Professor Dragan Savić is Chief Executive Officer at KWR Water Research Institute based in the Netherlands and Professor of Hydroinformatics at the University of Exeter in the UK, supervising students. After finishing his masters in Belgrade, Savić lived and worked in Canada and the UK, before he settled in The Netherlands. He finished his PhD in complex, smart water systems in Canada. His work has resulted in patentable innovation and spinout companies. In addition to innovation and leadership skills, he is known for believing in bridging science to practice in the wider water sector and utilities in general. As AIWW this is our main belief too.
What are you currently working on at KWR?
“As CEO of KWR, I’m mostly interested in sustainability and resilience of my organisation. Of course, all is put in another light since the pandemic, which forced big changes almost overnight and required greater flexibility on our part. As KWR we focus on scientific work, mostly on the digitalization of the water sector with its large, complex systems and their role in preserving the health of the population. These systems are supposed to last over 100 years, able to cope with urbanization, climate change and other challenges. In that light, interesting projects are coming up next. For instance, the research funded by the European Research Council via a Synergy Grant, which KWR will be taking up this year with complementary research partners in Germany, Cyprus, UK and Greece. We will be looking into long term transitioning to more sustainable water systems. What do we need, why do we need it, how will we use it? Can we use machine learning for improving real-time operation of complex systems? Each partner will add his / her expertise in this synergetic team.”
Given the pandemic is terrible, what should stay when COVID-19 is in control?
“Things have changed fundamentally. I hope we will return to normality, of some kind. I guess the key learning point is how flexible and adaptable people and organisations are. Previously, we didn’t use virtual and digital communication tools in the way we do now. Suddenly we were forced to work differently and for instance, we were recently able to meet with 130 people online. That thought alone was impossible, in February 2020. I’m amazed by those adaptations and they should be part of our new normal. With the prolonged staying at home, we will lose social touch though. That needs our attention. At KWR we have a special corona team that strives to make employees get their ergonomic home-office equipment, to work as comfortable as possible. On top we also have extra wellness programmes in place, to deal with potential fatigue and mental issues due to not being able to meet other colleagues. For every organisation understanding the needs of their employees should be a high priority.”
And in our field of work?
“Digitalization has accelerated a lot, we needed to find innovations quickly. It absolutely helped that we have years of research backing our innovation efforts. Sometimes people have little trust in innovations, like with the COVID-19 vaccination. They say: “Well, that solution was brought up quickly, it can’t be good!” Whereas all those many years of research on Sars-vaccines made it possible. It is the same with the DNA-based test for E. coli KWR developed, which analyses faecal indicators in wastewater. R&D took us many years, but with a few adjustments we have now been able quickly to adapt it for coronavirus detection. Being aware that blue sky research, long term research, might seem futile now, but will be important in ten years down the line, is very important.”
Blue-green deals with integrated solutions: water as an enabler to accelerate resilient and sustainable development’ is our main theme for AIWW 2021. What is your opinion on this theme (and the extracted subthemes)?
“It is important because water is related to every other sector. You can’t separate water from energy, land use, transport etc. Water is the key ingredient of the blue-green movement. Also, there is a need for increased understanding, because 50% of the world population already is urbanized, so having this integrated approach rather than working in silos is super important. All is and should be connected. Sometimes, that complexity is not recognised or is too overwhelming. The movement to smarter cities helps. Increased sensing and data provide an opportunity to do something with this complexity. Everyone should also recognize that water is key. Water needs to be on the agenda always. Water networks are below ground, out of sight, out of mind. Especially in developed countries, with our very reliable water systems, we tend to forget about it. But AIWW brings it more to the surface with this theme and reminds us we need to treat it better.”
How can organisations as KWR and AIWW help to achieve goals distracted from the main theme?
“As said before, working together towards integrated solutions is one important added value. We can also raise more awareness about the impact and importance of water, how we can understand better its connection to all our systems and how we can treat it better. Both KWR and AIWW have huge international communities who bring to the table various fields, expertise and research, in developed and low-income countries. They are facing different challenges at different times, but we can all learn from each other. A great example of a success of such collaboration is the support we have offered to the Argentinan AySA utility, who had an issue with arsenic in the groundwater. They needed both an effective and efficient solution. We involved the Dutch government, funding bodies in both Argentina and the Netherlands, engaged local authorities and companies, and that led to the much-needed research for a cost-effective solution.
We don’t get the same challenges, not at the same time, but sharing experience and knowledge helps. We can’t do everything on our own, we need each other.”