The EU’s ambitious policies present bright prospects for the continent’s water technology sector. Keith Hayward spoke to Dr Wim van Vierssen, Vice-President Innovation for Water Europe, about the role of innovation.
As former CEO of Dutch water research organisation KWR and professor at Delft University of Technology, Dr Wim van Vierssen has been close to Europe’s innovation agenda for many years. The perspective those roles have provided is complemented by his current positions, as Vice-President Innovation for the Water Europe network, and as director of consultancy Dareius.
“True innovation occurs in the minds of people,” says Van Vierssen. “This doesn’t mean it can be used or applied; only few ideas materialise into something of societal use,” he continues, adding: “I am a very optimistic person. If I look at what people are able to come up with, I am often amazed.”
Societal needs are only met through the application of ideas. “Embracing innovation is equally important as coming up with technological innovation,” says Van Vierssen. Here too, he highlights the mental dimension. End users in particular, both public and commercial, can prepare themselves to embrace innovation through organised actions and approaches, but this is just part of the answer: “It is about a culture of being receptive to innovations – so it is a state of mind as well.
“If I had to bet on what is more limiting to innovation – production of good ideas, or receptiveness to good ideas – I would say the latter is more important at present,” continues Van Vierssen. He sees this for climate change, for example, which is often framed as a political issue. As part of this receptiveness, end users do need to articulate their needs, and measures such as ‘innovative procurement’ may be necessary to help overcome barriers to innovation. “There are all sorts of legal hurdles between wanting to be receptive and being able to be receptive,” he adds.
This extends the idea of receptiveness to the whole ecosystem of organisations that are involved in innovation, thinking about how they work together and bridging gaps between silos.
Van Vierssen explains that this is why Water Europe, along with its more established activities in areas such as engaging with the agenda setting for policies and law, actively supports the concept of Water-Oriented Living Labs (WoLLs) as a tool for implementing its ‘The Value of Water’ vision. Following a mapping exercise, Water Europe published a document in 2019 including an inventory of more than 100 such sites across Europe. These are cases that take a cross-sector nexus approach and have the involvement and commitment of multi-stakeholders, especially water utilities and authorities.
The European Union’s Horizon programme is one of the most prominent features of the European research and innovation landscape. “In my own view, it is one of the best programmes in the world,” he says.
Naturally, then, another important aspect of Water Europe’s approach is to gear its activities towards supporting engagement of its members in Horizon.
Horizon has attracted some criticism, but Van Vierssen sees that it has a lot of strengths. “Horizon 2020 was very competitive,” he says, adding: “I personally believe that the best survived.”
More broadly, EU activity in this area is set out in its Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. Horizon 2020 was the name given to the eighth such programme. This year has seen the start of the ninth. Known as Horizon Europe, this has a budget of around €95.5 billion over its seven-year life.
Here, Van Vierssen draws attention to the work of economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato, who advised the European Commission during its preparations for the ninth programme. He observes how her books build on earlier work looking at the connections between the public and private sectors in the successful industrialisation of Japan following World War II. Many technologies today, from satellites to vaccines, are based on research financed by governments, he says. “The idea that companies have financed their innovations through private means is simply not true… It is public money,” says Van Vierssen.
Van Vierssen believes that Mazzucato’s ideas have been incorporated in the Horizon Europe programme, with more of a focus on real-life situations and applications. “It is more practical than ever before,” he says.
“The fact that we should start to reconnect industry with governments on the big questions of our time is obvious,” continues Van Vierssen, adding that he sees a need for this to be done in a transparent way.
For the water sector, Van Vierssen highlights the challenges around water safety and water security. Water safety covers the physical risk from water, so the measures around flooding, for example. Water security broadly covers the availability of resources.
Van Vierssen uses the water safety case to highlight how technological innovation has its part to play but does not provide the full answer. Knowledge in areas such as probabilistic design and tools such as mathematical models can be applied, and Van Vierssen notes that, at Dareius, he is involved with the application of digital twins of storm surge barriers. But water safety is a public issue, meaning governance is important. He notes, for example, the consolidation of water boards that took place in the Netherlands to create an effective governance framework. “At the end of the day, how you make use of storm surge barriers is part of the societal fabric. They are physical infrastructures, but there is more to it than that,” he says. “It is important to include local communities in something like water safety. In that sense, it is a great challenge, not only for mathematical people and hydrologists, but also sociologists – the transdisciplinary aspect of water.”
This transdisciplinary dimension is important. Innovation can deliver disruptive change. “That is not the thing of the water sector – it is all incremental,” says Van Vierssen, adding that the challenge is to organise things more optimally. The transdisciplinary approach can better connect the various actors in the innovation ecosystem. He sees also that the transdisciplinary nature of water is reflected in the fact that water is not a separate domain in Horizon Europe. “Some people say it is nowhere. I would say it is everywhere,” he says.
This underlines the need and potential impact of water innovations. “We have to accept it, and it is even better because we are influential in different domains,” he says.
Embracing innovation is equally important as coming up with technological innovation
The European example
Van Vierssen sees that the European water technology sector has bright prospects, although he believes more money should be spent on basic research generally. These bright prospects derive from what lies ahead for Europe.
He notes how the European Union has used framework directives, such as the EU Water Framework Directive, to deliver progress policy areas, with a bottom-up process driving practical action across a market of hundreds of millions of people.
“The level of sustainability we could reach within a decade from now should be enough to solve a number of critical issues,” says Van Vierssen.
“I think we are on the right track,” he adds. “We know what is at stake. We basically know how to do it. Now we have to do it – and I think we start to understand that there is really no time to waste.” •
Information and Water Europe’s report on water-oriented living labs is available at: https://watereurope.eu/water-oriented-living-labs/