Transdisciplinary Teams: The Future of Strategic Urban Planning?

Water systems planning for cities is typically done by engineers and environmental scientists. They are practical people who find solutions to technical problems: providing safe water or adequate sanitation. This approach has served humanity well over the last several hundred years. Yet today, in a world that is urbanising at an unprecedented rate, where new and disruptive technologies and disciplines are impacting on water management, is this approach delivering the best solutions for cities?

In too many cases, water and sanitation are siloed into separate urban planning processes. The proposed solutions are considered sustainable if they are economically viable and socially acceptable using a multidisciplinary approach where experts work sequentially on the project. This approach is leading us towards a mid-term water crisis.

To see how we could transform the business-as-usual mindset, we need to take a step back and gain some fresh perspectives…

What if the planning team included social scientists, communications and change management specialists, economists, regulators, business and industry leaders, citizen groups? Wouldn’t the solutions to urban water planning challenges look very different?

Engineers could provide safe water and sanitation, while minimizing the risks related to climate, including floods, storm water and water scarcity. Planning models could be developed that integrate the recovery of resources from wastewater, such as energy, nutrients and water for agriculture and human consumption, as well as planning for unpredictable urban growth from the very beginning.

This integrated planning would embrace uncertainty to improve the livability, the resilience and the efficiency of cities. Rather than disregarding different perspectives, it would work in coordination with architects, urban planners, waste managers, energy providers and transportation departments.

A transdisciplinary team would identify solutions for water supply and wastewater holistically, at the building, the district and the city scale. Such solutions would result, for example, in reducing the water and energy requirements per capita before planning for trans-basin water transfers or more desalination plants. Increasing efficiency while reducing energy use and environmental impact.

Implementing these solutions would demand strong political leadership, allowing change management and communications specialists to work with institutions, water professionals and citizens on this transition. Embracing change would become a driving force to further implement it.

For example, Information and Communications Technologies could be developed to analyse energy, water and resources fluxes throughout the city. Timely, evidence-based decisions would create a virtuous circle, providing solutions for a healthy, livable, risk-resilient, regenerative city that continually feedback into future strategy.

john ok

In Perth, Australia, the Josh’s House project is an outstanding case of leadership by example and community engagement. Josh Byrne, a well-known TV host and environmental scientist, designed and built his own efficient house, like a control experiment for his community. The house has successfully been built based on the principles of reducing, reusing and recycling at the building scale, integrating water, energy, waste, food production, and comfort in the home. The project is now scaling up to multi-residential urban infill. It’s possible to access real-time data from Josh’s House online. In this setting urban planning is moving from being multidisciplinary sequential to transdisciplinary holistic, where different disciplines inspire each other to identify synergies and mutually beneficial solutions. Only interdisciplinary teams will have the capacity to activate the transition to sustainable future cities. Solutions deemed unacceptable in the business-as-usual approach are likely to become preferred within this integrated approach.

In Australia, where 80% of goods and services are generated on 0.2% of the landmass, its cities, great investments are being made to design and deliver world-class cities of the future. Among other solutions, water utilities are starting to establish partnerships with other sectors to introduce different types of waste into their co-digestors. In Bondi, for example, Sydney Water is piloting the feasibility of co-digesting food waste together with biosolids from the wastewater treatment. This was inspired by the example of Glenelg WWTP, which is co-digesting food waste since 2012. The Bondi pilot shows that with the right dosage, there is a potential to double the biogas production. 

Although holistic approaches to revitalise the urban environment are already taking place in some cities, the pace of innovation is slow and insufficient to satisfy the demands of citizens and future urban challenges. The IWA’s Cities of the Future Programme is specifically developed to drive the innovation process forward, but all stakeholders need to act with urgency if we are to avoid the looming water crisis.

The IWA’s vision is to bring urban partners together to agree upon a common “urban water framework”, a support tool for city decision-makers and funding agencies, and a framework for transdisciplinary teamwork. The future sustainability of our cities may depend upon it.

Corinne Trommsdorff

CEO and Founder of Water Cities (
Corinne Trommsdorff has close to 25 years of experience working in the water sector. She is CEO and founder of Water Cities, whose mission is to support local stakeholders in their transition towards “water-wise” management based on the I... Read full biography