Solving society’s water issues on the basis of a dynamic alliance

KWR and Delft University of Technology sign strategic memorandum of understanding

By signing a strategic memorandum of understanding, KWR and the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Delft University of Technology are underlining the importance of high-quality education and research for the establishment of a sustainable integrated water cycle. ‘This step means we are creating a sound basis for continuity in joint knowledge development relating to society’s water issues,’ says Luuk Rietveld, professor of Urban Water Cycle Technology at Delft University of Technology. ‘And for training a new generation to cope with challenges of this kind.’

Dragan Savić, KWR director, and Jan Dirk Jansen, Dean of the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Delft University of Technology, recently signed the strategic memorandum of understanding ‘Education and Research for the Water Sector’ (2022-2026). It extends and deepens an earlier alliance dating back to 2015. ‘In recent years, there has been excellent synergy between our two institutes,’ says Luuk Rietveld. ‘KWR has a number of researchers who work part-time at our university, for example. And we supervise PhD students together. We work together in projects. So our alliance has already had quite an impact.’

Added value

KWR’s large knowledge network with water companies at home and abroad is interesting for students from the university, Rietveld believes. ‘It allows them to see what is going on in the field. In addition, KWR is well informed about issues in the water sector. As a technical university, we like to work with partners of this kind: they help us to address social issues. If we think we have a solution to an issue, KWR has closer ties to the market than the university. Working with them, we can work towards the valorisation of our research. In that way, we can come up with the innovations that our times require.’ Conversely, the alliance also has a clear added value for KWR. Ruud Bartholomeus, Chief Science Officer at KWR, explains: ‘The type of knowledge Delft has differs from ours. It is more fundamental in nature. By working together, we always have a finger on the pulse of the very latest scientific knowledge. In addition, a formal alliance means getting to know each other better and better. You consult one another in a natural way, which strengthens the understanding of each other’s work. When new opportunities crop up, it’s easier to get in touch with each other.’

“By working together, we always have a finger on the pulse of the very latest scientific knowledge.”

Social themes

The new cooperation agreement specifically lists five themes as a focus for the joint research of KWR and Delft University of Technology: (1) water and health; (2) energy transition and subsurface heat storage; (3) urban water infrastructure and hydroinformatics; (4) microbial water quality and (5) emerging substances. When asked about the most promising theme in this series, both Bartholomeus and Rietveld mention the energy transition first. There is already robust collaboration between KWR and Delft in this area, including the projects WarmingUP and WINDOW. And with the award of a grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO) early last year, researchers from both organisations are working on the drafting of a proof of concept for the ATES triplet system. This is a promising technique that uses alternative, sustainable techniques to heat and cool buildings without a heat pump. It leads to significant savings in energy consumption. But other themes, such as the water infrastructure and safe drinking water quality, are also rated highly. ‘I actually believe they are all equally promising,’ says Rietveld. ‘They are socially relevant and they involve major scientific challenges. It is best for us to work on all the themes at the same time. In addition, we can easily expand the focus, for example by including the issue of drought. From an engineering perspective, it’s extremely interesting to find solutions to these water issues.’

Figuur 1. Schematische weergave van een bodemenergie-tripletsysteem zonder warmtepomp

Figure 1. Schematic diagram showing an ATES triplet system without a heat pump.

Overall working group

In addition to the concrete implementation of the research themes, the new agreement differs from the previous one in that it establishes an overall working group. In the past, initiatives were mainly linked to researchers with dual positions. ‘The working group will now be expected to make sure that the contact persons for the different themes are asked questions regularly,’ Bartholomeus explains. ‘Which projects are in progress? What input can you provide for the annual plan? Can you describe which social issues are concerned? The working group will keep the alliance dynamic and ensure that it is rooted in the minds of the researchers.’ Rietveld agrees that this will be an important function of the working group. ‘It’s about safeguarding continuity at the institutional level.’

Inspiring example

It goes without saying that the agreement between KWR and Delft University of Technology will not be a ‘closed shop’. Both Bartholomeus and Rietveld use this term to explain that, when organising successful projects, they will always continue to look for other partners. Rietveld: ‘We never exclude anyone and we like to work with a broad number of partners such as engineering firms, private companies and government authorities. What matters in the end is for us to get joint research projects off the ground. I would be happy if this alliance were to allow us to establish a sound basis for new technologies and to train new people to engage in applied research to find solutions to the challenges we face. There are still some obstacles to overcome, such as creatively managing the differences between the funding structures that KWR and Delft work with. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ Bartholomeus is also searching for the success factors for telling what he calls the ‘bigger story’. ‘Scientists must dare to look beyond their specific field. They have to be able to interpret the social frameworks in which they operate. For me, this alliance means our joint challenge as KWR and the Delft University of Technology is to put that into practice. My ambition is to make sure we work together naturally. That we set out a robust framework for the entire process leading from fundamental scientific research to practical application. In this way, we can serve as an inspiring example of how you can collaborate as a research institute and a university on society’s challenges.’

Has this story about the power of collaboration inspired you as well? Then get in touch and explore the possibilities for your organisation to team up with KWR and TU Delft on knowledge development and knowledge valorisation for solving urgent water issues.