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What does the future of urban wastewater hold?

Transitioning into the future of urban wastewater requires planning for potential disruption and the pace of change means utilities have their work cut out for them, says UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures Research Director Simon Fane.

Fane will be presenting at the upcoming Ozwater’18 conference on disruptors and megatrends in the water sector, and how these outside influences might affect the Melbourne Sewerage Strategy.

Leading a study incorporating data from Melbourne’s utility professionals, Fane and his colleagues identified 12 key disruptors as either risks or opportunities, with the intention to apply research outcomes to scenario analysis and future adaptation plans.

“There are some obvious challenges and some less obvious challenges, which may in fact be more influential. The obvious ones include population growth, climate change and digital technology,” he said.

“Greater Melbourne will be over eight million by 2050; that’s a major challenge. Climate change is likely to be significant in that period and digital technology will be completely changed in 30 years. Those are obvious.”

Fane said it’s hard to pin down how some of the industry’s disruptors will impact on management and operations, and even the role of water utilities.

“Less obvious is the shift toward the circular economy and what that might mean for the whole conception of sewerage and wastewater, and how that plays out for the utility.

“None of these things are clear yet, but it could go either way. For instance, does the future of the wastewater industry involve utilities taking on new roles and what does that mean?”

Other disruptors identified through the study include changes to urban form, cyber attack, new microbial diseases, erosion of social cohesion, changed ownership models and cascading systemic risk.

Fane mentioned that identifying disruptors is critical to planning future strategy, not only in terms of being prepared for change but also for being ready to take advantage of opportunities.

“There are two parts to using disruptors in a strategic sense. One is to use them as information in scenario development of plausible futures. And then those futures can be used to qualitatively think through how the strategy might work,” he said.

“Another way to use them is in developing the strategy itself. You can develop a number of adaptation pathways along which the system can develop. You can then ask, ‘what would happen if this disruptor becomes quite significant in the medium term, what happens to this pathway’?

“As you go along your adaptation path, its important to ask if the systems that we are using now are likely to be robust under a number of plausible futures as well as with specific disruptions.”

And while identifying disruptors and building resilient and flexible pathways is an important step for all utilities, Fane said returning to the process to ensure effective change is critical.

“The nature of any ‘futuring’ is that you come up with plausible ideas but they are very based in what we understand now,” he said.

“The best we can do is be open to the wide range and come up with plans that are resilient to multiple futures and to adapt those as we go forward. Even though we have a list of disruptors now, in 10 years’ we may well have a completely different list of priorities.

“Using the futures methods is critical to coming up with strategies for the long-term, but the nature of it means you do need to come back to it relatively regularly.”