Looking Back At 10 Years Of Waterstink (2009-2019)

It’s hard to believe but 2019 marks the 10th birth of our little water blog, Waterstink. Back in January 2009 with co-founder, Roger Ford, we started this informal, self-funded blogging project. Our ideas originally sprung out of joint research – and Roger’s industry experience – on a pressing lack of innovation in the England and Wales regulated and privatised water industry. During the following decade our concerns gradually expanded to encompass world water and sanitation policy and planning approaches. My efforts over these years, particularly, turned with USA colleague Professor Dale Whittington, to develop and launch collaborative teaching on these issues at global scale, reaching by now over 25,000 learners in over 195 countries and territories with two massive open online courses (MOOCs) on the Silicon Valley EdTech start-up Coursera platform, as we’ll see more about below…

Along the way we kept our staunchly independent but still intimate perspective (this has never been an ‘academic’ or formal blog as such, which has been challenging when we had some legal threats over the years). To mark fittingly our decade anniversary I thought it would be nice to share with you my personal, curated look at 10 years of running and writing the Waterstink blog. So let’s run through together my quick, year-on-year overview of the ups and downs of riding the ‘waves’ of both UK and world water policy and industry issues:

2009 – finding our feet, early film efforts, setting our tone to critique water innovation pacing

I think it’s fair to say Roger and I had little idea about what a water blog was or could be back in 2009. For our very first post, imaginatively titled ‘Waterstink is here’, we were guided by some friends who helped us build and design the blog and its artwork. However soon we found our feet to cover topical issues like endocrines and fluoride in drinking water. One my all time Waterstink favourite posts also came soon afterwards: my teardown of how much I dislike period dramas’ romanticising of historical water and sanitation conditions!

2009 was also my first coverage of a creative water documentary I worked on together with an academic filmmaker colleague. In 2010 this was released and looking back all this seems to foreshadow my later, much more significant involvement with water MOOCs (massive open online courses. This first year our post on ‘500 years from water rates to universal water metering‘ I feel also set the tone of how both Roger and I feel innovation progress in the UK water industry has been, and I dare say continues to be, far, far too slow… (for various reasons, but still…)

Right from the outset we also clarified our stance on critiquing, whenever justified, the England and Wales economic water regulator, Ofwat. Looking back it’s been fascinating to see just how much Ofwat has changed and evolved. I’d like to think we engaged constructively with them here and there, along the way, as you’ll see below. Our contributions, no doubt, were modest, but I’m happy to have offered whatever independent commentary and critique I could, whenever we were invited to do so.

As an aside, the first of what Roger has called my water-related (and perhaps not so water-relevant!) ‘holiday pictures’ posts also began right back in 2009, thanks to a work trip to the shores of Lake Geneva! You’ll find a range of this lighter, holidaymaker POV posts scattered throughout our content over the past decade, no doubt..

2010 – global water teaching begins, dipping a toe into UK water politics

During 2010 we developed our blogging style, and found confidence to post more frequently on a wider range of issues. These included more serious and significant consideration of political interactions in the UK with water policy and practices, and a critical perspective on how leakage is treated in the UK water industry. Some long-standing issues were repeated (like bottled water) and I was contacted by national media a few times. We also reported on a large cull of water-related (and other) QUANGOs that came in 2010. (Whether the UK water industry has benefitted or suffered from this cull is a deeper question that we should take on at some point in the future… perhaps best so once the UK is past its current Brexit-related policy challenges…)

2010 was also the year I started to co-teach with my USA colleague Professor Dale Whittington. This kicked off with an inaugural lecture at the University of Water from Professor Tony Allan on virtual water (and other things). This experience, gradually but perceptibly, moved my focus away from just the UK water industry (an outlier, globally speaking, in terms of privatisation, regulation, climate conditions and so on). Generally this was a moment that started to expand my horizons and concerns towards more global water and sanitation matters. A very positive milestone for me, personally, then!

2011 – expanding perspectives, ongoing reviews

We kicked off 2011 by looking farther afield (e.g. at floods and droughts in Australia, water issues caused by people’s holidays) as well as still closer to home (water issues in Northern Ireland). We continued to follow the long march of ‘independent reviews’ of the UK water industry that seemed particularly common at this point.

I don’t recall hearing about so many ‘reviews’ in recent years. There now seems more of a regular drive towards customer-driven reform (at Ofwat and in the England and Wales water companies). It’s also possible water policy issues have taken a backseat, again, to Brexit-related policy efforts and resourcing…

2012 – interacting with Parliament, bodies beyond

2012 saw me invited into the Parliamentary buildings for all-party interest group meetings and writing in the UK water trade press (a few times) and appearing on national radio. I also engaged with some industry innovation initiatives and attended an industry innovation award ceremony for the first time.

2013 – taxing the ‘fat cats’, guest lectures and my first exposure to ‘MOOC mania’!

I think 2013 may have seen our first proper coverage here about water industry alleged tax ‘avoidance’. (These issues have dragged on and I’ve since found myself writing about the legitimacy problems of the UK water industry even in 2018.) We also covered some of the exciting guest lectures happening on the University of Manchester water and sanitation planning and policy class around that time.

2013 saw more invitations to attend non-UK water innovation advisory/expert events. This year also was the beginning of pre-production filming for the MOOC version of the water class with Dale Whittington. This massive effort and commitment of time, along with Dale, was the beginning of a remarkable journey that has since managed to fuse my interests in filmmaking, documentaries, broader water policy engagement, and research around possible transformations of the world’s universities in partnerships with – and challenged by – the ambitions and affordances of USA and global EdTech companies.

At the end of the 2013 we covered some UK extreme weather. This is a thread that has continued throughout our writing here, that’s for sure!

2014 – launching a world water MOOC, celebrating a sludge centenary

In May 2014 our first water MOOC with Prof Whittington officially launched. I didn’t know at that time we would have to wait until January 2017 for this Part 1 course (on world water and sanitation status quo policy and planning conditions) to re-launch, and for the Part 2 to be produced and launched! (Academic-university-EdTech relationships are quite complex indeed, as I’ve since written about following USA fieldwork in 2017… [free, open access article linked there])

Lots happened in 2014, but one highlight (yes, for me, visiting a sewage works IS a highlight!) was attending the Centenary of activated sludge at Davyhulme wastewater treatment works near Manchester, UK.

2015 – visiting California, watching UK water troubles

2015 marked my first ever visit to California, USA, to talk about our MOOC experience at Coursera’s annual conference. Behind the scenes more MOOC filming was under way, for our Part 2 course (on developing effective water and sanitation policy interventions).

Back home water companies were getting into troubles with flooding – again, one of the recurrent themes of our coverage of the UK water industry over the years.

2016 – water customer experience lows, water academic highs!

In 2016 came one of the more unpleasant moments in our decade of water blogging. After some fairly neutral and entirely defamatory coverage of being left without water during a local incident, Waterstink attracted water company legal attention. Everything was quickly resolved but I was still left with a very sour aftertaste considering at the time the UK water industry was supposed to be heading in a more positive, customer-driven direction!

After these lows, a short while later though I found myself in London on a high of interviewing the former Chief Executive of Ofwat, Regina Finn. Not long afterwards utility regulation pioneer, Professor Stephen Littlechild also agreed to be interviewed for our MOOCs.

Another trip to California also followed, where strangely I was able to squat on the aptly-named Squatty Potty, and to muse on subtle differences of water conservation influencing technology designs around the world!

2017 – more global MOOCs, lingering UK water issues

January 2017 saw the launch of our Part 2 water MOOC. Dale and I both noticed a huge difference in terms of how that went, and how much the world of MOOCs – and of Coursera – had changed since 2014. (More on that in a future post perhaps… I wrote a little about it here…) Soon after we had an addendum of sorts, as we managed to add Professor Tony Allan to our MOOC roster of guest lectures too.

Another recurring theme resurfaced in 2017. This was the Labour Manifesto pledge to re-nationalise the England and Wales water industry. It’s fascinating to see how executive pay, leakage, nationalisation, flooding and drought have cropped up periodically during our decade of blogging. Tax issues have been a subset of these legitimacy concerns more recently. But it’s surprising just how stable the points of criticism of the UK water industry have been over time.

In July 2017 I was invited to my first ‘world water’ workshop, courtesy of the WRI in Washington, DC. Soon afterwards I tried my hand at a bit of water heritage filmmaking, with a series of walking tours from the North of England. This has since spun off into something quite different, using more or less the same skill set… but still it was fun to do!

2018 – reflecting on long-term issues

We opened 2018 with probably the best online interview with Roger where he shares insights from his many years inside the UK water industry trying to improve attitudes and practices towards customer-facing innovation. You can watch this video here. Unrelated, but a nice coincidence soon after was that Ofwat launched an ‘innovation campaign’. We covered that here too.

In March of 2018 I mused on whether the apparent shift of paradigm towards a ‘customer-driven’ approach that had been long-needed in the UK water industry was actually happening. This post was also a kind of personal wrapping up of the possible impact of our own efforts here at Waterstink in highlighting issues here. In July 2018 I wrote a similarly reflective, longer perspective piece about the lingering legitimacy issues in the UK water industry that keep popping up whenever drought and leakage matters arise.

2019 – tying up loose ends, on the cusp of change

Well, this brings us to the here and now in 2019! Professionally I’m rather on the cusp of change – started by a career transition in 2018 – so it’s likely 2019 will see far fewer posts.

Nevertheless I have tried to tie up some loose ends with the first post of 2019, by showing my first hand experience of water-related California agriculture issues. These problems I’ve heard about academically but then had the chance to get a more up-close-and-personal perspective recently.

To wrap up…

Roger and I both want to say a big thanks to our readers and commenters over the years. It’s been an interesting 10 years and we’ve been happy to be able to share our thoughts and opinions with you over this time.

Many of the issues that we’ve written about over the years are far from resolved, for a whole variety of reasons, either here in the UK or around the world. This past decade has culminated in some great materials being produced – primarily led by Dale Whittington – as a record of my own learning and horizon-broadening, if nothing else. There’s a good likelihood these are going to be made available in print form during 2019… which I’ll report back as and when appropriate.

Until then… our thanks again, and here’s looking forward to a water secure, prosperous and peaceful water world for the next decade ahead! 🙂

Duncan Thomas

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