The new theme in the BTO Joint Research Programme: ‘Environment and Transitions’

The water transition from the perspective of drinking water utilities

“There are so many changes, such as the energy transition, the agricultural transition and, of course, the water transition. We have therefore opted for a combination of the environment and transitions. What is our approach? In our own theme group, we can really develop environment management further, in line with the drive to professionalisation that is already being seen at the drinking water utilities.”
Nicolien van Aalderen
Nicolien van Aalderen

The Environment and Transitions theme is a new component in the Thematic Research Programme of the BTO Joint Research Programme. With the introduction of the theme, the drinking water utilities and KWR hope to respond to internal and external transitions, and to provide an answer to major changes in society. The theme was presented during the 40th BTO Jubilee in 2023 and it is part of the BTO Research Vision on Joint Water Research for 2024-2029.

The Environment and Transitions research theme of the BTO is developing integrated action perspectives for locality management by drinking water utilities. With these action perspectives, they can continue to meet their goals – adequate supplies of safe drinking water – even against the backdrop of major changes in society. To achieve this, the research combines different areas of scientific knowledge such as social sciences, physical geography and organisational science, and transforms them into practice-based strategies for the water utilities, for example with respect to water availability, infrastructure and nature. Researcher Nicolien van Aalderen (KWR) and Sandra Verheijden (Brabant Water) are the theme coordinator and chair respectively of the new theme group.

Knowledge base for environment management and change

Although the theme group does not engage in environment management in practice itself, it is establishing a joint knowledge base. This will enable water utilities to use their environment management more effectively in these complex and changing times. The three main objectives of the Environment and Transitions theme are:

  1. Responding to internal and external transitions Water utilities must adapt to changes in both their internal structure and the external environment. Environment management is crucial here because it enables water utilities to respond effectively to ongoing change such as the transition to sustainable agriculture, the energy transition and the circular economy.
  2. Developing short-term and long-term action perspectives Here, the emphasis is on developing integrated action perspectives for key strategic themes. These include water availability, water quality, infrastructure, circularity and nature.
  3. Practical applicability and scientific depth The focus here is on developing tools that are practically applicable. This is achieved through activities such as knowledge exchange, participation in discussion platforms and conferences. The research also seeks scientific depth and innovation through insights from administrative, organisational and behavioural sciences.

The six-year Environment and Transitions plan (which can be found on BTO/WiCE-Net for the drinking water utilities) details how the theme group intends to achieve these objectives, and which lines of research and activities it will deploy for that purpose.

Exploratory research on environment management

An important building block for the new Environment and transitions theme was the exploratory Transformative Environment Management at Drinking Water Utilities (2023). This project focused on the challenges facing water utilities, which call for a transformative – in other words, profound – change in the approach of water professionals. Actors, in other words individuals who can play a key role in this area, are agents of change. Agents of change work in the complex playing field of achieving fundamental, transformative change, often in a professional environment. The research offers insights into the different shapes that environment management can take. We also look at the different starting points (orientations) and we add a new starting point, viz. transformation. In doing so, we use literature studies, the outcomes of questionnaires disseminated to environment managers, and interviews.

‘Water and soil’ ambitions and the water transition

The theme of Environment and Transitions is an important component of the new BTO/WiCE research vision. We work with professionals and organisations in society at large to look at their roles and responsibilities in relation to water. This is a part of KWR’s impact-driven approach in line with ‘Public Design for water’. Public Design is an integrated approach designed to safeguard water-related values against the backdrop of developments in society such as sustainability transitions. In this way, researchers offer tools for sustainable improvements in drinking water utilities’ own organisations, as well as for better collaboration with all stakeholders.