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To give the Gretas of this world hope

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The researchers at KWR work at the intersection of science, business and society. The institute’s communications team makes their scientific knowledge and expertise known to water professionals and the public, lobbying groups and journalists. In this interview, Hans Ruijgers, Head of Communications, tells us about the important role of communications in the implementation of knowledge at KWR.

How do you think communication in the water sector has evolved in recent years?

Since I joined KWR in 2010, I have noticed that the emphases in communication are slowly but surely changing. Not only at KWR but also more broadly in the water sector. At that time, the communication emphasis was mainly on demonstrating technological knowledge (show & tell). From 2015-2016 that started to shift to the application of the technology. No wonder KWR sharpened its motto to “Bridging Science to Practice”. And that practice quickly broadened - partly under the influence of the Circular Economy philosophy - to other sectors (including energy). In the last three years, partly influenced by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, communication has focused on the societal task of technology suppliers and knowledge institutes. For my communications team, this means that we must explicitly embed individual scientific discoveries in overarching themes that are understandable to a broad audience. To this end, we continually educate our scientists.

Why do you think it is essential to focus on citizens when communicating about water?

Citizens can be involved in research and the realisation of innovations. In its communication, KWR primarily targets stakeholder groups in the water sector and individual water professionals. At the same time, citizens look to us for guidance and answers to societal issues, where support for technical innovations is still a prerequisite.

The biggest challenge for communication is to create a measurable impact with stakeholders in the water sector

The public perception and behaviour of citizens play a vital role in the acceptance of the change. In this light, it is inspiring for me to have social scientists as colleagues at KWR. Together we discuss strategies on the interface of communication, psychology and transition management.

What are the most challenging aspects of communicating about the work of the water sector?

These are no different from any other sector. The biggest challenge for communication - but equally for my management team and my fellow researchers - is to create a measurable impact with stakeholders in the water sector and, where possible, with citizens. Not only do we succeed in disseminating our knowledge through many channels, but: does that communication effort lead to actual follow-up? Which LinkedIn posts and Twitter messages do lead to traffic to the KWR website? What are the precise numbers of our "calls to action"? Are we successful in obtaining funding for projects? Can we attract research partners in Europe or beyond because of our strength and reputation?

Could you highlight one of your organisation’s communication success stories?

Already for ten years, KWR has been measuring illegal drug use among the population in sewage water from various cities. Despite the appealing frame of the sewer as a "Mirror of Society", it is taking us literally years to convince administrators to look in their mirrors.

In its communication, KWR primarily targets stakeholder groups in the water sector and individual water professionals

However, from the start of the corona pandemic, our sewage surveillance expertise has been in the spotlight. By consistently measuring the sewage of a small set of cities and towns from February 2020 onwards, KWR’s microbiologists have built a solid database. Daily communication about their work via Twitter and LinkedIn has helped KWR's microbiologists to become world-famous. They are sought-after speakers at webinars and have seized the opportunity to set up a global SARS-CoV-2 database. Due to the frequent social media communication, our LinkedIn and Twitter followers increased by more than 50% in 2020.

Who or what organisation inspires you when it comes to ways of communicating?

Environmentalist Greta Thunberg is a great inspiration to me for several reasons. Firstly, I have two daughters aged 25 and 20, peers of Greta. Secondly, because she makes a crystal-clear appeal, not only to governments but also to science and the creators of technology. At KWR, we respond to that appeal by relating personal discoveries to overarching themes and actively sharing our knowledge with the world, under the motto "Global expertise for local water challenges".

When it comes to Greta and her peers, the wheels of policy and politics turn frustratingly slowly. They have to get their hopes for a better future from other areas, in my case: applied water science. Numerous splendid water innovations prove the opportunities and possibilities for dealing more sustainably with finite resources on earth. Therefore, my appeal to the reader is – as did Sir David Attenborough at the COP26: Let us give the Gretas of this world hope!