It’s almost a decade since Arup developed its original Design With Water approach: a vision for outcomes-led design that has shaped our work and influenced strategy and projects around the world, from Hull to New York and Shanghai.
Arup was founded on the principles of integrated design: crossing silos, balancing science, engineering and creativity with social and environmental value to create better outcomes. Current global challenges continue to highlight the need for holistic, regenerative approaches to design. Of these challenges, water is more critical than ever. But no system can be considered in isolation. Addressing water requires a whole-systems approach, rethinking the way we design and work together.
Our Design With Water model is based on the principle that restoring, protecting and enhancing the integrated water cycle can become a catalyst and enabler for increasing the resilience, health and wellbeing of our human and natural systems.
Recently we have been updating the model to reflect changes in design practice, delivery context and new ways of working. Based on ongoing learning and feedback, we have refreshed and extended the whole-systems framework and we are adding a new toolkit for creative, collaborative design.
Design With Water 2.0 (DWW) continues to support an outcomes-led approach. It emphasises the consideration of place-based needs and priorities, partnership working and shared value, provoking designers to think differently and explore the opportunities that can be unlocked by understanding the role of water in developing infrastructure solutions.
The framework includes four cross-cutting principles that underpin our approach to design:
Integrated. A whole-systems approach, working across multiple sectors, perspectives and scales, bridging technical and non-technical disciplines. Going beyond combining ‘multi-disciplinary’ inputs towards genuine collaborative design.
Smart. Drawing on technological, social and cultural innovation. From the latest in digital and data-driven design, to ecological knowledge and nature-based design, user experience, historical and cultural perspectives, scenario planning and foresight.
Resilient. Designing for people, places, institutions and systems to survive, adapt and thrive in response to shocks and stresses. Over the past ten years, Arup have developed widely adopted global tools to support resilient design and adaptive planning.
Regenerative. Design that rethinks, restores and enhances existing natural and human systems from community to catchment scale. For DWW, this means water cycle interventions that go beyond sustaining other systems to creating net gain across all outcome areas.
Shared outcomes, shared value
Delivering shared outcomes depends on establishing shared values. This can be challenging. Systems are interdependent, but often disconnected. There will be different perspectives, interpretations, capacities and priorities. There will be different definitions of value and different ways of valuing outcomes.
Building shared understanding around vision and outcomes takes time, but the process is often valuable, enhancing capacity amongst design teams, partners and communities. Water can be a powerful catalyst and enabler, supporting other sectors who are grappling with their own specific challenges.
It can be tempting to reduce complexity by retreating into silos or ‘chunking out’ isolated policies and projects, but unlocking outcomes-led design depends on integration across boundaries, understanding the whole water cycle and seeing it from different points of view.
To facilitate this process, DWW 2.0 develops the original outcomes framework expanding each dimension with further detail and supporting materials. This is intended as a flexible starting point and ‘way in’, accommodating different user needs, project context and resources.
We have found that supporting a holistic framework with methods for customising, discussing, prioritising and evaluating enables teams to engage with complexity in a way that is accessible, interactive and fun. It creates a space to explore different perspectives, establish shared values and priorities for planning, design, investment and evaluation.
How assets are defined impacts what we value, how we collectively invest, what we own manage and maintain, and the returns we expect. Yet the term ‘asset’ means different things to different people, and varies across sectors and cultures. Rethinking assets is key to unlocking new ways of designing and delivering multi-sector outcomes.
To address this challenge, DWW considers water-cycle assets as a series of linked place-based systems that can be applied at a range of scales, from households and communities to cities and catchments. Traditionally, these layers have been designed and managed by separate sectors, agencies and disciplines – but to deliver the best outcomes, they need to be considered as an integrated system.
The model builds from fundamental catchment characteristics such as water resources, land use and topography, through strategic water and sanitation networks, to nature-based interventions and water sensitive urban design. Finally, investment in non-physical assets such as community organisations, jobs, culture and user experience are emphasised as fundamental to effective system design and operation.
The simple framework can help water professionals to think beyond conventional water infrastructure towards wider urban, natural and social systems. It can help other stakeholders and communities to explore their interactions with water; for example, emphasising the value of nature-based solutions or highlighting critical infrastructure such as water supply networks that in certain contexts may be ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’.
This framework can be applied conceptually or using detailed place-specific data and insight to inform design. Using a range of prompts and supporting materials, integrated concept ideas and options can be co-designed and directly linked to outcomes.
New stewardship models
Whilst these different layers are highly interdependent, they have historically been considered by separate agencies with ring-fenced roles and budgets, often with different objectives and timescales.
This is changing, but a few typical examples demonstrate the legacy of a fragmented approach to valuation, ownership and maintenance of assets that is still slowing the implementation of resilient and regenerative solutions.
Green infrastructure delivers value across multiple sectors, but it can be difficult to align beneficiaries and investors to ensure long-term stewardship, often stalling design and delivery.
It can be difficult to persuade private developers without a long-term interest to invest in water innovation, especially where assets cannot be adopted by water companies or local authorities.
A third-sector organisation might be critical to community flood resilience, yet it can be hard for them to secure long-term funding; however, we plan to invest in maintenance of traditional assets like buildings, pumps or flood defences.
We need to rethink the roles of different stakeholders and the wider delivery context to unlock new whole-life stewardship models. This includes exploring the role of the water sector as an anchor institution alongside the public, private and civil society organisations.
These challenges are not so much technical as strategic – requiring us to engage with wider system enablers such as governance, regulation, policy, funding and finance. Our role as designers is certainly becoming more complex!
Designing in new ways requires new processes and tools, particularly around engagement and collaboration. We have been developing a toolkit to help teams navigate complex delivery environments to reach creative, deliverable solutions.
Eight complementary components have emerged through research and prototyping in response to project needs. They form the building blocks of outcomes-led design. We have drawn upon learning from multi-sector work across city resilience, regenerative design, partnership funding, health and wellbeing, engagement and user-experience design.
The DWW 2.0 toolkit can be used to support all stages of a project, from visioning and project inception to the implementation and evaluation stages. Outcomes-led design is not a strictly linear process. It requires iteration and feedback between different activities and there can be different entry points. Tools can be selected individually or joined in different combinations. Each can be adapted and will continue to evolve through use. This flexibility allows designers and facilitators to tailor activities and outputs to specific user needs, project objectives and resources.
It’s almost ten years since we developed the first edition of Design with Water. And over 50 years since Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature was published alongside a range of influential texts that shaped ecological design and are still relevant today.
As we continue to rethink the role of design in the face of new challenges, the word ‘with’ seems more important than ever.
Designing with [water, nature, people, place, uncertainty, time etc] requires us to embrace complexity, push boundaries and absorb more into our current practice with a focus on shared outcomes. It means extending our own skills and broadening our collaboration with others.
We are continuing to explore new ways to do this. DWW 2.0 captures the next stage of this exciting journey.
Arup's Water Management Consultancy includes flood risk management, water treatment, supply & recycling. Explore our work in securing more sustainable water solutions.
Design with Water
A look at the benefits of placing a re-integrated water cycle at the heart of sustainable planning, design and delivery. By placing a re-integrated water cycle at the heart of sustainable planning, design and delivery, we ensure actions taken to protect and enhance the water cycle can deliver multiple wider benefits.