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Future water leaders confirm water industry is in good hands

The water industry is in good hands, change is inevitable and next year the future leader’s forum is going to need a bigger room. Amos Branch shares his reflections on the Young Water Professionals Program at Ozwater'19.

After a brisk Monday morning walk along the Yarra River, I made my way up the escalators at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and was greeted with the buzz of networking.

More than 100 young water professionals (YWPs), a sell-out crowd for the Ozwater’19 program, were either getting to know each other for the first time or catching up with familiar faces from the water industry.  

Why were they there? The top three reasons given by YWPs for attending were:

  1. To meet other YWPs
  2. To hear from presenters
  3. To have the opportunity to workshop new ideas

Not a bad start with two out of three top priorities clearly being achieved within five minutes of arrival. Somehow, the very talented organising committee managed to round-up the network-happy YWPs and get them into the room to start the program.

Attendees were welcomed and MC’d throughout the day by Chair of the Victorian YWP committee Celeste Ward. Outgoing Australian Water Association (AWA) President Francois Gouws gave a quick welcome and acknowledged that the potential to change and shape the Australian water industry was in the room.

Kelly Maslin, Executive Director of Operations for the Southern Regions of Australia welcomed the room on behalf of the event sponsor, Jacobs. Maslin highlighted one of the main themes of the day: the importance of diversity for innovation.

We were lucky enough to meet and share ideas and perspectives with some of the incredibly talented YWPs from across the Indo-Pacific, whose attendance at Ozwater was facilitated by the AWA with support from the Australian Water Partnership.

It was becoming clear that the day was ripe for exploring new perspectives and change.

Delegates were lucky enough to hear a cultural perspective of water from Water New Zealand’s 2018 Young Water Professional of the Year, WSP Opus Senior Environmental Consultant Troy Brockbank.

Troy Brockbank speaking at Ozwater'19.

The room was also privileged to hear this different story of water, a story that very cleverly juxtaposed a ‘scientific’ understanding of the water cycle with a traditional one, built to be passed down through spoken language that imparted interesting characters and qualities to water.

Moving beyond water quality and treatment process control, Brockbank spoke of the concept of reintroducing respect to wastewaters prior to reusing them in the environment.

While engineered systems have the potential to achieve this respectful relationship with our wastewaters, the integration of water sensitive urban design in our cities – to not only treat but to showcase our waters as a key amenity – can have a much greater impact.

Dr Katrin Doederer, the AWA’s Young Water Professional of the Year for 2018 presented a refreshing perspective on the impact of positivity and leading by example.

Transcending above her already successful career as a researcher, Doderer reminded delegates about the importance of positive behaviour for the common good.

The simple acts of remembering a name, encouraging input or taking a moment of your time to give a compliment can make a world of difference to someone else’s life. A supportive workplace supports you in return.

YWPs during a workshop.

Sarah Watkins from Melbourne Water cautioned the audience to not forget about or assume you know the opinions of your community, taking attendees through the extensive community engagement and education program that was Enhancing Our Dandenong Creek.

An important take-home message from Watkins’ workshop was that the community could be brought to understand and contribute to solutions to solve complex decision-making and development issues.

If a company chooses to set fear of political and public reprisal aside, then a constructive and informed dialogue can develop with the community to produce holistic solutions with a broad range of benefits.

After a delicious lunch, Andrew Spinks introduced Jacobs’ global approach and drivers to improving inclusion.

Jacobs has several initiatives, including a connected global working group to drive inclusion and diversity. It’s not just about warm and fuzzies; it’s about progress, innovation and resilience.

Echoing Kelly Maslin, Spinks reminded the audience that if you are not listening to all opinions and perspectives, you cannot possibly solve all the problems.

Then, something a little unexpected. YWPs were told to question their own beliefs.

The unconscious bias workshop, facilitated by Duncan Smith from ADC Associates, was the most popular event of the day, with 70% of respondents rating it as excellent.

Attendees were encouraged to focus on their differences in an exercise designed to segregate the room. Most were under 30, half were not born in Australia and the gender split was 50-50.

The diverse representation at the YWP Program was evidence that there is a move to equality, and it is happening in the water industry.

Smith engaged the whole room and highlighted numerous times that, through no malign intent, we all rely on our preconceptions to make decisions.

He did not shy away from sensitive issues and banned political correctness for the day, while maintaining mutual respect throughout the discussions.

This session was too short and, at the end, it was acknowledged that an open conversation with mutual respect was just the beginning and needed to be continued.

To cap off the day, the YWPs were spoilt for choice with tours that included:

  • The Aboriginal Yarra River Walk
  • A walking tour of Bolin Bolin Billabong (by Melbourne Water)
  • Greening the pipeline (by Melbourne Water)

At the completion of the tours, the orange lanyards (the colour of the lanyards YWPs wore during the conference) reunited at the Welcome Drinks to continue to share ideas and network.

A post-attendance survey revealed that at least 80% of respondents thought each presentation was either very good or excellent, which ticks off goal number two in reasons for attending.

This was a room of future water leaders who were all brought to the table and introduced to new and positive ideas.

The water industry is in good hands, change is inevitable and next year the future leader’s forum is going to need a bigger room!

If you missed the photo gallery from the Ozwater’19 YWP Program click here.

The author wishes to thank Celeste Ward and Robbie Goedecke for their input and review of this article.