Futures studies and response strategies

Futures research improves the resilience of the water sector by supporting anticipatory governance and by maximising the adaptive capacity of the organisations. Futures research helps the water sector to identify emerging threats and opportunities in a timely fashion, and to respond and plan effectively. KWR scans the horizon for societal and technological developments, analyses their potential impacts on the water sector, conducts scenario studies to integrate the insights and, working with the sector, develops options for response strategies. Its products include trend alerts and impact studies.

In addition to the substantive aspects of the research, KWR also develops tools and methods that support organisations in performing their own strategy design and planning. These include knowledge platforms, such the strategic learning alliance ‘Dutch Water Sector Intelligence’, as well as software solutions, such as the Watershare ScenarioBuilder. Futures Researchers from KWR also support individual organisations in strategy design, long-term planning, and programming internal research and innovation agendas.

Anticipatory governance supporting resilience

The context within which water organisations operate is changing. Some of these changes are happening gradually and predictably, whilst others involve high levels of complexity and uncertainty. Tipping points can bring about rapid change, which makes early warning especially important. In addition, governments are directing certain transitions, such as the energy transition, climate adaptation and the transition to a circular economy.

It is in this changing context that organisations and companies in the water sector are working to improve their efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability. The challenge is to strike a balance between the anthropogenic and the natural systems, while meeting the needs of the population. In addition, the water sector is moving away from a fragmented, top-down, inflexible and reactive approach to water management, towards a more integrated, participatory, adaptive and anticipatory approach.

Futures researchers translate trends and scenarios into strategic building blocks for water organisations. This involves signalling the developments and, more importantly, synthesizing the signals, and sense-making to identify potential opportunities and threats. The individual organisations then use these strategic building blocks to design their own strategies. Futures research thus enables the water sector to tackle problems efficiently and to benefit optimally from emerging opportunities.

Continuous, collective, systematic horizon scanning

Futures researchers at KWR monitor trends and scan the horizon for emerging tipping points, opportunities and threats. The context of the water sector is changing continuously and systematic horizon scanning is complex and too time-intensive for water organisations to organise individually. The various water organisations also operate in a shared (national) context. This is why collective horizon scanning, performed by dedicated Futures researchers at KWR, makes sense. Water organisations (partly) outsource this time-intensive horizon scanning work and become involved in the later sense-making stage, when the developments are translated into (individual) opportunities and threats.

Thanks to an extensive national and international network and expert researchers, KWR is well positioned to conduct the horizon scanning for the water sector. Futures researchers at KWR help water organisations to make intelligent strategic decisions based on informed and reviewed assumptions. We do this for the water utilities in the Joint Research Programme’s Eyes and Ears projects, and for the broader water sector in Dutch Water Sector Intelligence (DWSI).

Our approach to futures research is a transdisciplinary one, in which practical experience and science work hand-in-hand (e.g., through social learning and think-tank sessions). The translation of trends into opportunities and threats for the water sector takes place collaboratively and involves Water Authorities, water utilities, knowledge institutions, advocacy groups and consultancies. Our action research facilitates directed change (i.e. transitions) in co-creation projects with (municipal) governments and water organisations. Moreover, our research is cross-border: we translate methods for strategic learning alliances for applications in a European context.

Futures researchers conduct the horizon scanning in a systematic way, with continuous analysis focused on so-called SEPTED dimensions. SEPTED is an abbreviation for the following socio-political and biophysical dimensions:

  • Socio-cultural
  • Economy
  • Political
  • Technology
  • Ecology
  • Demography

A team of researchers identifies which developments are taking place in each of these dimensions and explores the relevance for the water sector.

The process of horizon scanning is done in a systematic manner, which includes the following six dimensions (SEPTED): Socio-cultural, Economic, Political, Technological, Ecological and Demographic.