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Tapping creative thinking to channel change

Words are well and good, but are our actions enough? Do our leaders have the appropriate vision? How can the water community do better?

Those were some of the questions asked during the Ozwater’23  Challenging Conversations workshop, presented by engineering consultancy Aurecon, that broke free of the usual Ozwater format and asked participants to put innovative ideas down on paper and leave the comforts of everyday discussions behind.

“We all take pride in the ways we are governed and are regulating ourselves [in water governance],” Ryan Signore, Water Industry Director – NSW and ACT at Aurecon, said in preface to the session.

“[We aim to] provide fair and equitable access to water [so it is] managed in ways that are meant to support everyone… Would anybody suggest that doesn't reflect where we want to be as an industry?

“But we need to hold up a mirror to ourselves.”

The lack of a unified view of water security across jurisdictions, Signore said, can be problematic.

“Organisations have different views of what that means, and that actually makes it very hard to come together and be informed [about] how we allocate our investments,” he said.

“The rural and remote water access divide promotes inequity in economics, opportunity and a whole other range of factors, and we have to ask ourselves: Are we okay with that?

“Can our leadership address that in a way to help us have a common direction and vision for where we’re going?”

Signore highlighted Australia’s “lagging” approach to embracing the circular economy via water recycling and other technologies that have also been embraced elsewhere in the world, and issued a call to arms for impact that reflects our intent.

“Let's roll our sleeves up and change the world,” he said.

Thinking like a designer

To achieve this changemaking focus, the bulk of the session was dedicated to coaxing different ways of approaching discussions around water out of participants.

Ivona Maric, Manager of Infrastructure Advisory at Aurecon, introduced the idea of thinking like a designer to break free from traditional, change-resistant approaches.

“Design thinking is also about how you create an experience with people,” she said. “[Think about] how to start an experience, whether it's a conversation [or] whether it's a workshop.

“Put the user at the heart [of the issue] and [ask] what's important to them.”

Ivana’s co-facilitator was Maureen Thurston, Chief Experience Officer at Aurecon, who leant into her self-confessed American directness to draw out original thinking from participants.

Indeed, Thurston roamed the room and personally approached attendees throughout the session.

“All design thinking is about looking at the current situation and reframing it in a way to make it better,” she explained.

Thurston prompted participants to engage in the creative process of design mapping, or the laying out of ideas and observing connections between them.

The first exercise? “Two minutes to think of absolutely everything that comes into your brains having anything to do with a tree – or not,” Thurston said.

The point of this and other exercises during the session, she explained, was to broaden participants’ scope of thinking and prevent them from limiting their responses to the rote or simplistic. They were encouraged to expand beyond the everyday to the “weird” and novel.

Some of the participants’ ideas that emerged from the design mapping session relevant to water included:

  • “Don’t assume community values.”
  • “Acknowledge Indigenous spiritual connections and the connection between water and people.”
  • “We won't do this exercise again with only people in the water sector. We have to think outside our boundaries.”
  • “We won't have a future that is exclusive of… First Nations’ and women's voices.”

One final suggestion rounded off one of the most unique Ozwater’23 sessions: ”Be honest about where we’re at.”