Water sector strategists delve into multiple value creation

Scientists, professionals and practice innovators learn from one another

Multiple value creation is a topical issue of relevance to the water sector. On 12 March, water sector strategists got together to discuss the subject at a DWSI session. Multiple value creation involves the collective development of broad societal value. This offers an opportunity for the water sector to enhance its societal contribution, particularly in areas where it currently has no core task. This is no easy matter because, even if multiple value creation already occurs in the water sector, the tools to effectively highlight it are lacking. KWR research is contributing to the identification and establishment of values.

On 12 March the first of the year’s think-tank sessions of Dutch Water Sector Intelligence (DWSI) was organised by KWR in Amerongen. DWSI is the futures research platform for and of the entire water sector. The purpose of the sessions is to put new subjects on the agenda, and to ascertain the importance of the developments identified. In the 12 March session, the subject of discussion was multiple value creation: a topical concept of relevance to the water sector.

Multiple value creation

Under the rubric of ‘multiple value creation’ experiments are being conducted with new ways of organising utilities and of interconnecting different societal objectives. Multiple value creation is a useful concept about which strategists from Water Authorities, water utilities, scientists and practice innovators can fruitfully share their views. But multiple value creation is not only sensible and important, it is also, with the passage of the Environment and Planning Act, increasingly becoming the norm. Thus, for example, multiple value creation can lead Water Authorities, when faced with the demand for extra rainwater discharge capacity, to consider solutions other than the installation of big sewage pipes to quickly discharge rainwater runoff. The rainwater can be collected locally, in the square of a residential neighbourhood for instance, where, in the summer, it can fulfil a societal function by preventing heat stress. ‘Multiple value creation is about adding societal value,’ explains KWR researcher Henk-Jan van Alphen. ‘And this includes values that are not, or not yet, mentioned in the annual reports of water organisations.’

Broadening support

Multiple value creation builds opportunities for the water sector because it allows organisations to demonstrate their contributions to societal objectives like climate adaptation, sustainability and CO2 emission reduction. This broadens the support for investment in the area. ‘Over time, it will become just as important to show what you contribute to society, as how well you perform your basic tasks,’ says Van Alphen. But the researcher also thinks that the most important benefit of value creation to the water sector is that it means that the sector will participate in developments that will have an impact on it. ‘The water sector today is strongly organised for efficiency and effectiveness. But an inordinate focus on efficiency can be detrimental to other values, such as sustainability. Everything that deviates from the norm is expensive. But there are many initiatives that affect the interests of the water sector. Take the case of neighbourhood residents who decide to start using rainwater in their homes – to flush their toilets for example. If the water sector doesn’t participate in the initiative, there is a risk that inappropriate connections will cause untreated rainwater to end up in the drinking water mains, thereby posing a hazard to public health. The involvement of water organisations in these types of initiatives protects everyone from such incidents. The key is to interconnect the different interests involved’.

Making it measurable

The conclusion of the DWSI think-tank session on multiple value creation is that it already occurs with frequency in the water sector, but it is not clearly highlighted. Why is this so? ‘Water utilities and Water Authorities have societal tasks,’ says Van Alphen, ‘and these are typically reflected in performance indicators, policy objectives and other measures for internal review. But the societal value that they create is not explicitly measured and reported. This makes it difficult to get backing for it or extra financing for specific actions. It is up to the water sector itself to make changes here. This will also help the sector evolve in step with the efforts to meet our big energy and climate transition challenges.’

Connection and research

For KWR the outcome of the DWSI session confirms that the right course was taken when the subject of multiple value creation was incorporated into the Water in the Circular Economy programme. A number of case studies are underway, including an interconnection-opportunity process, which involves the development of a residential neighbourhood with an integrated water cycle. This includes looking at how drinking water production, wastewater treatment, local water (e.g., ponds) and soil water can, by means of smart systems, be combined to become mutually-reinforcing. ‘With this research we’re trying to discover which values are created and where, and how they can be determined,’ explains Van Alphen. ‘Who has an interest in these values? And who is prepared to participate and to invest?’

New norm

Van Alphen believes that if multiple value creation becomes the new norm in the operation of the water sector, the consequences will be profound. ‘Organisations need to decide which values they feel are important and how they will report on them. This calls for adjustments to the organisational structure. There is a need for people who are able to initiate collaborative arrangements with the outside world. People who are ready to think extensively with other organisations. This demands an open mind. This is perhaps less difficult for the Water Authorities. They already have a broad conception of their role. But things are different at water utilities. I think that their specialisation makes it harder for them to make the switch. They can be helped by experimenting with this manner of working.’

Henk-Jan van Alphen at the DWSI session March 12..