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All together now: How collaboration makes for a more resilient water sector

When it comes to collaboration, there are two different kinds. There’s the ‘working with someone to produce something’ definition. Then there’s the ‘traitorous cooperation with an enemy’ meaning. Suffice to say that, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be sticking to the first.

“Fundamentally, good collaboration is founded on the desire of participants to achieve a common agreed outcome,” said Professor Tony Wong, Chief Executive at the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities.

“There are multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary collaborations where the former involves well-defined inputs across multiple disciplines each contributing to certain aspects of a project, while the latter requires a higher level of cross-pollination of ideas and ‘synergistic creations’.”

AWA Chief Executive Jonathan McKeown said increased collaboration is being driven by the immediacy of the digital age due to open-access information.

“Today we enjoy much more open access to both information and connections that can be activated online 24/7. This in turn has led to much wider collaboration between industry, research institutions and the community,” he said.

What collaboration involves

Katie Hammer, from the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC), said good collaboration involves people working together to achieve innovative solutions to challenges.

“This looks like water engineers talking to urban planners, developers, landscape architects, community groups and social scientists, to generate multiple outcomes that will benefit a range of stakeholders,” said the Project Manager of IRP1 Water Sensitive City Visions and Transition Strategies.

Hammer added that it was not only important to collaborate across disciplines, but also with various stakeholders.

“For example, engaging with our communities is really important, which includes Indigenous communities, and engaging with them as partners, rather than end-users or consumers,” Hammer said.

McKeown sees collaboration changing the very nature of the water sector.

“The level of synergies between the sustainable management of water, waste and energy will inevitably bring these three areas closer. This will shape a more integrated sector going forward,” he said.

Collaboration challenges

Professor Alan Broadfoot, Executive Director of the Global Impact Cluster for Energy, Resources, Food and Water at the University of Newcastle, said one challenge when it comes to collaboration is bringing together a variety of skill sets to develop policy and drive outcomes.

“Sometimes a problem might typically be seen as requiring an engineering solution however involving a sociologist or health specialist may enhance the outcome. And that’s not a natural convergence of skill sets,” Prof Broadfoot said.

Another issue can be the sharing of funding, not to mention upfront costs and risk.

“But my argument is if you work together you can actually attract, maximise and substantially increase funding,” Prof Broadfoot said.

Added Hammer: “If people have their own individual or organisational agenda and feel that they are only responsible for delivering certain outcomes, it can make it hard to compromise.”

Hammer said the CRC research project she was involved with had interviewed over 250 industry stakeholders.

“One of the most common challenges we heard from these interviews is that it’s so hard to look outside of your formal organisational agendas, roles and responsibilities, and to break through disciplinary silos that have been so ingrained in Australia’s water industry,” Hammer said.

As a result, she said it is often too easy for people to think ‘Oh, that’s not my problem, I’m only responsible for this’.

“We are now facing global challenges that are affecting us all. In order to address these challenges, we need to start thinking it’s actually all of our problem. So how do we work together to solve it?” she said.

Another challenge was cost and risk, said Hammer.

“If we’re delivering multiple benefits to multiple stakeholders, who absorbs the costs and risk associated with these, and is it possible to be shared?” she said.

Moving beyond collaboration for mutual reward, McKeown said the challenge is to ensure that the right level of collaboration has taken place with customers and the community. 

“It is no longer an option to collaborate. It is now a fundamental ingredient of success. Without the appropriate level of collaboration with customers or the community entities may lose their social license to operate. Social media and the power of digital platforms have irreversibly changed the landscape,” he said.

The benefits

While the challenges are real, there’s no shortage of benefits on the other side. Hammer said collaboration helped broaden horizons and introduced people to new learnings.

“Other people have a broad range of skillsets that can add value to the work that you’re doing. That wealth of knowledge is truly powerful in coming up with new ways of doing things,” she said.

Dimity Lynas, Team Leader of Water Security Planning at Seqwater, said when collaboration was done right the benefits were realised across three levels: organisational, industry and the community.

“Organisational benefits include new ideas, innovation and generally a reduction in costs due to sharing the workload,” she said.

From an industry perspective, Lynas added that “the more we can share, the greater the inclusion of considerations”, which often resulted in more effective outcomes.

But it’s on the community level that outcomes could be truly beneficial for society, Lynas said.

“Whether they be environmental, social or economic, decisions will have been made on a more holistic basis,” Lynas said.

Nurturing collaboration further

McKeown said the role of industry organisations is key to future collaboration. 

“The days when industry groups were the gate keepers to industry participation or industry negotiations are gone. Industry bodies need to be open, transparent and practical platforms through which members and stakeholders collaborate for mutual benefit,” he said.

And while most people want to collaborate, Hammer said it’s just a question of how to do it operationally and on the ground.

“Many people think that institutional reform is the answer to achieving better collaboration. And while that may be needed in the long term, it’s not a realistic goal for the short term,” she said.

And so, Hammer said, if formal collaboration is still a while off, then the focus needs to shift towards nurturing informal mechanisms. These include networks, forums, capacity-building programs and specific projects or investment opportunities that can be used as platforms for collaboration.

“For example, one of the research projects that I work on for CRCWSC runs a series of workshops in a city and brings together a broad range of stakeholders across water, planning, and development who wouldn’t normally be in the same room,” she explained.

“And we essentially take them through a water sensitive city journey that starts by looking into the past, through to current performance, then towards the future to develop and agree on a shared water sensitive city vision and strategies and actions for achieving it.”

Hammer said in Perth, after the conclusion of one of their case studies which consisted of a group of 30 stakeholders, the group actually expressed the desire to continue meeting every two months as a Water Sensitive Transition Network.

“So they really recognised the value of having that space to catch up, let everyone know what’s going on in the water sensitive city space, and to identify specific opportunities where better collaboration can help deliver Perth’s water sensitive city vision,” Hammer said.

Collaboration tools

That’s not to say there’s no room for a formal, government-enabled tool to foster collaboration.

Prof Broadfoot pointed to the NSW Government’s established Knowledge Hubs in Energy and Resources, Financial Services, Creative Industries and Medical Technology.

“What those Knowledge Hubs do is facilitate a network of networks,” said Broadfoot.

“In sectors where there’s a lot of different organisations doing something to benefit, for example the region’s water industry, research and regulatory frameworks, it could benefit from a network of joint initiatives where all organisations can add value strategically.”

In the meantime, Hammer said the CRCWSC is developing a web-based transition platform for users to login and track progress towards their water sensitive city vision, supported by other CRCWSC tools and knowledge.

“It will allow them to track progress towards their vision by setting targets and monitoring impact of certain actions, and will also allow them to look to other cities and see what is being done there. We’re hoping it can enable cross city learning and collaboration.”

The need for future collaboration

In the future, Prof Wong said a reductionist approach to tackling problems of resource management, infrastructure investment and service delivery would need to be discarded and a more collaborative approach re-imagined.

“Co-development, co-investment and co-ownership of assets will be the norm as we strive to do more with less,” Wong said.

McKeown agrees, noting that future collaboration between water sector organisations is the best means to remove unnecessary duplication of services.

Lynas adds that if there’s one thing that’s for certain in the future, it’s that we can expect change.

“The need for collaboration is due to uncertainty of what that future change will be. The change is likely to be quick and will impact all sectors of our industry,” Lynas said.

“By working together we’ll be more likely to see possible future trends and be ready to adapt to them together. This will provide better outcomes for the community, rather than each organisation scrambling to cope individually.”

Because, “It’s the old philosophy of collaborate or die,” said Prof Broadfoot, who – just to clarify – was obviously referring to the need for innovation and not forcing the enemy to cooperate.

Wondering how to make your workplace more collaborative? Check out the Australian Water Association's Channeling Change program. By highlighting success stories, sharing helpful resources, promoting panel parity at events, and facilitating capacity-building projects in the Asia Pacific region, the Association is building a water sector recognised for its diversity, inclusion and equality.

First published as 'All together now' in Current magazine October 2018.