The strength of the collective

An interview with Lianne van Oord about sector research

For six years, Lianne van Oord has been a member of the Sector Research Coordination Platform for the water companies. She will take leave on 1 April. ‘Sector research is working like a well-oiled machine,’ she says. ‘There’s a long tradition of working together.’ As a member of the platform, Van Oord was a committed driver of sector research, including programmes such as Water in the Circular Economy. What are her thoughts about the future?

Lianne van Oord, departing member of the Sector Research Coordination Platform (left), and Anne Mathilde Hummelen, the sector research programme manager at KWR (right)

Lianne van Oord, departing member of the Sector Research Coordination Platform (left), and Anne Mathilde Hummelen, the sector research programme manager at KWR (right)

Broad common ground

As the new head of the Research and Advice department at the Limburg Drinking Water Company, Lianne van Oord joined the Sector Research Coordination Platform six years ago. The collective nature of the programme immediately appealed to her. Van Oord: ‘I really am a believer in doing things together. Precisely because the water companies do not have to compete with each other, we can share problems and solutions with each other. I like to see the water companies as ten branches of the same company because our common ground is more important than the differences between us.’ Van Oord sees the recent addition of the Flemish Watergroep as an opportunity. ‘The differences between us are not that big. And I think we have a lot to offer each other.’

More room for diversity

In order to maintain the flexibility of the collective effort, Van Oord believes there should be a stronger focus on managing diversity. ‘If a water company wants to take an initiative in a particular area that others will benefit from later, they should have the freedom to do so. At WML, for example, we wanted to learn more about the possible impact of local treatment, and no joint position had been established in that respect at the time. By allowing water companies to tackle certain themes, you increase their ownership. Knowledge is generated that can help to shape the position adopted by the sector as a whole and innovative capacity is enhanced.’

Flexibility in management

Van Oord also believes that the different levels of management – with theme groups, the Coordination Platform and the Directors Platform – also represent an obstacle to a greater degree of flexibility. ‘Of course, this approach does result in sound decision-making but collaborating with other partners sometimes means operating more on the basis of groups. In other words, the parties in the best position to tackle a particular problem take the lead and look for suitable partners. The rest follow.’

Broadening the knowledge base

A third point mentioned by Van Oord for furthering flexibility is the broadening of the knowledge base. ‘We are now very much focused on KWR as a knowledge supplier. But when it comes to sector research, we could also consider an approach more on the lines of the Top Knowledge Institutes (TKI), with KWR adopting the role of knowledge broker and bringing together the right parties, including itself of course. In that way, the entire world becomes our oyster. If the knowledge is so important that we want to have it ourselves, we can bring it to KWR. If we think it is less important, we can leave it with another party.’

Broader perspective

In addition to identifying areas for improvement in sector research, Van Oord also wants to highlight the successes. ‘Thanks to years of research, we have established firm foundations for all kinds of issues faced by the drinking water sector. My work at WML has shown me how quickly the knowledge can be mobilised if there is demand, examples being pyrazole contamination or the establishment of a basis for the target structure. This added value can’t always be measured in advance and it will only become clear after the event. If we’re talking about impact, I’m in favour of a broader perspective. A simple link between the effort put in and the results isn’t always possible.’

Increasing interaction between knowledge and practice

The widening of the range of topics covered by sector research in recent years is also something that Van Oord is very pleased about. ‘In addition to traditional processes relating to extraction, treatment and distribution, we are now tackling very new issues that fit in with our times. A good example is WiCE. It involves us clearly looking for other partners in the water chain.’ In addition, Van Oord is seeing KWR’s role shifting more from being a straightforward contractor to a discussion partner. ‘I think that increasing interaction between knowledge and practice is fantastic. You can see that this is really working: people are switching from KWR to the water companies and vice-versa. That is really good for both sides. It would be even nicer if this interaction were to be managed in a targeted way. KWR and the water sector have a shared responsibility to bring together developments in society and science as effectively as possible.’

Working on the social challenge

Before Van Oord makes the switch to Brightsite (in Geleen, NL) in April, where she will use her skills as a bridge builder in her role as a programme manager to make the chemical industry more sustainable, we asked her for her vision of sector research in the future. ‘With all the issues facing the water sector, I think it should be playing a leading role. Water in the circular economy, the social transitions: they shape the programme. Sector research is part of this, not the other way round. Above all, build on the social challenge and find the right partners for that process. In terms of impact, the potential there is much larger than with the further optimisation of the things we already do.’