Overview by Robert Varady:
On 9-10 May 2018, Lloyd’s Register Foundation (the Foundation), the sponsor of the International Water Security Network (IWSN), held its second international conference. This took place at the Institution of Engineering and Technology offices in London, a science-based institution established in the 19th Century.
The event was attended by some 350 people from several dozen countries. The programme was diverse, ranging from new frontiers in battery nanotechnology, to robotic bridge design, to innovative STEM education for village girls in Turkey. It featured a number of distinguished speakers, among them representatives of the Foundation’s major funded initiatives.
As one of the Foundation’s 80 or so supported programs, the IWSN was strongly represented at the event. IWSN was among the first half-dozen such grant recipients in 2013. We have watched the Foundation family grow enormously and become very diverse over the past five years.
Attending the conference for IWSN were director Chad Staddon of the University of the West of England; Robert Varady, of the University of Arizona, who heads IWSN’s Americas program; UWE postdoctoral researcher Sarah Ward; Peruvian partner Bram Willems of the Centro de Competencias de Agua; Peruvian anthropology postgraduate student Rossi Taboada, who is visiting UWE this spring; and UWE India/South Asia researcher Mark Everard.
To provide a flavor of the conference, we offer some views from the IWSN attendees.
Our first reflection is by Sarah Ward, who writes:
The diversity of Lloyd’s Register Foundation-funded activities is astonishing. Having not been to the conference before, I must admit I was unsure what to expect from the agenda and after learning that the strap line was ‘bringing safety to life.’
However, I was pleasantly surprised as the two days unfolded. The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) presentations were so good at connecting safety with all of the many projects, that I began to see how the Foundation were building strength and capacity through diversity. As well as the themes of the projects, the types of activity were diverse too: research, knowledge exchange, capacity-building through forming experienced teams, internships, studentships, apprenticeships and much more.
A highlight for me was the 3D presentation by Saiful Islam, not least because he enabled us to see battery ions moving around through the power of 3D glasses (!), but also because it led to the most provocative question of the conference: How can companies avoid or reduce the social and environmental costs of waste displacement and mining activities in developing societies?
Another highlight was the ‘Firefly’ presentation by Ayse Inan, about revolutionising STEM education in Turkish schools. That talk was amazing not just because of the way in which the program was engaging with students (more than a million of them – a majority of them girls – since the Fireflies effort began), but because the organisers were demonstrably excellent in monitoring and measuring their impact and reflecting on that; it wasn’t just about celebrating assumed success. This notion linked to a later comment from presenter Adam Parr, who talked about strategy as a process, but also mentioned metacognition (my knowledge of myself). It made me think about how we could all do with thinking about that sometimes, both in bringing safety to life and pursuing a shift to different societal actions for the good of the environment and the economy.
Rossi Taboada observes:
Supported by a Newton Fund: Researcher Links Travel Grant provided to me by the British Council, I had the opportunity to participate on the last day of this conference.
In my short experience, I have attended conferences in which results, trends, projections, and proposals are what are usually presented. But this event was different. For example, the closing session, “Life matters: Three minute pitches that will challenge the world”, provided my first opportunity to observe a group of experienced researchers expose – in just three minutes – the large challenges they are facing, the reasons their work is relevant, and why it should continue. In this dynamic, there was a premium on clarity in the messages. In particular, the presentations sought to show how the results of the projects contribute to solving the Foundation’s designated great global challenges through quality scientific research on issues such as health and safety at work, resilience, and big data management, among others.
Participating in this event also allowed me to learn a little more about the work of Lloyd’s Register Foundation. In 2017 alone, it awarded 21 scholarships to students in 23 countries. Just to provide an idea of the impact on capacity building, over the past five years these scholarships have enabled 122 PhD students from 36 nations. Seeing the magnitude of this network and the quality of its work, I felt enthusiastic, not only for being part of this, but also for continuing my work on water security in Peru and attempting to make a positive impact for a better place.
Chad Staddon, the IWSN program director, notes:
I was struck by the challenge of capacity-building, which cut across all projects presented. Whether robotic bridge design or big data, it seems that there is a need for innovations in teaching and learning that can bring more young people into the science and engineering professions, and especially traditionally harder to reach black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
The ‘Firefly’ programme referred to above seems a great way of engaging kids in rural Turkey, especially girls, and so we need to think about scalability and replicability of this model of STEM support. Water science and engineering could really benefit from such approaches.
Mark Everard comments:
The venue of the conference spoke a great deal about the generally technical focus of the Foundation’s programme, though notably the excellent presentation on the education of girls in STEM subjects in Turkey brought in a powerful social dimension, as well as the human dimensions of safety addressed by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
The overall emphasis on addressing major challenges facing the world was a theme consistent throughout the entire event, and networking amongst those both presenting and present was a rich experience.
Our own IWSN brings wider dimensions to what I felt was a predominantly technical focus on the theme of safety. Our approach, by contrast, embraces also the foundational roles of ecosystem stability and processes in the provision of secure access to water in both rural and urban settings.
The challenges facing our ever more populated, resource-limited and climate-changing world can seem daunting, but this gathering of concerned and committed experts gives hope.
Bram Willems offers the following thoughts:
I could only participate during the second day and found all of the presentations interesting, covering a spectrum of topics including data mining, resilience engineering, safety, and capacity building. Coming from a completely different context (the Andean region) and addressing water management issues, I enjoyed learning about the challenges and opportunities in other fields covered by the speakers. In particular, I found that Adam Parr’s thoughtful keynote talk, “Technology v. Strategy,” resonated and awakened several ideas in me. Also, Gijs van der Velden’s presentation on the robotic bridge-building experience of the Dutch company MX3D brought me back to the essence of why I started doing research: playing around and having fun discovering new things.
Closing remarks by Robert Varady:
As always with large meetings, attendees come away with a mix of reactions. As professionals, we mostly attend conference that are within our own areas of expertise, adding depth and breadth to our understandings of whatever it is we work on. In my own world, I go to events that feature the role of science and information in water governance, policy, and management. While various aspects of technology – such as remote sensing, hydrological modeling, and climate prediction – do inform these programs, I can safely assert that I never otherwise encounter presentations on ion movement in batteries, safety measures to protect offshore oil platforms, the application of artificial intelligence and robotics in construction design, or the commercial use of graphene. Those are a few of the – to me, esoteric – topics I’ve learned about at the two Lloyd’s Register Foundation conferences I’ve attended.
In short, a conference like this one expands one’s horizons beyond the comfortable confines of one’s own discipline and experience. More than that, they help situate what we do within a broader universe. Specifically, in the case of IWSN, I think it allows us to see the close connection between what we have viewed as water security (the theme of our program) and the conference’s leitmotif of safety. Is our focus on water security part of a larger set of issues related to social safety? Or is safety one of many aspects of security? Thanks to the support we’ve received from the Foundation over the past five years, these are the types of questions we’ve been able to address.