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Achieving sustainable clean water infrastructure for all

15 April 2019

How do we effectively build resilience, efficiency and adaptability into our systems, networks and catchments to ensure we all receive clean water, sustainably? Professor Joby Boxall, leader of the TWENTY65 consortium, discusses how that consortium is addressing these issues.

Achieving sustainable clean water infrastructure for all
What is the cost of replacing our ageing infrastructure?

Imagine that we didn’t have our existing water service provision. Now imagine that someone suggested the great idea of building abstraction, storage, treatment and pipe network infrastructure sufficient to provide a better than food grade product 24/7 at around a £1 a ton, and that the main domestic use for this amazing service should be to flush away our waste, they would be a laughing stock.

Yet those are the coupled infrastructure systems and social practices that we have enabled, that we expect and even demand. But it is not sustainable. Changing this requires both social and technical innovation that can combine and work synergistically with existing infrastructure and practices to disrupt the current mode.

Change requires both technical and social innovation

This concept is at the heart of the EPSRC sponsored TWENTY65 consortium. TWENTY65 is undertaking exciting and ambitious scientific and engineering research to develop transformative socio-technical solutions across eight thematic areas. Each theme is based on disruptive questions that challenge the status quo and help to drive re-visualisation of water service provision, paving the way towards flexible, resilient and adaptive systems.

This transformation is vital if we are to overcome the interacting pressures of climate change, protecting the environment, population growth and increasing population density, and our ageing infrastructure. A key aspect of TWENTY65 is partnering and co-creation approaches that enable the consortium to reach far beyond the specific themes and are helping to change the way innovation is thought about and delivered in the water sector.

TWENTY65 is an example of the world-leading fundamental water research that is undertaken in the UK, primarily supported by Research Councils UK. These councils have a long history of recognising the long-term challenges and need for water research, with the Grand Challenge mechanism that enables TWENTY65 being the latest incarnation of this. However, the UK does not have a good track record of taking such research through to application.

So why don’t academics (and others) do near-market research in water?

Academics can only do the research that they can secure funding for. Direct funding from water companies is one route to supporting near-market research, and there are examples of progressing from Research Council funding to practical application via this route. An example of this is the discolouration theme of research at the University of Sheffield.

This started as a Research Council supported disruptive idea and has then been followed up via repeated consortia of UK water companies, with the resulting understanding, tools and techniques underpinning the delivery of significant service improvements and multi-million pound savings. But this route is, understandably, limited to research that directly addresses very tangible pressing business needs and is lower risk.

Routes to fund mid to higher technology readiness level water research that addresses the grander, longer-term challenges have been poorly supported in the UK.

There are signs of hope

The disconnect across technology readiness levels, while being particularly notable in water is not unique to it. Following recommendations made in the Nurse review, Innovate UK and Research Councils UK have been united under UK Research and Innovation, with common goals and drivers set from government policy and initiatives, such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge consultation process.

The challenges and importance of infrastructure generally, and water specifically, are also being far more clearly articulated at a policy level than previously, such as by the National Infrastructure Commission. It is the responsibility of all water professionals to increase awareness of the importance and scale of challenges around water so that these, and other opportunities, are maximised.

A tangible example of progress is the investment in national infrastructure research and test facilities. The UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities includes a water hub with new world-leading facilities at the Universities of Sheffield, Newcastle and Cranfield.

These will enable coordinated research and innovation at a scale not previously possible and development and demonstration of innovation across technology readiness levels, providing impartial full- scale and complexity verification and validation to accelerate the innovation process.

One of the often cited barriers to innovation in the water sector is regulation. However, Ofwat and others are also changing. Speaking at the recent TWENTY65 conference Rachel Fletcher, the recently appointed CEO of Ofwat, emphasised the importance of innovation and the need for change in the water sector, including the regulators.

In summary, TWENTY65 is leading the way in the important first vital steps on a journey towards tailored water solutions that can deliver positive benefits for all. It is doing this by challenging current thinking, undertaking adventurous research into important components of solutions and starting the debate and, hence, the journey.

Watch the Dugald Clerk lecture

  • Prof. Joby Boxall, Professor of Water Infrastructure Engineering, University of Sheffield