“Operating with stakeholders is becoming standard”

Riksta Zwart (Waterbedrijf Groningen, WiCE Group): ‘Let’s disseminate WiCE solutions with enthusiasm"

Riksta Zwart is director of Waterbedrijf Groningen, vice-chair of the Joint Research Programme (BTO) Directors Consultation Platform, and chair of the WiCE Core Group. That’s quite a few ‘hats’ at once. ‘But for me there is a clear blue thread connecting these roles,’ says Zwart. ‘At the time we started out, water in the circular economy perhaps sounded like an ambitious idea, but today it is simply commonplace. Eighty percent of the activities of water utilities have to do with society, new technologies and other stakeholders. Outside actors also co-finance WiCE research; in this way you create both broader support and perspectives.’

Riksta Zwart continues: ‘The WiCE Core Group is mandated by the water utilities to work within the WiCE frameworks in prioritising and making choices concerning the research we will do, and with which external parties – from concept to project proposal. That sounds very process-oriented, but we work on pieces of the puzzle for solutions in the outside world. This means that, together with all stakeholders, we think about what important research is still lacking in WiCE by raising the question at the water utilities – for instance, through the inspiration sessions that we organise. In addition, we need and want to actively disseminate the results of WiCE research. First of all, within the water utilities, so that we also reach the people there who are not themselves directly active in the BTO or WiCE, but whose own work could benefit from the research outcomes. More pilot research at the water utilities could also contribute to a stronger connection between the utilities and the WiCE approach.’

With WiCE to the outside world

But the ambitions extend farther: ‘We also want to take the WiCE mindset and results to the outside world. Scaling up or implementing the results of earlier research for use in other regions, industries or circumstances is a concrete challenge. Examples already exist – just think of the Boer, Bier, Water project. Or the Aqua Ludens serious game: this concept was developed from the Groningen Water Transition case, but on the premise that the approach also offers a valuable means in other regions of bringing stakeholders together, and having them stand in the other’s shoes to gain a better insight into each other’s challenges. This creates greater understanding of everyone’s interests in the distribution of water.’  

Entire water system

Zwart recalls how she was immediately very enthusiastic about the initial ideas for exploring solutions to the increased water demand around the northern ports by means of a serious game. ‘But it also required a great deal of perseverance, promotion and enthusiasm to get there. That’s why we need to keep telling our story, as a means of exciting other actors and getting them involved. For me the water transition implies that we need to look at the entire water system, and how we deal with it in a future-proof manner, so that in the future there continues to be not only sufficient freshwater for drinking, but also for other purposes. This demands reuse and circularity, but, most of all, that people accept that they have to abandon the old ways of doing things and set out on new paths. And this is not something you solve simply through technology.’

From source to customer

Zwart thinks that it is fortunate for the water transition that the water utilities are chain companies, which operate from source to customer. This means that they can also already do a lot more things with circular solutions within the utilities themselves. ‘It’s harder for the energy sector in this regard: there, the different components of energy generation, transport and delivery are looked after by several actors. This means that to achieve a transition they need not only to reach out to other stakeholders outside their sector, but also, beyond the company’s boundaries, to those within their own sector. In my view, that will lead more frequently to suboptimal solutions.’ But Zwart also sees parallels with the energy transition. ‘Similarly to the energy transition, the water transition also offers several good routes to the future. Which route is the most suitable always depends on the situation, the region, challenges, sources, possibilities and acceptance – thus, customisation and a mix of solutions. And don’t forget: the same applies to the water sector and to the energy sector: the most sustainable is the water or the energy that you in fact don’t use.’

With stakeholders becomes standard

Over time, Zwart expects that WiCE’s manner of working, in consultation and collaboration with various stakeholders, will also become standard in other programmes, like the BTO. ‘We can’t operate in isolation any longer. Naturally, you have more specific drinking water research, in which you isolate yourself. But the research results always need to find a place in the broader societal context. Which we in WiCE already now strive to achieve.’

This interview was first published in ROND Water over water in de circulaire economie – Spring 2024.