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Reflections on the AWA's vision for the future: Strategy ‘22

Richard Savage is a member of the AWA's Queensland Branch Committee and Technical Director, GHD.

Most people fortunate to attend Ozwater’19 in Melbourne were left with lasting impressions of the great industry we work in, the incredible work that people in the industry are doing and the significant work that lies ahead to ensure we have access to a safe and reliable water supply across Australia.

These reflections also reinforce for me the critical role played by the Australian Water Association (AWA) in providing a national platform, with significant roots in the membership across the states, for debate, knowledge exchange and communication. The Association’s Strategy ‘22 was launched at Ozwater and provides an important framework for all of us to leverage the opportunities AWA provides.

Introduction

The purpose of this brief reflection on AWA’s Strategic Plan – Strategy ‘22 is to encourage members to formulate their own response, using AWA’s statement as an inspirational starting point.

Members often selfishly ask, “What can the Association do for me?” when in fact they should be asking what it is they can do for the Association. In fact, in ‘doing things for the association’, you are actually contributing back to your industry, your colleagues, peers and communities, rather than to the Association itself.

Yes, there are obviously many functional realities of the Association’s operations which require governance, diligence and commitment, however Strategy ‘22 is not about these – it is about a collaboration across the industry in which we, as AWA members, define our collective purpose for the next three years.

By the same token, the AWA Strategy is not solely about the Association itself as it doesn’t exist for its own end, but rather about the Association’s role as a facilitator for growth and beneficial impacts within our industry.

What is behind AWA’s value proposition?

The new catch phrase defining AWA’a value proposition is ‘share, connect and inspire’, aspirations that seem to resonate strongly with most people.

The key point I feel here is that these values are all about people and outreach, not technology or processes, not performance standards or economics, not science or analytics. Those are a means to an end, but not the end in itself.

I think it is a fundamental part of the industry we all work in that we reflect on the fact that it is because of the human need for water that we are all kept so busy every day. At the end of every pipe is a human need of some sort, either directly or indirectly. A cornerstone of our industry is the dissemination of knowledge and experience through academic and scientific papers, conferences and seminars. This sharing of knowledge has an obvious consequence, promoting communication between parties as questions, answers and comments are exchanged.

In the competitive, free market economy we work in, there will always be a discussion about intellectual property, but this should not be used as an excuse not to ‘share’ and ‘connect’. The true innovator will always seek ways to enhance and further develop an idea and most often, this is accelerated through the information exchange with peers.

And what of the ‘inspire’ value? This addresses a key opportunity for us all, to talk passionately about the ‘water story’ in our communities, to use the insight we have into all the water challenges that keep us busy every day, to inspire people to view water in a new light, valuing it as the precious commodity it is.

Our characteristics

The characteristics of the Association’s membership are presented as being passionate, collaborative and inclusive.

To be honest, we sometimes get caught up in the technical, commercial and contractual side of projects or service delivery, forgetting about the real reasons that get us to work every day, the reasons why we are so privileged to be where we are and in such a powerful position to make a difference to society.

I have said it before, but we are not an industry prone to introspection, and it stands to reason therefore that we need to fire ourselves up from time it time and use this energy to inspire those around us to do the same. We are getting much better at collaborating and, not surprisingly, this tends to happen more readily when we are energised and focused on discussing an issue or presenting ideas on an industry challenge and on an industry platform.

The idea of being inclusive is to ensure we build no barriers between us and the people we engage with, be it in executing our work or in prioritising what we do. AWA has made tremendous strides over the last two years in entrenching the notions of diversity and inclusion in the work of our industry.

I think, however, that it goes beyond how we see ourselves, demanding of us that we take these messages into the communities in which we work. Water is a people business, and if we elevate our energy levels and commit to being collaborative in the delivery of our services, acknowledging the great diversity in the communities in which we serve, we will take significant strides in telling the ‘water story’ in a way that resonates with society.

Our goals for Strategy '22

The strategic goals define the context for the Association and our industry, providing an important framework for all of us to leverage the opportunities AWA provides. The message is simple, yet purposeful, focusing again on the people side of our business.

This in no way diminishes the fundamental role that technology plays in providing the engineering and scientific backbone for infrastructure planning and design. A treatment plant, for example, does not eventuate by a divine miracle, but is the end product of a complex process of measurement, modelling, design and construction. The point is, however, to understand the treatment plant’s purpose for society, more so than the journey to its commissioning.

The Goals for Strategy ‘22 define the role that AWA intends to play for our industry. Without being self-serving, the Australian water industry has a critical role to play in the APAC region, thus the emphasis on partnerships (both within and external to Australia). Partnerships between the public and private sectors in Australia should improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery and the deployment of capital, while AWA’s international programs should ultimately deliver more sustainable water practice and services in countries struggling for expertise and guidance on sustainable intervention programs.

AWA has recognised the critical need to extend its reach to regional and rural membership, to provide opportunities for them to access to the resources that AWA provides (e.g. directly through digital media), but also indirectly, through collaboration and exchange of knowledge and information with broad-based membership at conferences and seminars. Again, it is incumbent on our membership to leverage these opportunities.

I made reference earlier to the diversity and inclusion goals of AWA, and this is, to my mind, the most exciting part of the transformation journey underway in our industry.

The Association took a bold but non-negotiable step forwards in identifying itself with the values of human respect and dignity. More and more papers at Ozwater and the regional conferences are now telling the human side of our industry’s stories, as that is where the true value of what we do is measured. Yes, it feels good to witness another successful commissioning of a pipeline and pump station, but it is the lasting community benefit of this work that is the true measure of its success.

AWA’s projects to promote diversity and inclusion compel us to look at the human side of what we do, be it through gender, age or cultural channels. The more we understand this context in what we do, the more we will be empowered to communicate the ‘water story’ and the more understanding we will have on the true purpose of the project at hand. We all, in some way, recognise that many of our challenges are actually in communicating what we are doing to our broader communities in a way that encourages them to recognise the precious value of water.

We are blessed in the towns and cities across Australia with reliable and safe water supply and sanitation systems, but are increasingly finding these systems under threat due to the impacts of prolonged droughts or catastrophic floods. We therefore need to review our projects and operations in a new light, asking how they will contribute to a sustainable future, rather than simply meeting the increased demands from an increasing population. Seeking answers to these questions on sustainability will require us to engage with our communities, informing them about the stressed nature of this precious resource and how their expectations of a supply and treatment service need to be matched with strategies that ensure it is sustainable.

Indigenous communities across the planet did not have technology, like desal, to fall back on in a time of need. They learnt over the millennia how to conserve their resources: not to plunder in times of plenty and to temper demands as surpluses diminished. There is so much for us to reflect on what is embedded in indigenous culture that we can use in redefining our approach to water management and distribution today. This is one project of many that AWA has set our industry.

So what do we do next?

At Ozwater gala dinners, there is always a period at the end of all the razzamatazz and award ceremony, where people meet and mingle in a very relaxed and good spirited way. The hard work, trials and tribulations, commercial stresses and tender negotiations, challenges of finding cost effective solutions within limited budgets, etc., are all forgotten for a few hours. We reflect on all the good that has been done and give ourselves a collective pat on the back – and for good reason, for sure.

However I was struck this year, looking around the hall in Melbourne, that we all actually represented part of the problem! We, who know of the significant challenges that lie ahead of us in sustainably managing water in all its forms, need to step up to tell the ‘water story’. If we don’t, who will? It is a collective industry effort that will get us there, based on the framework provided for us in the AWA Strategy ‘22. Best we get on with the job!