Co-Designing Water-Energy-Food Futures

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By Dr. Sarah Bell

The water-energy-food nexus has become a key concern for governments and researchers confronting future constraints on resources and the environment. Whilst forecasts of future scarcity of energy resources, water resources and food have a long legacy, in the last decade the interactions between resource futures have become apparent, adding complexity to already considerable challenges. The ‘nexus’ reflects inter-dependencies between major resource consuming infrastructures. Water is required to grow food, cool thermal power stations and drive turbines for hydro-power stations. Energy is needed to pump and treat water, and to distribute food from field to market. As populations and consumption grow, and the climate changes, meeting these needs is likely to become ever more difficult.

Responses to the water-energy-food nexus typically focus on the supply side of the networks – the power stations, dams and agricultural systems. This is important, but overlooks the other end of the pipes and wires where water-energy-food come together, in our homes. The water-energy-food nexus is just as relevant when we boil a potato as in managing trade-offs between electricity and food production in river catchments. What if we started from the everyday nexus and worked outwards to design infrastructures and policies to meet our future needs?

This question inspired the Engineering Comes Home Project, funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences research council in 2015-17 (https://ech.iilab.org/).The research team worked with local residents on a social housing community in London to understand how they use water, energy and food in their everyday lives, and their ideas for how things might be different. This formed the basis of a co-design process, centred on three workshops where community members and engineering researchers worked together to evaluate options and make decisions about what kind of technologies and infrastructure could meet residents’ needs while reducing environmental impacts. The final output of the design process was a rainwater harvesting system to provide water for a community garden and other outdoor uses.

Co-design of infrastructure provides opportunities to engage people in complex, systems ideas like the water-energy-food nexus. It helps to build infrastructural literacy, revealing to communities how their daily actions and environment are connected to bigger socio-technical systems. It leads to designs for bottom-up systems that are embedded within local needs and cultures, while still taking account of the demands of engineering and science. Co-design recognizes that infrastructural systems are socio-technical systems, and that their future resilience and sustainability depends upon everyday social life as much as technical optimization.

Co-design requires new skills and techniques for engineers, designers and policy makers. It builds on well-established methods of engagement and participation, but with a specific focus on intervening in the physical world and on putting complex engineering and science into the hands of everyday people. Further research, develop and experimentation are needed to develop new tools that are robust enough to ensure genuine collaboration in design, and light enough to be able to be applied by a wide range of practitioners at a low cost. Optimizing the trade-off between context specific participation and transferable methods is a key focus for future research.

The water-energy-food nexus presents a complex set of challenges for policy, research and practice. Top-down, supply-side solutions are needed to be ready for future shocks to interdependent systems. But they are not sufficient. Working with communities to co-design new systems and approaches provides an alternative bottom-up approach, to meet these every more complex challenges across scales, sectors and cultures.

Sarah Bell is Professor of Environmental Engineering at University College, London. She is an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Fellow working on bottom-up approaches to infrastructure resilience. She is the Director of the Engineering Exchange, which aims to connect local community groups with researchers in engineering and the built environment.

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