Telling Tales – Designing infrastructure for people

By Natasha Wiseman, Founder & Chief Executive of Make Water Famous and WiseOnWater.

“So what are you going to do with that?” asked the manager of the IT suite at Edinburgh University as I completed the dissertation for my social anthropology degree. It was the mid-nineties, and he was letting me know in an unsubtle way that he thought it was a Mickey Mouse subject compared with the serious business of Apple Mackintosh computers.

The answer I gave then and would still give now, is that I use it every single day – I walk and work among the humans we studied. However, while attending a roundtable discussion on integrated catchment management, hosted by WSP in Taunton, I came closer to the answer I wish I had been able to give then.

Alongside many other themes, participants talked about the need for social science to be embedded in these long-term infrastructure projects if they were to succeed. That included public engagement and education, and effective communications.

Their thinking is backed up by recent research from an international team led by the Institute of Environmental Science & Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. The multi-disciplinary researchers highlight the importance of integrating knowledge from natural and social sciences to inform about effective climate change policies and practice.

It was interesting to me that when we featured this research story on Make Water Famous, a public-facing positive news platform all about water, it prompted the most discussion we have ever had on social media – from all over the world and across disciplines.

The study uses the example of the slowdown of currents in the Atlantic, which resulted in devastating flooding in the Ahr Valley in Germany in 2021. By combining expertise, the social and natural scientists better reflect the complexity of interaction between climatic change, extraordinary weather events and impacts on local communities.

Even more usefully, their insights can be used to ascertain how communities are adapting to cope with future events.

The interaction between climate change and society is complex, and interventions at all levels surely need to be demonstrated to benefit the broadest number of people. Too often the only people in the room on major infrastructure and engineering projects are natural scientists and engineers.

Talented as we know these professionals to be, their knowledge and skills may not lead them to decision-making that makes best use of people’s ability to adapt, change and even lead on environmental initiatives that benefit their own communities. By starting from a place where only experts hold the knowledge, and only technology will solve the problem, people who will actually live with this infrastructure and technology can easily become alienated from projects, and even become barriers to their delivery.

That is the theme of another study from the Technical University of Denmark – in this case, on renewable energy and wind power. The paper in Nature Energy journal says the design, development and deployment of technologies is always social, and there is an urgent need for interdisciplinary perspectives to better address the socio-technical nature of the energy transition.

“Today, design decisions are often made without much debate,” says Professor Julia Kirkegaard, “and when the public then raises concerns, the response is often not taken seriously, or it’s too late.” She says the risk is that public backing for vital energy transition is lost.

Of course energy and carbon are the root of many actions being taken in the water sector, but the same critique could be applied to any water project. It is especially important to have the public on board where critical blue-green infrastructure in densely populated urban areas is under consideration.

The risk of local opposition should not be seen as a barrier to be skirted or thwarted. Instead it can be viewed as an open door to intensive learning on both sides, and an opportunity to build greater value into a project.

As Kirkegaarde says, decisions made at the earliest stages of planning and development need to be opened up. Deep public engagement is not just ‘nice to have’, a dressing on the serious technical aspects of a project. If properly assessed, it would be recognised that whole projects are put in jeopardy by failing to fully assess the risk of community kickback.

Both of these studies underscore the urgent need for a multidisciplinary approach to address the complex environmental, technological and infrastructure challenges of our time – in water and energy. If feedback to Make Water Famous is anything to go by, the appetite is already there, and I urge anyone who wants to up their game on project delivery to bring a social scientist – or two – into their team.

If they would also like to collaborate on a time machine that would let me pay a visit to that derisory lab manager at Edinburgh University, I am all ears.


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