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May 2019 | May Issue

Blue Cities 2019 Conference Highlights: Embracing Change in Water
Canadian Water Network
At the beginning of May, Canadian Water Network held Blue Cities 2019 – an annual conference for decision makers in municipal water management. The program was carefully curated to spur discussion between the invited speakers and attendees to identify opportunities to advance, accelerate, and improve decision making. 
 
The overarching theme of the discussions was embracing change in water management. External pressures such as climate change, increased urbanization, or aging infrastructure have created a reality where designing and operating to traditional standards may no longer be effective for ensuring robust and sustainable water systems. Embracing change is about recognizing that extremes and unplanned events are going to happen, and that implementing strategies with this in mind allows utilities to get ahead of the challenges and see the opportunities; that is, positioning municipalities to anticipate and adapt to future situations more effectively.   
 
“At this year’s conference, some of our colleagues were not able to join us due to severe flooding, and in some cases, a state-of-emergency in their communities. This is a poignant reminder of the increasing dominance of major or extreme events in our planning and resources, and the urgent need to acknowledge and address uncertainty,” said Bernadette Conant, CEO of Canadian Water Network. 
 
Canadian Water Network asked delegates to approach the Blue Cities sessions with two guiding questions in mind:
 
  • What are the emerging issues for which we need to be aware of and better prepared?
  • How can we build resiliency into our systems to better address these challenges?
 

I. Discussions Important to Municipalities

 
Designing the program for the conference was informed by the work we do with municipalities to identify sector priorities, including sessions on getting more from asset management data, bridging the public/private/commercial divide, addressing contaminants in wastewater, and shifting from fail-safe to “safe-to-fail” in planning for resiliency. This carefully curated program, along with a roster of leading topic experts and practitioners from across the globe, provided engaging discussions that highlighted key insights and lessons learned from sector leaders and innovators. 
 

II. Tapping the Expertise in the Room

 
Blue Cities attracts decision makers from across Canada’s municipal water sector, along with international utility leaders, government, academics, and industry experts. Each conference delegate who attends possesses valuable expertise. 
 
At this year’s conference, we experimented with a new format to facilitate the exchange of insights. “Fishbowl” sessions encouraged delegates to join the panelists on stage and share their own insights, creating a free-flowing and organic conversation. 
 
A wealth of experiences and insights were shared, leaving participants invigorated with new ideas to apply in their local contexts. 
 
“The expertise isn’t just the panel — it’s everyone in the room,” says Conant about the move to the fishbowl sessions at Blue Cities. “If we’re looking to accelerate, advance, and improve water management decisions in Canada, we need to hear from all the experts and decision makers present at the conference.” 
 
The opening plenary sessions set the tone, as panelists discussed drivers and barriers to innovation. Albert Cho, Vice President and General Manager for Advanced Infrastructure Analytics at Xylem observed, “When people say something is risky, we need to drill into what they mean. Are they just saying, ‘I don’t want to change’?” Erin Mahoney, Commissioner of Environmental Services for York Region, added, “It’s about being persistent. Sometimes the barriers are in our own minds.”
 
In a session on asset management, the discussion focused on how better and more creative use of asset data can help support utilities in adapting their systems for future risks. Daryush Esmaili, Manager of Design and Construction with the City of Guelph, provided an example of how his municipality is piloting a model to test the failure of every pipe. The City’s goal is to consider the broader costs of failure (financial and reputational) and compare this to the cost of reducing the risk of failure. The participants discussed risk-based decision making based on asset information, as well as ways to build asset decision-making maturity. 
 

III. Tomorrow’s Water Leaders 

 
The idea of embracing change also led to other changes in the conference design. This year we invited nine outstanding graduate students and young professionals to join the conference as part of an inaugural Water Leaders of Tomorrow program. 
 
“The water sector, like many other sectors, is already starting to see significant turnover as leaders from across the country retire,” says Bu Lam, Manager of the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium. “It’s important to engage the next generation of leaders in strategic discussions at Blue Cities, because they will be the ones tasked with addressing future water challenges. Engaging these young leaders early and equipping them with knowledge and experience from current senior leaders is vitally important in this transition.”
 
In addition to covering conference fees and travel through sponsorship from the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium, Ontario Clean Water Agency, and Ryerson Urban Water, we strategically paired nine students and young professionals with a mentor to help them expand their networks and engage in discussions on complex water management challenges. This inaugural group was a great example of the promise we see in our next generation of water leaders. 
 

IV. Glimpse of Future Realities

 
In addition to the top-tier panelists from across the globe, Blue Cities was fortunate to open and close the conference with two keynotes, featuring Jay Famiglietti, Executive Director of the Global Institute for Water Security and formerly of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Kala Vairavamoorthy, Executive Director of the International Water Association. 
 
These two renowned speakers bookended the conference nicely, with Famiglietti showcasing the work being done to forecast groundwater levels and understand how climate change is impacting the planet. Vairavamoorthy closed the conference looking toward the future of digital water and how increasing volume, variety, veracity, and velocity will have profound impacts on how water is managed in the future. He concluded his presentation by highlighting that the water sector has three choices as we move forward: stay in the lane with business as usual; try harder and spend more on traditional systems; or shift the paradigm by embracing change for a truly different approach to water management. 
 

V. What’s Next for Canadian Water Network?

 
Two days of discussion on how we can embrace change in the water sector is only a first step. As we begin planning our fifth annual Blue Cities conference in May 2020, Canadian Water Network will look for ways to continue these conversations. Our work with PSD on leveraging asset management data is being expanded to include a series of case studies on using better data to identify climate change-related infrastructure vulnerabilities. We are also finalizing a report this fall on reducing lead at the tap as municipalities respond to the new guidelines from Health Canada. 
 
Change and uncertainty are an inevitable part of today’s decision-making in the water sector. If municipalities are able to embrace those changes, the water sector will be able to anticipate and adapt for the challenges ahead and the needs of Canadians. With Blue Cities as a focal point for these necessary conversations, Canadian Water Network looks to accelerate, advance and improve water management decisions across the country.  
 
Canadian Water Network (CWN) was founded in 2001 with the goal of connecting Canadian researchers to support decision-making related to water in Canada.