“Water regulators and suppliers must change their mind-sets now if they are to future-proof our natural resources for generations to come,” says Dr. Peter Coombes, Australian water champion
Note to Reader:
Formerly a Chief Scientist for the State of Victoria (Australia), Dr. Peter Coombes is a water advisor to all levels of governments in Australia. An outside-the-pipe thinker, he is pioneering applications of a “whole-systems approach” to urban, rural and natural water cycle management. His mission is to find optimum solutions for the sustainable use of ecosystem services, provision of infrastructure and urban planning.
The work of Dr. Coombes is compelling in the ways his research and findings challenge conventional thinking. He is a peer advisor to the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia, with a working relationship that dates back to 2001.
In an article published last month in one of the United Kingdom’s leading business and finance magazines, Dr. Coombes and his colleague Dr. Michael Barry warn that by continuing to use conventional top-down assessment techniques based on averages, we risk getting things dangerously wrong and not understanding why.
Revolutionary new bottom-up approach would transform the way we assess and manage our water resources
A History of Missed Opportunities!
Scientific breakthroughs by Peter Coombes and Michael Barry, which apply bottom-up systems thinking to the assessment and management of water resources, reveal the potential scale of miscalculation – and missed opportunities – occurring with traditional methods.
“The detail revealed by the Systems Framework underpins the Natural Capital approach which incorporates ecosystems into resilience evaluation,” stated Peter Coombes. “In fact, the Systems Framework was developed out of the systems thinking at the root of the Natural Capital concept. The power and accuracy of the systems analysis has been dramatically increased by our bottom-up methods, and also by our use of discoveries from molecular sciences (around DNA processes) and economic decision theory.”
“One operational decision may create such substantial far-reaching benefits that it simply cannot be weighed against financial value alone, while another may produce unexpected costs across other sectors of society,” added Dr. Michael Barry. “It is vital that regulators, governments, and business know about these trade-offs, which traditional analysis has limited ability to uncover, but which the Systems Framework exposes clearly.”
Move from Top-Down to Bottom-Up Approach:
“Although it has been the standard approach to water resource management for decades, top-down thinking based on averages is not fit for purpose in the face of rapidly ageing infrastructure, population growth, climate change, and increasing urbanisation, and it severely compromises our ability to understand, manage, and deliver essential water services,” they wrote.
“Simply put, applying averages makes no conceptual sense – is there such a thing as an average household with 2.3 occupants, and a corresponding average water demand that is isolated from an urban system? If not, then how could we expect that using such an unreal thing in water resource analysis would produce real outcomes that can be relied upon?
Change the Mind-Set to Future-Proof:
“Water regulators and suppliers must change their mind-sets now if they are to future-proof our natural resources for generations to come. In order to properly understand water resources and economic policy opportunities, they must reject traditional average-based engineering and economic assumptions in favour of holistic bottom-up analyses of the complex and competing demands of real urban and environmental systems. These approaches must be incorporated into the real feed-back loops in society and ecosystems.
“The Systems Framework enables this approach. A world first, it has been supported by increases in computing power and advanced algorithms and is already delivering more than 120 sustainable projects across the world and underpinned government policy discussions. It is the key to delivering reliable, robust, and cost-effective water sustainability, and meeting a need for a resilient future.”
What is a systems approach and why is it imperative?
“Developing a successful public policy for allocating scarce resources requires an understanding of the myriad trade-off decisions involved within the complex society that uses them.
“All are linked from a system perspective, meaning that decisions in one area invariably impact others; yet the sector traditionally operates in siloes.
“The financial viability of a utility or an item of infrastructure must be assessed in the context of its economic, ecological, and social impact. These benefits and costs will be cumulative and wide ranging, occurring throughout society and across many scales, from household and neighbourhood to city and nation.
“Clear visibility of the big picture encourages support for strategies that would traditionally be dismissed as marginal that would actually benefit wider society and protects against schemes shown to impact negatively in unexpected areas. Government and utilities need to know how they are performing from a whole-of-society perspective and for future generations. The Systems Framework can supply the answers,” assert the authors.
What’s wrong with traditional analysis?
“Cities and regions are intensely complex systems featuring innumerable variations in behaviour which drive an intricate circular economy. This makes a nonsense of using global averages and linear processes to manage the allocation of scarce resources.
“There are three main problems with using a conventional top-down approach to water resource management:
- It can dramatically over-estimate requirements for infrastructure and provide highly uncertain estimates of water security and costs
- It almost always shows little or no benefits of alternative options across scales
- It often provides an illusion of limited options for innovation in policy, strategy and implementation.
Act now: our future depends on it
“Failure to adopt a systems approach will condemn us to continuing down the path of inconsistent and inefficient management of our resources, harming this and future generations.
“We cannot meet our obligations with a piecemeal approach to water, or any other resource, management. Only a holistic systems approach can deliver the required level of insight,” conclude the authors.
To Learn More:
The Systems Framework was developed over the last 20 years of applied research and practical application to provide insight into policies and strategies for water cycle management, urban planning, environmental protection, energy uses and economics.
The Framework utilises Big Data inputs and is built up from Local Scale behaviours to include Transition and Regional Scale layers.