Sustainable water use in cities: Technology is not always the answer. A new role for digital social platforms

With the urban population set to hit 6.4 billion by 2050 and an increasing risk of too little, too much and too polluted water, what actions can governments take to arrive at more sustainable water use in the world’s cities? New lessons from a recent international research project shows that technological innovations such as digital social platforms can help, but we must apply them wisely.

The way information and knowledge is shared is changing, and when it comes to engaging and working with the public, technology is playing an increasing role. With this in mind, an international team of researchers set out to assess the potential of digital social platforms for improving the way governments and other societal actors work together to address urban water issues.

The project was part of a four-year EU Horizon 2020 project called “Political and sOcial awareness on Water EnviRonmental challenges” (POWER), and included researchers from Utrecht University, KWR Water Research Institute  and 10 other institutions across Europe and Israel.

Gamification for collaborative learning

In open consultation the POWER research team developed a platform for sharing progress, knowledge, and best practices on issues of water scarcity, security, quality and consumption. In order to facilitate collaborative learning gamification elements were included. Through this it allows us to  monitor how people understand the different issues and contribute to ongoing policy processes.

Measuring effectiveness

The platform was implemented in four cities, focusing on flooding in Leicester, water scarcity in Milton Keynes and Jerusalem, and water reuse in Sabadell (Barcelona).

Copernicus Institute and KWR Water Research Institute researcher Stef Koop developed a tool – the governance capacity framework to measure the effectiveness of digital social platforms in improving water governance issues.

Getting people to use the platform

Implementation matters and the real challenge was getting people to use the platform. From this experience the researchers have drawn several lessons:

  • Define the issue. Before designing and rolling out an online tool, first clearly define the issue to be addressed.
  • People first. Online tools can be helpful in enhancing online participation of local residents, but they cannot replace face to face meetings.
  • Address actual issues. A tool should relate to an ongoing issue in a community and visible. People don’t just check what’s hidden on the website of their city council.
  • Keep it simple. There is an overkill of data in the online world, so make sure you develop something with added value.