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How this water utility is strategically planning for an uncertain future

The world is changing quickly and the ability of water utilities to predict the future needs of their communities is becoming increasingly difficult, but one asset planner and engineer says shifting from traditional to adaptive planning methods can help prepare for uncertainty. 

Presenting on adaptive planning at Ozwater’20 Online, Icon Water Strategic Asset Planner Caitlin Launt said the COVID-19 crisis provided proof of the need for a more adaptive mindset when it comes to asset planning. 

“Adaptive planning is particularly relevant right now. When we created our sewage treatment plants, our desalination plants and our dams, I am betting we didn't anticipate that there would be a global pandemic that would impact our supply lines and our workforce planning,” Launt said. 

“Adaptive planning is about making strategy and plans to prepare ourselves for these types of events.” 

Servicing the Canberra region and providing bulk water to New South Wales, Icon Water has four dams, two water treatment hubs, two sewage treatment plants and about 6500 km of water and sewage pipes.

Launt said the business recently added adaptive planning to it’s decision-making process after a review of its decade-old strategy revealed the need for a more innovative approach to future asset planning.

“In 2010, we spent billions of dollars and a lot of brain time on creating a strategy for the sewage system in Canberra. It included planning for upgrades and our secondary treatment plant,” she said. 

“We did a review 10 years later and discovered that instead of planning for a population of 500,000 to 600,000 in 2060, we were looking at closer to 800,000 people in Canberra by that time. There was a big difference in terms of what we had planned for. 

“We decided to use adaptive planning, which is a technique that has been used quite well in a few different industries. It’s about making sure our plans for the future can be used in the future, regardless of what happens in the future.”

Traditional versus adaptive

While Launt said traditional asset planning strategies utilise sound decision-making based on solid technical data, the approach is becoming outdated due to the difficulty of accurately predicting the future

“We want to be making plans that can adapt to whatever the future holds, whether it’s a global pandemic or a changing population,” she said. 

“Traditional planning really relies on our ability to predict the future. And when you're making a plan for 50 years, the ability to predict the future is kind of sketchy.

“With traditional planning, we want the asset to work in 2070. We then decide on what augmentation we will need at 2030, and 2050. We decide what work we will need to do in between as well. But we really needed a system that worked better than traditional planning.”

Launt said adaptive planning is the flip side of this approach: “instead of asking ourselves what we want our asset to do, we ask what services we need to provide”. 

Adaptive planning processes

One of the major differences between traditional and adaptive planning is how the strategy is used, Launt said, and Icon Water aimed for a strategy that was more widely and deeply implemented. 

“We wanted to have a strategy that is dynamic and utilised by the business more frequently; a strategy is only as useful as the number of people who put their hands on it,” she said.

“We wanted to get as many people involved in planning so our strategy was useful to everybody.”

Another aspect of adaptive planning is to consider multiple scenarios for future asset needs. 

“Instead of looking at one ‘most-likely’ picture of the future, we look at different ways the future could pan out. Instead of a population of 800,000, maybe we will end up with only 600,000? Or could we end up with more than one million?” Launt said. 

“Creating multiple predictions of the future, that are all plausible, gives us an idea of how different the future could be. We can then decide how prepared we want to be for each of these outcomes. We might want to plan for the most likely future, but know that we can pivot to another plan later on if we need to.” 

Launt said adaptive planning is also community and customer focused. Rather than making assumptions about what the community will want in 30 years time, Icon Water has dedicated itself to including the community and its customers in the decision-making process. 

“It’s not just us, it’s our community and customers as well,” she said. 

“In order to know what we want our assets to do, we need to know what other people want our assets to do. What do our customers value? What services will we need to provide?”

Although adaptive strategy functions under many unknowns, which may be anxiety inducing for some, Launt said it’s primarily about acknowledging that decisions about assets cannot be made until the future unfolds, and taking the community context into consideration is paramount in creating good assets. 

“The difference between the adaptive and the traditional pathway is that we don't actually have decisions made from our strategy just yet. It's terrifying and exciting in equal measures,” she said. 

“We don't have decisions made because we have done a lot of good work and have come up with solid planning assumptions. But the decisions that need to be made are outside of us. 

“In contrast to traditional planning, instead of informing our community about what we are doing, we are actually getting them involved.”