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GHD’s new global leader reflects on the future of water

Whether its climate adaptation, decarbonisation or achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, global water leaders are tasked with steering the sector through some of the biggest challenges it’s ever faced, and to do so within a context of digital disruption.

But, despite the difficulty, one global water leader says all challenges are always an opportunity for beneficial change and value creation.

In attendance at the Ozwater’24 Water Leaders Forum, GHD’s new Global CEO Jim Giannopoulos said he was elated to have the opportunity to reconnect with Australian colleagues after time spent working in Canada as GHD’s Americas CEO, and to commune with peers on the critical work needed to accelerate action towards a sustainable water future.

“My family and I are very happy to be back home in Melbourne. And it was fantastic to see colleagues at Ozwater’24, colleagues I haven’t seen for many years. I saw peers from all over Australia. It was like a big reunion,” he said.

“The AWA and GHD have been collaborating for a long time on the Water Leaders Forum at Ozwater. This year we gathered to discuss challenges, but also the opportunities.

“And I believe that challenges and opportunities are always linked. Maybe I am a glass-half-full person, but I just think these issues we face are great opportunities for our sector, and our people and our communities, to grow and transform.”

Officially beginning his new role as GHD’s Global CEO last month, Giannopoulos joined GHD in 1993, initially working on water and wastewater projects as a graduate chemical engineer. Over the past 30 years, he has worked on projects and in leadership positions in Australia, Asia and the Americas, including establishing GHD’s USA business in 2004.

With a background in water and strong global focus, Giannopoulos was also the Executive Sponsor for GHD’s Future of Water strategic growth initiative.

“GHD has been working in the water sector since 1928. Our current water strategy is linked to our vision as a firm, which is making water, energy and communities sustainable for generations to come,” he said.

“Our water strategy moving forward is influenced by the mega trends facing all companies globally, including climate change, sustainable, equitable and secure access to water and energy, government reform, ageing infrastructure, and technological and digital disruption.

“And by building on our deep heritage, and continuing to strengthen our technical expertise and integrating that with our business and advisory capabilities enabled by technological tools and solutions, we’re in good shape to help solve some of the big water challenges our clients are facing.

“Our water business is growing, not just in Australia but also across the Asia Pacific, the Americas and the UK and Middle East. Being globally connected, we share expertise and personnel to deliver the right mix of skills for the client and the community.”

Future of Water

GHD’s Future of Water strategy sits alongside the firm’s other two global growth strategies, including Future of Energy, and Future of Communities, with all three strategic growth initiatives set in place to realise GHD’s vision, Giannopoulos said.

“The strategies represent our aspirations. Our purpose is together with our clients to create lasting community benefit. We are a strong values-based organisation, and we’re leaning into our values, our commitment to safety, teamwork, respect and integrity, to reach our vision,” he said.

“Our Future of Water initiative is looking at our commitment to offering clients strategic advice, innovative service and technical expertise across the entire water cycle.

“Looking at water through a holistic, water stewardship lens, our approach is to work collaboratively with our clients to deliver positive water outcomes. We have a focus on nature-based solutions, and bringing the best digitally-enabled solutions to each problem.”

“It’s about respecting nature, nurturing communities and enabling transformation.”

Giannopoulos said the Future of Water strategy is also an incredible opportunity for the firm to lean heavily into partnerships and collaboration across various issues.

“We are looking to build partnerships. We are constantly scanning the market for trends, testing new technologies and co-creating solutions, particularly around opportunities to leverage digital solutions to deliver improvements,” he said.

“We’re currently delivering solutions in relation to the circular economy, blue-green infrastructure and also adaptive pathways planning to look at the whole water cycle. But our focus areas are linked to desalination, dams, wastewater resource recovery, water resilience and flooding, and tech-enabled asset management and optimisation.”

GHD has been a signatory of the UN Global Compact since 2010 – a voluntary initiative based on business commitments to implement universal sustainability principles – and Giannopoulos said the firm has a strong history of deep focus on sustainability.

“We support all the UN SDGs, but we’ve identified 10 where we think we can have a really strong and direct impact. Sustainability and taking an ESG lens is critical for us at GHD,” he said.

“We are integrating sustainability into the services we offer to our clients, but also our operations, our supply chain and our philanthropic work. I’m a big supporter of collaboration across our industry ecosystem. The big challenge that our planet and communities face, we can only solve them together.”

Embracing technology

Reflecting on the Ozwater’24 Water Leaders Forum, Giannopoulos said the event provided the opportunity for leaders to go deeper on discussions around the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the water sector: “There is a lot of interest in AI and there’s a lot of hype”.

“Our digital team recently released a report called Beyond AI. The report reveals that nine out of 10 executives are aware of the imminent disruptions that will arise from generative AI, but only five out of 10 express confidence in their ability to successfully navigate and embrace this transformative technology,” he said.

“It’s great that there is awareness, but there is also a big opportunity to collaborate and embrace technology early. GHD has been embracing technology for some time now. We help organisations introduce new systems and ways of working to enable productivity.

“Similarly with AI and other tech-enabled solutions and products, there is opportunity for us to continue to introduce tools and ways of working that add value, not only to our clients, but for our clients to then deliver more value to their customers and the broader community.”

Giannopoulos said the relationship between people and technology continues to evolve and GHD will be looking at AI in terms of creating productivity for its people, creating differentiation for clients and to drive efficiency everywhere.

“There are a number of strategies that ourselves and others are looking at. I see AI as an opportunity for our people to automate lower-level tasks, thereby adding greater value to time on high-level tasks. It’s an opportunity for growth,” he said.

“We are investing a lot in our people around learning to embrace technology, but there also needs to be some change around ways of working, standardisation and harmonisation, which are foundational elements needed to be able to take advantage of digital tools including AI.”

Gender on the agenda

Giannopoulos said another important area of discussion at the Water Leaders Forum was the gender pay gap, an open and challenging conversation about how leaders can move the dial on creating a more equitable water sector.

“The water industry is very conscious of the makeup of our workforce. The recent report from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that there is still a lot to do. We have a responsibility as an industry and we take this very seriously at GHD, around recruiting, retaining and developing opportunities for women,” he said.

“At GHD, we have set ourselves targets in line with our inclusion and diversity strategy to get a better gender balance, aiming for at least 40% representation of women across all levels of the organisation by 2030, that includes our Board and our executive teams.

“At the forum, we had some great discussions about proactive advocacy, sponsorship, mentoring and development. There was a really sincere and open conversation and debate, to acknowledge the progress has been made but where we need to do more.”

Diversity of experiences and thought create value, Giannopoulos said, enabling opportunities but also directly informing solutions to the challenges the sector is facing.

“We need to be more intentional around bridging the gap. Transparency is really important. We want all our people to thrive and to feel they can bring their authentic selves to work and contribute in a positive way, in line with our purpose, vision and values,” he said.

Interested in learning more about GHD’s Future of Water strategy? Find more information here.