Letting go of the need to know: an important water-wise principle
I have been interested to read the IWA Principles for Water Wise Cities, designed to help leaders deliver safer water and sanitation through integrated planning. It is a great body of work with principles that I would endorse.
Yet there is one principle that I would add and it is let go of the need to know.
Let me present my argument:
The 17 IWA Principles are grouped in four logical levels of action. Each level represents a range of challenging issues and opportunities. Together, the four levels comprise a system of very high complexity and uncertainty, in which nobody has all the levers to hand and nobody has a complete understanding of how the whole system works.
And the thing about complex systems is that cause and effect is unknown and unknowable in advance. In other words, when managing a complex adaptive system, such as a city, its environment, politics and people, we can never know that if we take action X we will get outcome Y. We may in fact get Z. The complex realm is the realm of unintended consequences, unforeseen outcomes, side-effects and unwanted impacts.
For example, a government policy to invest in more affordable housing in a city drives residential development that then increases pressure on the city budget to build infrastructure to support new communities, which impacts decisions and budgets for basin planning and leads to long-term consequences for catchment management that the original social housing planners could never have dreamed of. And that’s just one policy of many.
In this space, water planners seek to make decisions and find solutions to drive better water outcomes. Yet it is clear that when working in complexity the desire to solve the problem is part of the problem.
My principle – to let go of the need to know – is about recognising that when facing complex urban water planning challenges, we don’t know the answer, because we CAN’T know the answer. We can’t even be sure what the problem is. But for deep experts brought up in an industry with 200 years of problem solving history, we rightly feel obliged to analyse, identify and solve.
This habit has two powerful impacts. Firstly, by imagining that we and our peers have the necessary expertise to solve problems we limit the experience, wisdom and insights that we draw on in finding solutions, thus hampering the innovation that the IWA Principles rightly identify as essential. We in fact become less expert by being ‘the expert’.
The second impact is on the all-important connections and relationships that integrated, systemic planning is built on. The more we imagine that we have things under control, the less we value the input of others. We might talk about working collaboratively, but if we feel that we are the experts why would we collaborate? From this mindset we constrain the collaboration and undermine the very relationships that ‘integration’ requires.
Collaborative water planning requires us to not know, because it is only from a position of not knowing can we authentically invite the rest of the system in to help us understand the problem and solve it together.
So, to be a true expert in integrated water planning, how to let go of the need to know is something you need to know.
This blog was originally published on Twyfords.