In this interview Erik van Lith, Strategic Adviser at Royal HaskoningDHV gives his views on what it takes go beyond the confines of the Institutionalised ‘Water Circle’ towards the Water Circuit of the Future. In the face of external disruptors such as climate change, urbanisation and a dynamic social landscape, the water sector can no longer focus exclusively on water management. In order to effectively tackle these challenges, changes must be made to the living environment. Erik is one of the leaders, innovators and operators in the Water Industry sharing how we are all creating a Virtuous Water Cycle for Smart Places. We believe that Smart Places are needed to respond to all the changes around us, to create sustainable and regenerative cities as well as safe and stable access to water for all.

What it takes to create the Water Circuit of the Future


As one of the best protected deltas, the Netherlands has built up a global reputation of a highly organised and institutionalised water management. It cannot afford otherwise with 26% of the country below sea level. This solid, rather linear control of its water network is being challenged and disrupted by climate change, increasing public pressure to accelerate the country’s ‘energy transition’ and ‘circular economy’ ambitions. Water Utilities are also under increasing pressure to ensure greater efficiency and lower costs while dealing with an evolving workforce. Water utilities are adjusting their strategic course to suit this new reality, both technologically and organisationally.

Collaboration Transition

According to Erik van Lith, Strategic Adviser at Royal HaskoningDHV, the sector must now look beyond the confines of the highly institutionalised ‘water circle’. He believes the trigger for this is a ‘collaboration transition’. "The effectiveness of technological and social innovation is highly dependent on working collaboratively with other stakeholders,” he says. “In order to tackle these challenges effectively, a transition to a different types of collaboration is essential. One in which water utilities take up an advisory role to companies and governments; and should also be engaged in active thinking around circular construction. The water sector can and must embrace this new role.”

This ‘collaboration transition’ could include more obvious partnerships given climate change pressures - such as with the energy sector. “External factors such as climate change have a huge impact on water companies and ensure that the water sector can no longer focus exclusively on water management.” Then there are ofcourse the more unexpected ones such as those involving industries which are the source of new pollutants, such as micropollutants, which are putting strain on conventional methods of water and wastewater treatment.

Read about Erik’s challenges for a ‘collaboration transition’

Challenge #1 | Leading in the Energy Transition     Challenge #2 | Smart Water for a Circular Economy     Challenge #3 | Redefine Social Role

Challenge #1 | Take a leading role in the Energy Transition

Van Lith adds that, to make a real impact, players in the water sector must be open to new partnerships as well as new tasks within the energy transition. “Instead of a facilitating role, water companies have virtually everything they need to take a leading role. For example, by using heat generated during the purification process or when designing heat networks.”

According to research, aquathermics offers huge potential and could meet 50 percent of the heat demand in urban areas. “This transition to include energy-based solutions requires a strategic change of course. The challenge is to identify partners with the correct expertise who will contribute towards efficient transition coalitions – thus enabling water partners to expand the scope of their activities.”

Challenge #2 | Smart Water for a Circular Economy

The use of raw materials and residual flows is under a magnifying glass and it is becoming widely recognised that the linear economy is not sustainable. “The water sector is actively committed to closing the water cycle and reducing pollution,” says van Lith. “An example is the extraction of industrial residues from the water cycle. Technically this is possible and there is a high demand for specific substances. The challenge for water companies is how to achieve this smartly. The business case must make sense, so several water partners are now taking up the challenge and running pilot projects. These initiatives offer valuable insights into the potential returns on investment and the impacts on water authorities’ core activities.”

Digitization – broadening ‘license to operate’
The knowledge and experience in the water sector has conventionally resided in the institutional and sector-based knowledge and experience of organisations’ employees. Digital transformation offers the opportunity to not only store knowledge effectively, but also to combine it and convert it into strategic management information. Van Lith explains, “This is not only valuable for streamlining current activities further; digital technology also offers enormous opportunities for further development. Insights based on data science and AI are providing the foundation for new initiatives and partnerships. The predictive power of data gives the water sector a head start and offers opportunities to inform investment decisions based on reliable management information. In this way, information is the basis for broadening the water partner's ‘license to operate’.”

Challenge #3 | Redefine Social Role

Van Lith adds that water companies must redefine their position in a dynamic playing field. “On the one hand there is the original core task of water management; and, on the other, there is a growing demand for a more social role. It is important that the water sector not only defines its position, but also develops policies to enable it to fulfil that role in a balanced and adaptive way. At the same time, new initiatives and investments must ultimately be justified. The issue of micropollution is a good illustration of the space in which the water sector is currently operating and shows how technology and social innovation can effectively bridge this gap.”

Social Innovation
It is important to better understand social issues in com and to act accordingly. “Water authorities must understand society and, where necessary, seek to connect with relevant stakeholders, both governmental and in the business community. Such a pivotal function requires a clear vision and the willingness to be open to initiatives and pilot projects. It is also crucial to keep an eye on the impact on internal systems and organisational processes. Successful transitions revolve around good interaction between technological possibilities, asset and process management, and policy development.”

Case in Point: Innovations around Micropollution 
Data science and the development of innovative digital tools are offering important insights into the effects of micropollution on the environment and the water system. "Sensors make it easier to monitor concentrations and flows," says van Lith. “This information offers water companies more control over the current water system; provides insight into the need for new purification techniques; and provides evidence for the required investment.”

In addition, data analysis provides a good basis for developing predictive models and proactive measures. These predictions and measures are not only of use for the water sector itself – they are also valuable to licensing authorities and companies that discharge specific substances. The water sector can therefore play a pivotal role in coordinating with other parties in addressing micropollution. Van Lith says that digital technologies also help water companies to better manage their own activities, at operational, strategic and administrative levels. Moreover, new insights offer opportunities to advise and support partners. He says, “All this is possible provided that the water sector is prepared to look beyond the beaten path, seize new opportunities and, above all, translate these into new business models.”

Making Ambitions Concrete – waiting is not an option

Van Lith concludes that water authorities can play a key role in tackling current societal challenges through a ‘collaboration transition’ and in harnessing new technology solutions. “It is important that Water Uitilities take a proactive approach in this direction. Disruptive developments have a major impact on society and the functioning of the water sector, making it important to determine a new course. Technological innovations such as data science and AI can speed up this process. It is time to identify new ambitions, develop new strategies and to find the right partners to make these changes concrete – even if that means that the ‘license to operate’ changes. The time is now – waiting is no longer an option."


We will be talking to more leaders, innovators and operators in the Water Industry to explore how we are all contributing to creating a Virtuous Water Cycle for Smart Places. You’re invited to join the dialogue on LinkedIn.

Watch the Video by Niels Schallenberg, Global Director: Water Business Line | Royal HaskoningDHV

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