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The added value of the collective BTO water research program in the Netherlands and Flanders

  • The added value of the collective BTO water research program in the Netherlands and Flanders
    Anne Mathilde Hummelen, Manager Joint Water Sector Research programme at KWR
  • The added value of the collective BTO water research program in the Netherlands and Flanders
    Jan Peter van der Hoek, Chief Innovation Officer at Waternet

About the entity

KWR
KWR generates knowledge to enable the water sector to operate water-wisely in our urbanised society. At KWR, we have a sense of professional and social responsibility for the quality of water.

KWR Water Research Institute, an independent water research institute, is the main implementor and coordinator of the Joint Research Programme with the Dutch water utilities, the Flemish De Watergroep and the branch association Vewin. This year, the programme celebrates its 40th anniversary. In this interview with Anne Mathilde Hummelen, Manager Joint Water Sector Research programme at KWR and Jan Peter van der Hoek, Chief Innovation Officer at Waternet, we learn a bit more about this unique collaboration and how it can inspire other countries to follow in its footsteps. 

Please tell us a bit more about the BTO initiative

Anne Mathilde Hummelen (AMH): The BTO is the collective research program for the Dutch water utilities, the Flemish De Watergroep and the branch association Vewin. KWR is the principal coordinator of the joint research program. The collaboration started 40 years ago and has contributed to Dutch drinking water's high quality and reliability. Think of chlorine-free drinking water, low leakage losses, and self-cleaning water distribution networks.

This research collaboration started in the fifties when the Netherlands counted many small drinking water companies dealing with increasing water quality problems. By joining forces, these small companies could start research to map these problems and develop solutions. Over the years, the research program has broadened its scope from water quality and purification to drinking water infrastructure, source protection, nature, reuse and customer behaviour. Today the ten drinking water companies in the Netherlands all participate in the BTO. In 2016, the Flemish water company De Watergroep joined the program

The collaboration started 40 years ago and has contributed to Dutch drinking water's high quality and reliability -AMH

On average, the BTO runs 100 research projects annually. Overall the program involves 140 researchers at KWR, and approximately 120 professionals from the drinking water companies are involved in the management and guidance. The program amounts to 9,5 M Euro per year.

Why do you think the collaboration between water utilities and research institutes is so unique?

AMH: Worldwide, many drinking water companies are actively engaged in research and innovation. KWR is happy to work with them as well.

I think our collaboration is unique because the drinking water companies in the Netherlands and the Watergroep have their knowledge institute (KWR), entirely specialized in applied research on drinking water. The knowledge and expertise developed in the BTO remain available to the drinking water companies through the KWR knowledge institute. We, therefore, call KWR the institutional memory of the drinking water sector.

In other countries, for example, we see that the knowledge institute is part of the government, or each drinking water company organizes its own research or works with universities.

Jan Peter van der Hoek (JPvdH): It is important to note that the Dutch water utilities and the Watergroep are (semi) public organizations. There is no direct competition, which facilitates cooperation. Collaboration on 'shared problems' offers a win-win situation for all parties.

The collaboration in the BTO is also unique because we start from the principle of co-makership. Drinking water companies and KWR jointly determine their research ambitions to address current and future challenges, define the projects, and (if possible) carry out the research projects together. This concept of co-makership is fundamental for several reasons. For example, it prevents us from being guided too much by day-to-day research issues. Moreover, co-makership creates commitment and is crucial to ensure research results are applied and embedded in practice. The more a drinking water company participates in the research, the greater the chance it will use the research results in practice.

What are some benefits of a joint research approach for water utilities and KWR?

AMH: The most important benefit is that the BTO develops knowledge to prepare the drinking water companies for the future. After all, we deal with infrastructure and assets with a long service life. Trend explorations are a permanent topic within the BTO.

Next to being a research institute, KWR can also be seen as a training institute. Many KWR researchers continue their professional careers with drinking water companies.

The most important benefit is that the BTO develops knowledge to prepare the drinking water companies for the future - AMH

JPvdH: For the drinking water companies, a joint approach has the advantage of a greater return on investment compared to research carried out individually. Through the BTO, KWR can offer highly specialized knowledge and research facilities to drinking water companies. For example, new analytical methods are developed and tested in KWR's laboratories, which later find their way into the laboratories of the drinking water companies.

The BTO also has the function of a network: professionals from the drinking water companies work together here and learn from each other's practical experiences.

Why do you think the BTO has been so successful? What are the 'ingredients' for successful collaboration?

JPvdH: We are working on common challenges. We place the collective interest of the water sector first in the BTO while also considering the interests and questions of individual drinking water companies. We adjust the program if circumstances require, for example, adding a new theme or entering into a collaboration. We are constantly trying to improve.

In contrast to academic research, the BTO research makes a direct bridge between science and practice. Most of the research is quite close to practice with a time horizon smaller than 5 years. That is often different with academic research.

In contrast to academic research, the BTO research makes a direct bridge between science and practice - JPvdH

AMH: In the BTO, we work on the knowledge questions for the future and today's problems. The research program is demand driven: the water utilities bring in their questions and challenges. KWR can respond quickly to issues because we continuously develop the latest know-how and techniques and work with renowned national and international knowledge partners. And thanks to our participation in international and EU projects (Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe, ERC, LIFE), we have a broad scope of the water sector. We can bring knowledge developed in other countries or new developments or trends to the agenda.

KWR keeps the quality of the research at a high level and invests in state-of-the-art facilities and thus has something unique to offer the drinking water companies

Do you think initiatives like the BTO are applicable worldwide?

AMH: Frankly, I think that depends greatly on the circumstances and the culture. What plays a role is how a country's drinking water sector is organized: public or private, centrally or decentralized?

In the Netherlands, drinking water companies are semi-public; their shareholders are municipalities and provinces. In the Netherlands, we also have a long history of cooperation. Initially, mainly with Water Boards set up to ensure dry feet in this low-lying country. This mentality of collaboration is also reflected in other areas.

JPvdH: What is very important is that the drinking water companies face a common challenge and share a  need for knowledge, which is not met with the existing research infrastructure. Then the opportunity and the will to work together in knowledge development can arise.

Are there any upcoming BTO events this year?

AMH: Yes, definitely! This year we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the BTO. We will organize a 'knowledge party' in June with all BTO partners. At the beginning of November (6-9 November), during the Amsterdam International Water Week, we want to arrange a meeting for international partners and interested parties to share the successes of the BTO research.

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