriously and valued for the skills they bring, in the areas of programming and digitalisation, for example.”

So younger colleagues contribute more digital skills, among other things. And what else? De Munk: “Young people add more diversity to a company, for example, and teams with as many different people as possible develop better ideas and perform better.”

What do they expect from the project?

Wesselman: “I just enjoy being involved, meeting people from my own generation and building up a network. If you are going to stay in the sector, it’s good to know the others in your generation. I think that’s one of the big benefits of this project. Otherwise, I’m very open in my approach to it all.” De Munk adds: “The same goes for me, and of course I’m also very curious about how the project will develop and what kind of visions of the future will emerge. I think the dialogue with the older generation will be very interesting. Obviously, our jobs already involve regular discussions with our more experienced colleagues, and I actually expect that we will see more overlap between the generations than you might expect initially. I think many of my colleagues are pretty young at heart. And young and old are, after all, working on the same goals: maintaining adequate supplies of safe and clean drinking water. Older colleagues may be a little less involved with climate change than the younger generation who have grown up with the threat of climate change.”

“I don’t expect any difficult conversations either,” Wesselman says. “At Groningen Water Company, my colleagues are definitely open to, and accepting of, new ideas so I don’t really expect resistance at the level of individual conversations. On the contrary, I expect productive interactions. Our colleagues think we should be working on innovations or digitalisation. But progress in practice often proves difficult; things don’t always happen quickly. After all, people have been working in particular ways for decades, and usually without any difficulties. So why change?” De Munk agrees: “I have seen that happen, for example when it comes to building a good knowledge system and protocols. Everything is going well, older colleagues really do realise that a system of this kind is needed. But they don’t need it themselves and they are less likely to see it as a priority given everything else happening during a busy day.”

Drinking water supplies in 2070

GRROW is setting its sights on a distant horizon: the visions of the future that GRROW participants will develop focus on 2070. Why so far in the future? Van Aalderen: “Well, we hope the young generation will still be there. Even if they will be getting close to retirement by then. So they could still be around. At the same time, it’s a date that is so far away that there is room for truly fundamental rethinking. And the fact that this future still seems so far away also gives a sense of greater freedom.”

De Munk finds it quite difficult at this point to conjure up an image of 2070: “I expect that the logic of centralised drinking water production and distribution through a fine-meshed network of pipes will still be with us and that water quality can only improve. But we have to make choices along the road to 2070: to start producing more water because demand is rising, or to actually launch campaigns about saving water. These are important choices because what we build now will still be there in 2070.”

Wesselman also expects that significant adaptations will also be necessary well before 2070 due to climate change. “In Groningen, we are already having problems with brackish water due to sea level rise and so freshwater availability has already been affected. We are likely to use more brackish, seawater or rain water for domestic and industrial use, and perhaps even for drinking. And at home, we will re-use water more, for example from the shower. The question is which direct or indirect role the water companies will play. And, of course, the landscape will change because we want to retain the water that falls in the winter longer to combat drought in the summer.”

How will participants and researchers proceed when GRROW has produced new visions of the future a year from now? Van Aalderen: “If all goes well, we will have established connections between the young generation in the drinking water sector, the settled generation and the future. We want to share the results of the project with all generations in the drinking water sector, for example at a conference. And obviously, we won’t ever stop thinking about the future. Hopefully, in a year from now, we will have robust foundations for a network that will continue to work on sound preparations for the future.” “Because,” confirms Wesselman, “I am confident about the future but we really need to make steps forward. Everything won’t just turn out okay on its own in fifty years from now.”