Blue Cities 2016: Thoughts on municipal water resiliency and the conference planning process

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Last month, Canadian Water Network held the inaugural Canadian Municipal Water Consortium conference, Blue Cities 2016, in Toronto. Over the last year, I was fortunate to support the planning of this conference alongside my amazing coworkers and in collaboration with a myriad of remarkable speakers. This post will serve to act as a highlight reel of my conference experience and offer some of my own commentary on the planning process. Should you want to find more information on the conference, check out speaker presentations and videos here and a chronological account of the conference via the Blue Cities Storify here.

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On the eve of Blue Cities 2016, the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium Leadership Group, consisting of municipal water executives from across Canada, hosted Infrastructure Canada and others at an Infrastructure Roundtable. The purpose of this discussion was to bring people from all orders of government together to better understand shared challenges and identify how best to achieve resilient systems. With Infrastructure Canada prepared to invest heavily in green infrastructure over the coming years to address climate change impacts, support municipal capacity building and resolve water and wastewater infrastructure deficits, now is the perfect time for the municipal water voice to inform future infrastructure spending programs. Discussion at the meeting revolved around identifying opportunities that large infrastructure investments would have in improving water systems and how a green infrastructure program could place an emphasis on energy efficiency, encourage innovative approaches and build asset management capacity. Although specific challenges differ across the country and vary between water systems, there are central drivers and elements of funding program design that would appeal to municipalities throughout Canada. When a diverse group communicates ideas outwardly, whether about funding program priorities or in anything else, the importance of a cohesive, unified message is paramount. Following this Roundtable, Canadian Water Network aims to distill this message on behalf of Canadian municipalities in order to help Infrastructure Canada design the most impactful green infrastructure funding program possible.

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20160517_212756Following the Infrastructure Roundtable, everyone was excited for the conference to start — including the CN Tower, decked out in our conference colours, which I’m going to choose to imagine wasn’t a coincidence.

Blue Cities centered around four conference themes meant to encourage the exchange of knowledge, strategies and experience in order to advance resilient solutions that address drinking water, wastewater and stormwater challenges under new normal conditions. Each of these themes had a dedicated session that included brief presentations from invited speakers and a subsequent discussion period intended to engage the panel, but also the informed audience.

The conference kicked off with a Mayors Panel, moderated by Toronto City Councillor Jaye Robinson and with panel presentations from Mayor Keith Hobbs of Thunder Bay and Mayor Berry Vrbanovic of Kitchener. This conversation was supplemented by video messages from the Mayors of Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and London (Ontario). Hearing from informed politicians on the value of water, water quality and quantity challenges resulting from climate change and densification, and the inroads cities have made towards more resilient futures was hopeful. For municipal water managers experiencing difficulty gaining council approval for water rate increases or for something like the creation of a stormwater charge in order to meet service needs, listening to the political perspective brought the big picture reality of competing priorities and constituent concerns into focus.

The international panel that followed was chaired by Linda Gowman of Trojan Technologies and offered a global take on the world’s municipal water opportunities. Brendan Shane of C40 Cities provided examples of innovation from multiple continents where climate challenges like flooding and infrastructure insufficiencies have inspired social innovation, economic growth and better utilization of existing systems. Sandra Gamble of Sydney Water explained how climate challenges in Australia have required a call to action by municipalities to be sustainable, better plan and forecast changes, share information, and make evidence-based decisions. George Hawkins of DC Water spoke animatedly on how they deal with swings, from extremely hot temperatures to heavy snowfalls and high intensity rainfall events, and that communication is essential in order to quickly respond, learn and adapt strategies. Congratulations to George and his team for recently being awarded the US Water Prize for innovative resource recovery facilities that turn wastewater into electricity.

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All of the concurrent session speakers were phenomenal. I definitely encourage you to check out their presentations and the conference Storify for more details, but I wanted to share my main takeaways from each session’s discussion. As a side note, during the planning stages of these sessions all of the speakers and moderators met via teleconference in order to discuss their areas of expertise, how this pertained to the theme and what specifically they wanted to discuss. Not only were these conversations a great way to ensure the content was complimentary while avoiding redundancies, but these were some of the most fascinating conversations to be privy to over the months leading up to the conference and I felt like a very fortunate note-taker indeed.

1. The business of getting to sustainable systems: When it comes to making a change to something that impacts the public, such as water rate increases, it’s important to be proactive before the change and reactive after the change. What is essential to achieving sustainable systems is for finance and engineering departments to work together to accomplish integrated plans across silos and that information on usage patterns and infrastructure condition are needed in order to optimize existing systems.

2. Impacts and risk identification for the new normal: While I wasn’t able to attend this session as it ran concurrently with another session, there are a few key points that I overheard after the conference and through social media that are definitely worth noting here. When it comes to the prioritization of measures to address system risk, data is needed in order to make decisions based actual conditions rather than assumptions.

3. Infrastructure and planning approaches for more resilient systems: In order overcome barriers associated with green infrastructure, it is important to create value, like Singapore’s reservoir project that has revolutionized urban living. When pursuing evidence-based decision, obtaining high-confidence data that is used in combination with appropriate analytical tools can make all the difference.

4. Communications: public concerns, facts and tough decisions: Once again, this session ran concurrently with an above mentioned session. However a takeaway here was on the value of better understanding your customer base in order to increase the efficiency of operations, predict consumption patterns and garner support for change, like Mississauga has accomplished with the creation of their stormwater charge.

To kick-off the second day of the conference, Ontario Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Glen Murray, spoke to the need to change the dynamic between the economy and climate. There is great opportunity to make a positive impact to fight climate change. With technology and innovation-based productivity gains, increased energy efficiency would result in a lower-carbon economy. The pathway to progress on climate solutions will require leadership on all fronts, from government to industry in order to drive productivity, create value and accelerate charge.

The last panel of the conference included representatives from four water service providers, who collectively provide water to almost 10 million Canadians. Robert Andrews from the Ontario Clean Water Agency spoke to the importance for a holistic approach to planning with life-cycle analysis, capital management, and data utilization in order to be predictive, preventative and reactive. Susan Ancel from Edmonton-based EPCOR discussed Canada’s slow-to-evolve cold weather emergencies and the need to link monitoring tools, for better predictive tools and for increased awareness of risk management. Ville de Montréal’s Chantal Morissette commented on balancing public expectation for immediate problem solving with the importance of strategic decision making and how demand for rapid results is contrasted by the need for municipalities to plan on longer time scales for infrastructure renewals. Lou Di Gironimo of Toronto Water addressed the cultural shift for municipal water managers, from invisibility to media engagement and how to think like the customer. The overall lessons from these water leaders were instructive: water service providers need to borrow ideas from one another, work together within utilities to create and implement innovative solutions and take solace in the fact that building resiliency into systems is incremental and evolutionary.

Canadian Water Network’s CEO Bernadette Conant closed the conference with a rallying call for water leaders of all ages to encourage innovation, look for opportunities to increase efficiency and enhance productivity, and continue these conversations until they result in action.

blue-cities-2000pxBeing part of the planning process for such an inspiring conference has been a wonderful learning opportunity and I’m so thankful to have such brilliant, organized and fun colleagues at CWN. Communicating with the conference speakers on these complex and important topics taught me a great deal on how to turn challenges into solutions and look for opportunities and ideas from other industries and geographic regions. I have come away from the conference inspired by those within the water industry; together we can tackle the future challenges that so often frequent the news and accomplish great things, socially, economically and for the environment.

I felt as though the conference flew by, but I’m certainly glad to have my notes in hand and to keep these conversations going. For tips on how to make the most of your next conference experience, including open and effective networking, creating a social media presence and following through on action items post-conference, check out these two pieces by Tania DaSa, Leadership Coach and Trainer:

  1. The Art of Catalyst Conversations, a Canadian Water Network Students and Young Professionals webinar from the archive
  2. How to be an epic conference participant, posted in May 2016 on LinkedIn

Please let me know if you would like to chat more about my Blue Cities 2016 experience!

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