Taking a systems-thinking approach to tackle water sector challenges
Author: Costain and British Water, Outputs from a Spotlight panel discussion
It’s clear the water sector faces profound challenges in the coming years and decades, from climate change to growing customer expectations, as well as concerns about affordability. With all eyes on PR24, Costain and British Water hosted a series of industry panel events to spotlight these challenges and discuss how the industry can work collectively to deliver more for customers and the environment.
Experts on the most recent panel included British Water CEO Lila Thompson, Jason Jones – strategic development director, Costain, Dan Proud – director for UK regulated utilities, Turner & Townsend, Shaun Stevens - UK general manager, EPS Water, Richard Stuart – director of asset delivery, Yorkshire Water and Martin Kelly, chief systems engineer, Costain.
The topic at the centre of the discussion was: can a systems-thinking approach help improve collaboration, integration, and major project delivery within the water sector? Systems-thinking would require the sector to break down boundaries between actors to ensure it considers the project as a whole system and that it is optimised, forcing the industry to look at ways of working between disciplines.
Defining systems thinking and standard approaches
Panellists explored the concept of systems-thinking in the context of the water sector, highlighting it as an approach to problem solving that considers the overall system as well as its individual parts. According to Peter Senge, it’s “a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than static snapshots. It is a set of general principles spanning fields as diverse as physical and social sciences, engineering, and management”[i].
Jason commented, “We must remember the difference here between systems-thinking (considering the wider catchment and the regional water system, including rivers, networks, receptors) and systems-engineering where we integrate all the elements into one overall system. If we apply systems-thinking to the water sector, it requires us to break down boundaries to ensure that we consider the project as a whole system and ensure that it is optimised, forcing us to look at ways of working between disciplines. In this way it can be used to drive catchment nature-based and net zero solutions.”
From there, panellists discussed whether the existing models and frameworks delivered the required outcomes for the challenges the water sector faces, and whether a systems-thinking approach would enable true industry integration and the ability to deliver programmes more efficiently.
Sector-level collaboration and system co-ordination
In the UK, the water industry, the Government, and its regulators are united in their support for innovation through collaboration. The vision of Water Innovation 2050, an alliance of 19 UK water utilities, is to “create open collaboration opportunities across the water sector and beyond to drive transformational change through innovation”.
The idea of sector-level coordination for collaborative work across water companies was explored. Overall, there was broad agreement that more collaboration was needed in the industry. However, it became clear that many think a greater level of coordination could prove challenging, and there was a discussion of the importance of engagement, relationship building and trust that would be required to foster a systems-thinking approach.
Costain’s Martin Kelly explained, “All systems have structure and interconnected elements and it’s the structure that creates behaviour. That’s the insight that systems-thinking tries to bring out. Over time, that data and insight can help us change behaviour– it’s a long-term strategy for long lasting benefits.”
Suggestions to improve collaboration included the creation of a central coordinating body or industry alliance to drive long-term strategic thinking, with silo-busting to break down potential barriers. Lila added, “Systems thinking will improve collaboration, but it can’t fix poor collaboration without initial investment in trust and behaviours. We need a mechanism for greater collaboration and a degree of openness and transparency.”
Integration in Major Project Delivery
The next topic of focus was integration. Integration in systems-thinking is focused on how the sector stitches together each component, creating synergies and ensuring that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The discussion explored how the integration of systems-thinking in major project and program delivery was already being achieved in part, with examples from the water sector, including the use of modern construction methods and production thinking.
Jason commented, “What we need to focus on is coordination and not competition. Should we be thinking about the challenges in the water industry as a national endeavour? Should we be thinking about solutions in a very different way and does that require a delivery authority to drive that?”
Integration is key in other sectors, where good work is being done. The panel explored how in the defence industry, integration was the name of the game and contracts were awarded on the basis of integrating to deliver a product or service.
Delivering social value
Water companies are being challenged to deliver greater social value and implement solutions that give back to communities. Costain has a Water Social Value forum and team who work across each of our different water contracts, and the panel explored how adopting systems-thinking approaches widen the sector’s horizon on what it can deliver from a social impact perspective.
Panellists emphasised the role a systems-thinking approach could have in addressing complex challenges and delivering optimal outcomes, particularly in areas such as carbon efficiency and social impact, with a notable example from the Strategic Pipeline Alliance. Here, considering the wider systems has worked well to not only reduce the overall scope of delivery and achieve the project outcomes, but has also reduced embodied carbon by 65%.
The overall discussion highlighted the progress, challenges, and potential applications of systems-thinking in the water sector. The panel acknowledged that systems thinking alone is not a remedy for all the current issues facing the sector; it will require a foundation of trust, behaviours, and investment in collaboration.
[i] Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 2nd Ed 2006.