Sustainable water use in cities: Technology is not always the answer

The urban population set to hit 6.4 billion by 2050 and an increasing risk of water that is too little, too much and too polluted. What actions can governments take to arrive at more sustainable water use in the world’s cities? A research team from Utrecht University, KWR Water and ten other European and Israeli institutes developed a social platform to assess how such platforms can improve the way governments and other social actors work together to address urban water issues. The project showed that such technological innovations can help, but we must apply them wisely.

Gamification for collaborative learning

The POWER research team developed a platform for sharing progress, knowledge, and best practices on issues of water scarcity, security, quality and consumption. To facilitate collaborative learning, the team applied game-design elements and game principles – gamification. This allowed the team to monitor how people understand the different issues and contribute to ongoing policy processes. The platform was implemented in four cities, focusing on flooding in Leicester, water scarcity in Milton Keynes and Jerusalem, and water reuse in Sabadell (Barcelona).

Getting people to use the platform

Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and KWR Water Research Institute researcher Stef Koop developed a tool – the governance capacity framework – to measure the effectiveness of these digital social platforms in improving water governance issues.

“The real challenge was getting people to use the platform,” says Carel Dieperink, researcher at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and co-author of the report. “So far, the take-up was modest in all four cities.”

Lessons in failure 

But this ‘failure’ provided valuable lessons. The problem resided in how the project was set up. It was a bit too technology driven, with the platform used as a goal instead of a means to achieve a goal. “It’s important to first understand the underlying issues,” explains Dieperink. “In what way would a platform or new technology help an organization to address a problem? A technological intervention like this might not always be the right or only solution.”

The Utrecht University researchers concluded several lessons: before designing and rolling out an online tool, first clearly define the issue to be addressed. People first: Online tools can be helpful in enhancing online participation of local residents, but they cannot replace face to face meetings. A tool should be attached to an ongoing issue in a community and be visible; people don’t just check what’s hidden on the website of their city council. Make the tool as simple as possible and as complex as needed. There is an overkill of data in the online world, so make sure you develop something with added value.