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Collaboration, key to transforming the water sector

About the blog

Simon Ayley
Director of Water & Environment at WRc.

Published in:

Printed Edition frontpage
  • Collaboration, key to transforming the water sector

New year, new start, and straight back into a UK national lockdown in our efforts to control the spread of a new variant of the COVID-19 virus.

Despite the negativity often promoted by mainstream media, I find it incredibly uplifting to read last months’ Smart Water magazine regarding how well the sector is coping, adapting, and innovating. People from different countries and backgrounds, students, scientists, engineers, business leaders all contributing to promote innovative solutions that will deliver tangible benefits for global consumers, all aligned with the UN SDGs.

There is a common theme running through most articles in the publication. The same theme that forms part of our daily interactions yet gets little airtime. Collaboration. Businesses looking to promote a new technology will have collaborated during its development, perhaps initially with academic and component supply chain partners, and then ultimately with a utility owner to complete live field trials.

Government agencies looking to better manage the risks associated with emerging contaminants will be collaborating with partner agencies around the world to share knowledge and develop methodologies that can be applied to their local environment.

Yet have you ever considered what true collaboration really means? It does not just happen via a “Teams” meeting. A truly collaborative relationship means deeper trust, shared risk, and a willingness to compromise.

Consider three levels of business and project delivery relationships, starting with co-ordination, then moving up to co-operation, and ultimately collaboration.

At WRc we have a track record of co-creation, where an idea that stems from one client’s need is shaped into a collaborative research project

Much can be delivered by good co-ordination – we do this across our businesses and sector every single day in both project delivery and operational environments. That is how we work together to deliver services to consumers. Co-ordination involves dialogue, interaction, sharing information and data, formal contractual relationships, and typically the use of performance indicators and benchmarks.

Now take it up a level - co-operation is harder to achieve, encompassing everything we do in co-ordination, but adding additional factors such as two-way sharing of opinions, knowledge, and advice. Large consultancy and construction delivery frameworks used by the water industry are examples of co-operation.

At the very top is where the real difference can be made – collaboration. True and effective collaboration is very hard to achieve. Collaboration is about co-creation, shared risk, and compromise: ‘everyone in it together’. And that means everyone, not just SME’s, manufacturers, academia and WASC’s, but also consumers, economic and environmental regulators.

My own experiences in the utilities sector have taught me that co-creation requires compromise from multiple stakeholders throughout the project – and above all the team having a real sense of “we’re in this together”.

When it comes to Contracts, IP and regulation, the willingness of stakeholders to compromise normally decreases at a rapid pace – only with a well-established co-created team can these barriers be overcome. Everyone will feel some pain, but the team, and the resultant project outcomes, will have a much greater chance of success.

The scary bit for many stakeholders can be that collaboration in a world of truly transformative innovation will also require us to accept failure. Failure along the journey, with project activities not delivering desired outcomes, through to complete failure of the whole journey.

So, are we ready to co-create, collaborate, and accept that we might fail? More to the point, if we are to deliver ambitious solutions aligned with the UN SDGs, can we afford not to collaborate? Those governments, utility businesses and supply chain partners that are truly collaborative, sharing risk, reward, success, and failure, have the potential to transform our sector, and potentially the world.

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