Does the need for innovation in the water sector imply a need for a certain type of innovation? Keith Hayward heard from Professor Cees Buisman about the requirement for coherent thinking to shape technology selection.
For Professor Cees Buisman, there are several reasons why the Dutch are regarded as leaders in water innovation. For a start, water has long been seen as attractive by academics. “Environmental technology has always been pretty high in the chain,” he says.
Likely connected to this, there is general public support for high standards around water, especially drinking water. “The chance of dying from drinking water is less than one in a million… the water must be pristine,” says Buisman, who is an Executive Board member of the Wetsus water technology centre of excellence in the Netherlands.
He notes the amount that is spent on research by the Dutch drinking water and wastewater authorities, and the national government investment in innovation, with water being one of the country’s nine top priority sectors. “All this stimulates water innovation enormously,” he adds.
On top of this, the country’s 10 drinking water companies and 25 wastewater authorities are keen to apply innovations. “They all want to shine,” says Buisman. “We have a gigantic showroom of innovation – almost all new technologies are demonstrated in the Netherlands.”
The Wetsus approach
This role of end users is important, with them forming part of what is a broader ecosystem around innovation. “In the past 30 years, these players have found each other better and better,” he says, adding that, today, these connections are an essential part of securing funding: “If you want to have money in universities, you also need the implementers, or you don’t get the money any more.”
“Wetsus is completely built on this idea,” says Buisman. It is described as a “European centre of excellence for sustainable water technology” and a “facilitating intermediary for trendsetting know-how development”. Buisman explains that Wetsus combines end users of water technology, companies providing these technologies, and research institutes and universities as sources of new ideas. Currently, 23 research institutes are involved and 106 companies. It allows technology companies to invest in new ideas because they see there is co-investment from end users. “Wetsus’ strategy is now used by all universities in the Netherlands,” he adds.
There are other aspects contributing to the success of Wetsus, some of which Buisman says have only been fully appreciated recently. Wetsus was set up to support multidisciplinary research by taking PhD students away from their universities to an independent location. Also, it was up to companies to decide the research priorities.
“What we found is that, when you do it this way, you automatically get the network, the reputation and all the knowledge of the professors that you involve – and we had not recognised that,” says Buisman, adding: “By working with 50 professors, Wetsus, although a relatively small institute, is in effect, by reputation, the biggest water institute in the world now, because we get the reputation of these professors for free in your system.
The approach also helps the companies gain access to the university expertise. “Wetsus has become a kind of broker for companies looking for research – something that, for a small company, was almost impossible before,” says Buisman.
These aspects have evolved over the past 10 years, and this is reflected in the new business plan to 2030 that is being published this year. “We have described this for the first time, in the most expansive way ever, that we understand our own system better now,” he adds.
The goal of good innovation
Buisman describes two types of innovation in a book he wrote recently (originally titled Humanity is not a Plague: How 10 Billion People can Exist Together, it has been re-published by IWA Publishing under the title We Need to Change to Solve the Water Crisis). He refers to them as ‘technocratic innovation’ and ‘nature-based innovation’. Having reflected on that choice of terms, he now prefers ‘non-coherent’ and ‘coherent’, which he saw used in another book. “I think I like them more,” he says. He sums up what these mean as: “Coherent innovations benefit the world, and non-coherent innovation in the end will bite the world in the tail.”
“You see all kinds of innovations that, in the end, were not good for the world. They were only thought of for making money, and not for the public good,” says Buisman. He cites trans fats as an example of a technocratic innovation. Others include pesticides, or pharmaceuticals, about which he is particularly scathing in his book. He observes the widespread use of pharmaceuticals (“a business model system”), with large quantities of them entering the water system. “That is non-coherent. That is completely clear to me,” he says.
As an example of a coherent approach, Buisman says the new plan includes an aim to come up with a solution for deserts that used to be forests, such as the Sinai. This shows how coherent innovations may be restorative. They are also not necessarily anti-technology: for Buisman, such approaches can mean making use of the latest advances in technology and understanding.
With the trees gone, the land becomes too hot for the forest to return naturally – and, without the forest, there is no rain. “How can you technologically influence such a system that you can make rain in the meantime when there is not a forest. Things like that could help bring back the water cycle in these kinds of areas,” he says, adding: “I am a very strong believer in forests in deserts, because they will store carbon dioxide, they will bring back water, and they will cool down these areas.”
He contrasts this with ideas such as putting calcium carbonate in the atmosphere, or making gigantic mirrors in space. “Those, in my opinion, would be non-coherent situations, because you can hardly undo them once you have started,” he says. He sees the forest option as being different. “I think we are just restoring the natural state of the Sinai.”
This type of coherent thinking feeds back to lines of investigation, including those in the water sector. For example, Buisman sees that the goal of phosphate recovery from municipal sewage sludge needs to connect with the fact that animal feed is imported into the Netherlands, meaning that the phosphate fertiliser need is where that feed is produced. “If we want to make a sustainable system, we must produce our phosphate in a form that is transportable intercontinentally. That is a clear direction for the technology innovation – that only very dense transportable phosphate forms are interesting,” he says.
Challenges such as those around pharmaceuticals will require wider changes, reducing use, reformulating medicines, and even banning some compounds, but Buisman still sees room for coherent solutions within the water sector. This includes, for example, developing chemical-free solutions for removing pharmaceuticals during treatment. Buisman says Wetsus also has a research topic on developing biodegradable flocculants to replace the acrylamides generally used in the dewatering of dredging material.
A change of mission
This outlook carries through to the plan for Wetsus. “We have changed our mission so that we want to contribute to a sustainable and fair world,” says Buisman.
He explains that the mission of Wetsus brings together the mission of the northern region of the Netherlands, which provides co-financing, and the missions of the Netherlands, the EU, and the UN in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals. The competitiveness of the technology companies is also central to the mission – their involvement is an essential part of the formula. He also adds that, in the new plan, Wetsus is limiting itself to 10 basic science fields, to ensure it maintains credibility.
Beyond this, Buisman sees that the example of the Sinai demonstrates a new dimension of the Wetsus approach. “We want to very clearly make a connection between engineering sciences and basic sciences, and for the first time also between the engineering sciences and environmental science,” he says. “I think this is new and almost never tried before – so that will be one of our new aspects in the business plan.
“The hope is that this innovation strategy can help kickstart the solution to such a problem,” adds Buisman. “We are, of course, only a small research institute in a very large world, but I believe very well connected.” Likening the institute’s contribution to the spark in an engine, he says: “If we can do that, then my aspiration has been completely satisfied, that we ignited bigger actions.” •
Available from IWA Publishing
We Need to Change to Solve the Water Crisis
By Cees Buisman
Originally published by Bornmeer & Noordboe in 2018 as Humanity is not a Plague: How 10 Billion People can Exist Together, this essay by Cees Buisman analyses some of the problems facing humankind, such as freshwater shortages, while overturning several clichés and offering unexpected, positive solutions. Overpopulation is not the problem; the effects of our actions on the rest of the world have a much greater impact. ‘Back to nature’ is not the solution, nor is an over-reliance on science and innovation. In fact, large-scale technologies could even increase our problems.