July 23, 2020
That we like to do things steadily better, is not an aspiration limited to the water sector. Society as a whole wants nothing more. Think of sustainability. Doing better naturally raises questions of how much better and in relation to what. Within existing system boundaries, we often see incremental improvements. Small steps forward. On the other hand, there are the so-called disruptive changes. In this instance, the aim is to make improvements that are revolutionary in nature. Intervention points where relatively light measures lead to a great leap forward are very useful. In system theory we call such points ‘leverage points’. This concept has become familiar in the scientific field of Complex Adaptive Systems and in its numerous areas of application in societies. A concept that was once elaborated by Donella Hagen-Meadows, who is known as the editor and co-author of The Limits to Growth report prepared for the Club of Rome. True, that was actually almost half a century ago. But leverage points are today more relevant than ever. For things to turn out well, we need to make rapid progress on a number of environmental fronts. This now concerns not only climate change issues, but also the Corona pandemic for instance. It would naturally be great if we could find a leverage point that would prove beneficial in solving several problems.
But what are good leverage points? It isn’t surprising that Donna Hagen also mostly believes in leadership that is driven to think beyond the comfort zone of its own little patch. Leadership that is ready to anchor systems in alternative foundations. I believe that the domain of Spatial Planning could become an effective playing field as a leverage point. Think about it. National traffic & transport is responsible for about 20% of our CO2 emissions. Here, action could be worthwhile. Regardless of the reduced travel in the Corona time, the idea was actually already lurking. A long time ago we decided to separate living and working. But industrial areas became business parks, and they are now places where lots of high-value, clean and often digital work is done. At the moment we’re being forced to reunite those different living and work activities. And the place where this is sometimes happening is at home. The reason is that we want to restrict our movement because of the danger of contamination. Living and working are thus brought together again. That this also presents an implicit challenge for urban water managers is obvious. Such a vision after all invites a conceptual overhaul of the structure of roads, neighbourhoods and water infrastructure. The renewal effort involved would also probably create new opportunities for more sustainable sewage system concepts, or chances for a Digital Twin approach in collaboration with the now resident-employees of a neighbourhood. They will after all be spending more time there than ever. They will be taking part of the business world’s sustainability assignment home with them and facing it there. But that’s an interesting challenge to address together with their employers.
But is this development permanent?
Over the course of the years we have become an economy with many – in part, essentially digital – service provisions. We now for instance safely and reliably control vital infrastructure remotely; we shop more than ever before digitally; and even hospitals and doctors work partially from a distance. The mental context of working from home during the Corona time also turned out to be better than we had expected. Naturally we are to an extent starting to go back to the old situation. Sometimes logically, but often also not. The fact is that our homes and residential neighbourhoods were not designed for living, working and caring under the same roof. But over time the Corona crisis could become a leverage point in thinking about sustainability. With the Spatial Planning of the built environment as the lever. Maybe we find ourselves once again in something of a transition from a modern nomad society to a new sedentary one. L’histoire se répète.
March 30, 2020
More and more people are living in cities. And the cities are getting bigger – Guangzhou for instance now numbers about 48 million inhabitants. Here’s the trend: currently, about 55% of the world’s population live in cities; in 2050 this will rise to around 68%. In the Netherlands the figure is now 91%, of a total population of more than 17 million. Jane Jacobs, the grande dame of urban activism who died in 2006, abhorred the modern cities of her time, with their radical separation of functions, monotonous buildings and displaced city dwellers. Return to a human scale and diversity was the message of her meandering narrational book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961.
Perhaps she will now, though belatedly, be listened to. The World Economic Forum recently formulated the central urban question as being: How can we build happier cities? This has naturally to do with health care, education and work. But it also concerns well-being with regard to nature, biodiversity and the say citizens have over their living environment. When it comes to biodiversity, the situation is generally not good. Biodiversity in the Netherlands has dropped over the last 100 years by about 85%, while globally it has decreased by about 30%. Because the Netherlands has to make do with a relatively small protected natural area (14%), we must take urban natural areas seriously. In this regard, there is good news. In his book, Darwin Comes to Town, Menno Schilthuizen looks at urban evolution. Evolutionary adaptation of coloration, form or song because of the urban noise, it’s all going on. In other words, he argues that rapid speciation is not limited to environments like that of the Galapagos islands. The city plays its own role as an evolution-driving biotope. To me, functional green, avenue trees and bushes, constitute the principal green infrastructure of a Happy City. But in 2018 in Karlsruhe, during a heat wave attributed to climate change, 30% of the young plants planted over the previous three years died of desiccation. The principal green infrastructure also forms an important urban boundary layer between the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface. Specifically, it counteracts a substantial part of the urban heat-island effect resulting from climate change. Among the ways it does this are the absorption of radiation and evapotranspiration. The latter process involves the evaporation of water through the extraction of heat from the surroundings. This cools them down. The prerequisites for this to work are healthy plants and sufficient water. Water is increasingly being stored locally in the subsurface for use in drier periods. Vital trees moreover require plenty of root space in the city’s underground; the root crown of an oak tree takes up 80m3, that of a beech 100m3, while a lime tree’s reaches 150m3. Depending on the species, its height, size and spatial position, it can boost the dissipation of hot air via convection: hot air is expelled. And the greater the roughness of the canopy the more effectively this happens. And what do city residents think about this? They themselves have access to more and more knowledge. And they’re also increasingly claiming an own role in the creation of a healthy living environment. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and the world of Big Data, the Digital Twin and Citizen Science. These will all help stakeholders become even more involved in their own city and neighbourhood. You can just see it: a boiling hot day, burning asphalt and then, suddenly, a relatively cool breeze, shade and an inviting bench in a leafy neighbourhood. Conceived and realised by the neighbourhood !
January 8, 2020
‘Most people are good’ and ‘The progress gang’: two new Dutch phenomena. Respectively, a brick of a book and a club of positive thinkers who preach the faith in progress, along the lines of ‘there are more positive things to say about this world and its future than you might think’.
Now, let’s take the bull by the horns: let’s look at the nitrogen issue. There has been a lot of commotion about nitrogen in this country lately. Nitrogen has become a loaded and sensitive issue. Construction projects are being put on-hold and farmers faced with production constraints. How is this possible? After all, nitrogen gas accounts for about 78% of our atmosphere. What harm can a little extra nitrogen do? The problem is that there is too much biologically-reactive nitrogen. This nitrogen originates from both chemical and biological processes from non-reactive nitrogen gas (which is the type of nitrogen present in the atmosphere). These processes release chemical compounds like ammonia and nitrate into the environment. A century ago, the presence of such nitrogen in many ecosystems was minimal. This allowed for the evolution of a rich and varied nature with lots of biodiversity. Besides, for a long time, nitrogen was a hindrance to food production.
However, this situation came to an end with the invention of the so-called Haber-Bosch process during World War I. The new process, which was developed under military pressure, allowed the inventors to produce ammonia as a raw material for explosives. But it was also used for the production of what came to be known as artificial fertilizer. This later launched the so-called Green Revolution in the 1960s in Asia. Scientists estimate that the existence of over 50% of the current world population can attributed to the availability food produced thanks to this reactive nitrogen. This fertilizer’s production now accounts for 2% of the world’s energy consumption. And when used in excessive amounts, it is harmful for the environment and, in particular, for biodiversity. Water included. And especially in coastal areas: our fisheries’ breeding grounds. Thus, all in all, the efficiency of artificial fertilizer in producing nutrients amounts to a meagre 16%. A big waste, one could say. Isn’t there a better way? There has to be, because system Earth is now pumped up with biologically-reactive nitrogen and nature doesn’t quite know how to handle it.
Now the pressing societal question is: How can we balance the fertilizer’s costs and the benefits? We could rely less on Haber-Bosch and more on nitrogen regeneration for the production of, for instance, high-quality Single Cell Protein (SCP). Wastewater treatment could be an important source for this. And how about giving ammonia a more prominent role as an energy carrier alongside pure hydrogen? Plenty of challenges. We could start with a more systematic and systemic approach to an efficient nitrogen chain, as an explicit societal goal. To me, this dovetails perfectly with an open, future-oriented discussion about the role of intensive agriculture. Who is responsible for what in the future? And who will pay for what? These are the key questions. Let us, as an ‘engineering gang’, demonstrate our leadership in this domain by addressing the challenge with a future-oriented innovation agenda.
December 18, 2019
We’re playing chess with the future. When it comes to flood protection, you need to think a great number of moves ahead. Not easy when the Earth System changes constantly because of rising temperatures. Of course, we try to predict precisely the nature and dimensions of the changes. After all, we’ll have to adjust to them. For the Netherlands, this raises numerous existential questions about the survival of our country. A number of very real climate scenarios herald the end of the habitability of a large part of our country over the next few centuries. Up until now, we have focussed primarily on extending the land-sea boundary with hydraulic engineering works. Land reclamation and protection against the sea. But climate change has now clearly put us on the defensive.
With this prospect, how can we keep our country habitable? And, most of all, how can we guarantee the reliability of our water infrastructure that ensures this? Will this involve a classical water infrastructure or will it be a flexible infrastructure, in Digital Twin form, which can wrestle along with the consequences of sea-level rises and more extreme wave conditions.
The habitability of some areas of the planet is under huge pressure. This is not news in itself, but the extent and impact of the problem worldwide is currently being underestimated by many people. Fortunately, series like ‘Na ons de zondvloed’ (After us the Deluge) (broadcast by NTR) are beginning to give us an increasingly clear understanding of the threat of water on a global scale. And an article1 published a few weeks ago in Nature Communications argues that we have to radically adjust our risk analysis of flooding caused by sea-level rises. A lot more people are threatened by rising sea levels than had been thought. The reason is that we have overestimated the elevation of a great number of areas on Earth. Until now, the elevation data from the SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) have been used. Using a new methodology, the Coastal Digital Elevation Model (CoastIDEM), researchers have now been able to determine the elevation of an area above sea level with much greater precision and reliability.
This has resulted in a different risk assessment of the vulnerability of coastal areas to flooding. Thus, in 2050, with a temperature increase of 2 degrees, 150 million people will be living in areas that will be below the mean high-water level. And at the end of this century, about 350 million people will be under threat of annual high waters. What’s worse, if the Antarctic ice sheets melt rapidly, almost half a billion people will be under threat, mainly in Asia. The claim is that the improved measurement methods have actually tripled the estimates of global costal area vulnerability.
How much time do we have to respond? Not much more than the time that separates us from the beginning of the Second World War. This limited time perspective calls for action. It’s late in the day. The challenge is to anchor the issue socially, and to keep attention focused on it over a long period. How can one achieve the latter?
Countries actually need a shared societal narrative, based on an undistorted water canon. By this I mean, for convenience, the common social, cultural, organisational and technological properties of the flood protection system, as it has developed up to the present time. This is what, in the case of the Netherlands, has given us a feeling of living with water. We will have to bind together generations with the mission of preserving the habitability of many parts of the world. This translates into a robust story that interconnects all actions, that becomes a focus of discussion in a country, and that integrates the oral history of water into a national water canon. In this process, a more flexible and adaptive flood protection infrastructure is the beacon in the journey to the future. There’s lots of work to be done!
Memories of the Future
October 2, 2019
Holidays offer an excellent opportunity to once again enjoy reading a book from cover to cover in one go. With this in mind, I turned to The Living Company by Arie de Geus. A book that’s frequently cited because of the author’s professional experience at Royal Dutch/Shell, and because of his subject: the company as a living organism. The work escaped my notice when it was first published in 1997. At the time I was working at a basic research institute, where we didn’t read management books. Not smart. De Geus describes a company as a living, learning and reflecting organism. But he also argues that the successful companies of the future will be knowledge companies, rather than purely commercially-oriented ones. The reason is that their survival vitally depends on a deep connection with societal issues. A future-proof company is also a societally-learning company with innovative capabilities. I see the relevance of his experience and insights into that big multinational for all sorts of organisations – that is, not only for companies per se. With its 80,000 employees, Shell is an outlier when you learn that 99% of the businesses in the Netherlands have fewer than 250 employees. Moreover, these total more than one million companies: they’re rather the norm than the exception. The challenge for this 99% is therefore to establish a contemporary connection with society.
What does this mean for us? I think that, in the past, the connection between the world of engineering and the client was characterised essentially by the company’s response to the client’s needs within the framework of established norms and standards. And when the work was done, it was also ready. But I’m seeing new forms of intensive partnerships between clients and contractors emerging in connection with a number of large societal challenges, such as climate change and water management. Models in which we work together over a longer period on design, realisation and maintenance solutions. Asset Management 3.0 with the Digital Twin approach as the conceptual action framework, if you will. A framework in which, besides the physical infrastructure, also the digital data on the past (design), present (realisation) and future (maintenance and management) are, and remain, conjointly available. An organisational setting that I see as a Sustainability Guild: the contemporary form of public-private partnership, in which technological and societal knowledge and expertise are brought together over a longer period to deal with a large societal challenge.
To give this direction, you have to be able to explore the future. And this can be done! Today’s scenario planning tools are becoming increasingly powerful and will doubtless soon become commonplace – that is, within the reach of SMEs as well as corporations like Shell. Exploring a traceable future with data is becoming the norm. Soon we won’t argue any more about the exact bases of these future studies; these will be transparent and traceable in terms of their premises and assumptions. The question will then be what the sustainable, resilient solutions might look like within water management. That’s where the designer comes in. This will all make the parametric design more fun and challenging; but this, too, will ultimately become commonplace. The new generation of water infrastructure will in the future be resistant to disruptive events during its entire lifespan. Moreover, the infrastructure’s lifespan will be extended thanks to the possibility of making timely adaptations and replacing components. This will also make it less costly to use. Our infrastructure is becoming more resilient, increasingly robust, more reliable, and therefore more flexible than ever.
Our own confidence in the future is an important driver, which benefits when we explore the future ourselves. Almost 35 years ago, David Ingvar also recognised the important psychological value of exploring the future by asking ‘what if?’ questions. This produces ‘memories of the future’ in humans. When incorporated into our thinking, these memories equip us for the future, including its uncertainties and possible associated answers (coping strategies). In this way, our past, present and future are psychologically connected, which, to me, is very meaningful. Thanks to the huge amount of data and the available modelling instrumentarium, we are also now able to accomplish this in the world of engineering. A fine and achievable societal objective for the Living Engineering Company of the future, be it large or small.
September 25, 2019
Good infrastructure is an important precondition for welfare. The growth and development of a sustainable economy depends on it. This particularly applies to sectors like energy, transport and telecommunications, but just as much to the water sector. The water sector plays a key role in public health through its quality provision of drinking water and wastewater treatment. But also through its concern for flood prevention and its supply of water for instance to agriculture, horticulture and industry. By ‘infrastructure’, we therefore refer to flood-defence works, dams, but also pumping stations, water treatment plants and distribution networks. Today, it also includes the complex ICT infrastructure that helps manage, safeguard and protect all this.
The infrastructural funding sources are varied; in the Netherlands they include an Infrastructure Fund, the Delta Fund and, in the case of the drinking water provision, customer water billing.
But now we’re encountering challenges that fall outside the standard frameworks. This is due to the fact that the water system in many places around the world is beginning to crack. And the more prosperous the country, the greater its potential material losses.
The increasingly rough climate conditions are putting water infrastructures in many places under enormous pressure. Originally designed for a more moderate range of environmental conditions, they need to be adapted. This costs money, but it is money well spent. This is shown in a recent World Bank report, based on the African example, in which costs are being incurred because a business-as-usual design is being clung to. By taking measures through a climate-adaptive design, the costs of inaction can be halved. Does this only concern Africa? I think not. In Europe, too, we can save a lot of money if we proactively adapt our water infrastructure. A future-proof water infrastructure in any event supports the natural water system. On this basis, it is integratable, adaptable to changing circumstances and resilient. And it is of course also reliable and therefore predictable in its behaviour.
We thus face immense challenges. In any case we need to carefully revisit the existing designs with regard to the original design criteria and specifications. We then need to implement the necessary adaptations and build in sufficient flexibility for the future. No small task. I predict an important role for knowledge development, resulting in new, innovative designs and solutions.
But who is going to pay for this essential quality transformation? For me, this is at the very least a national or, even better, a European, challenge. Smart Water Infrastructure is always interlinked, and is only as strong as its weakest link. The implementation of norms, standards and risk management for the whole demands tight direction.
Countries invest on average about 3% of their GDP on infrastructure. In the Netherlands we are engaged in a practically permanent debate about the need to invest in a sustainable delta economy. This is something of a quest actually. But it is something that is clearly needed, given our precarious delta location.
And there is good news. Last Prince’s Day, the occasion of the opening of the new parliamentary year in the Netherlands, an announcement was made of the intention to establish an investment fund worth billions. Its purpose is to contribute to strengthening the Dutch economy. For me, knowledge development, R&D, but also intelligent infrastructure are promising areas here. And the theme? I would bet on resilient, robust and reliable water infrastructure for the future – good for our own country and good for the world around us.
August 15, 2019
Big data remains hot. Even if only because it is a world of superlatives. Twenty-five years ago, the world’s technological storage capacity was about 2.5 1018B (2.5 exabytes, EB), of which only 1% was digital. Today, the figure is around 1700 EB, of which numerically nearly all is digital. These are awesome numbers. Data volumes that just keep on growing in nature and scale – volumes, which, until quite recently, we could make little sense of with conventional methods. Data Mining techniques provided a solution: the successful search for patterns in databases and the underlying explanations for them. This creates value, for instance, by making it possible to better determine failure probabilities. It enables better forecasting, and thus the possibility for more efficient design, construction and management. This of course demands processing power. Cloud computing offered the answer and, through so-called platforms, it is now effectively available to everyone. Moreover, the availability of data, upon which we can unleash our processing power, is becoming more and more crucial. This issue has also attracted attention: today, for instance, one can analyse tens of thousands of databases of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, USA) using Amazon’s Web Services. All of this is shaping the world of big data. Accessibility for citizens, government and businesses is a key point of concern alongside a level playing field.
As the water sector, we have the advantage that, through the discipline of Hydroinformatics, we have already been working with big data for decades – in fact, since the early nineties of the, then, still analogue twentieth century. With its roots in the discipline of Hydraulic Engineering, Hydroinformatics developed, among others, through the activities of Michael B. Abbott, into a socio-technological discipline in which water was set in a more holistic perspective.
One current trend revolves around the Digital Twin. A term coined by Michael Grieves and John Vickers early in our millennium. A Digital Informational Construct as a digital parallel identity alongside the physical one. An approach in which these entities remain connected with each other through the entire life-cycle. In which all data, old or new, remain significant during a whole lifespan. In which parametric design goes hand-in-hand with more efficient maintenance and management. An approach not only applicable to complex, assembled equipment such as aircraft, but also to buildings, flood defence works and drinking water distribution systems. In the UK, the Centre for Digital Built Britain, a government-science collaboration, is encouraging this approach. This shows that Digital Twins are seen as highly relevant to society.
The water engineering profession cannot but embrace this approach – in fact, it’s of course already doing just that. As society digitalises, and Big Data becomes a ‘Big Thing’, the sector must follow: both individually, but also as businesses, from large to small.
May 22, 2019
You’ve undoubtedly heard of the concept of price elasticity. Simply put, it refers to the relative sensitivity of demand to a relative change in price. An elastic price means that there’s a disproportionate change in the level of demand in response to a price change. But is there also such a thing as innovation elasticity? Loosely defined, this would refer to the relative sensitivity of demand to the degree of innovation in a design. One would hope that the more innovative an engineering product, the more the solution would be demanded. But is that the way it works? One would hope so, given all the challenges we face in the water sector. And most certainly for the engineering world, where everyone is looking for smart innovations that can make the difference between BAU (Business as Usual) and Wow! Solutions that for instance help clients make their products and services distinctively more sustainable, efficient, reliable and thus more predictable. Solutions that enable clients, for example, to continue guaranteeing the reliability of our water infrastructure under increasingly rough climatic conditions; or to keep cyber criminals away from our vital water infrastructure.
There are a multitude of new challenges in this regard. First and foremost, we’re seeing that water infrastructure has not only a physical identity but has now acquired a digital one as well.
Waterinfra with a so-called Digital Twin. A twin that integrates artificial intelligence and modelling with real-time data, thus forming a living digital copy of the physical asset. And the Digital Twin also changes simultaneously with the physical assets under the impact of external factors. This means that we’re increasingly creating ‘informed’ (parametric) designs for increasingly complex situations. Moreover, there is more and more coherence between the analysis of big data, scenario planning based on modelling, and the design. The result: an, in effect, renewed current Digital Twin.
I therefore believe in innovation elasticity. There’s music in innovation and it is worthwhile – for us and for society. We will again, as the engineering world, really make the difference here as well. Wow!