The future of water

The challenge

How can we prepare the water sector for change in an uncertain political, economic, technological, social and environmental times?

In this article

  • Scenario planning and its role in creating a robust water sector by the year 2040.
  • How we've worked with utilities like Sydney Water to forecast how climate change, technology, and other factors will effect the water sector over the coming years.
  • How utilities can leverage tools like data and analytics to capture new opportunities.

As engineers, we try to design solutions that last. This means readying ourselves for an unpredictable future with a combination of foresight and flexibility. Two years ago, our water team met with Sydney Water to explore the major challenges facing the resilience the Australian of our water sector over the next twenty years. The conversation led to a research project designed to meet the challenges of this future head on.

We found there wasn’t a lot of scenario planning in this space for opportunities and risks.  We are addressing this demand by developing a research methodology on what the future might look like for Sydney Water in 2040.

Daniel Lambert, our Water leader for Australasia, and his team drew up four scenarios for utilities operating in a city context—incremental improvements, better together, autonomous communities and survival of the fittest. You can read more about these scenarios in our Future of Urban Water report.

With a number of big-picture scenarios developed, Daniel and the team are now working with the utilities sector to build roadmaps on how they might leverage these new trends and build in future resilience  to capture opportunities while mitigating the risks.

Many of us are shaped by our relationship with water - especially on the coast. Photo Raj Eiamwarakul

Resilient Resources

The study with Sydney Water examined trends around climate change technology, the sector’s increased focus on operational efficiency, privatization, and the pricing of water. Using a unique methodology developed through in-house research, Arup was able to scenario plan derived a number of risks and opportunities that may face the sector in 2040.

“We looked at four scenarios across two axes—centralized and decentralized solutions for cities and separated or integrated services across utilities,” says Daniel Lambert.

Following the study’s publication, we were approached by a number of utilities from around the world—New Zealand, Asia, the UK—illustrating a growing global interest in foresight planning. The study helped emphasised big picture strategy, while putting Sydney Water at the forefront of its industry. Subsequent studies have fleshed out roadmaps on developing strategy, leveraging trends and managing risks for resource resilience.

Before developing this methodology, Daniel’s team found that most utilities—particularly within Australia—were predominantly short term focused, the result of five-year water plans and three-year political cycles.

“Every organisation that you work with—every city that you look at—has different challenges. There are lessons learned that we can draw from our work with Manila Water that are different than Sydney Water. The more utilities we work with, and the more cities we investigate, the more lessons we can share.”

“Now that we’re able to see a long-term picture we can focus our research and development funding to target those areas,” Daniel says. “We can work to drive a better water sector, in Australia as well as globally.”

Translating Technology

The goal of Arup's partnership with Sydney Water was to use data to forecast long-term challenges facing the sector and predict how utilities could build resilience against stressors and shocks. 

Utilities currently gather a plethora of data on natural resources. The data simply isn’t being processed or managed as effectively as it could. The global interest in the outcomes of this partnership opened a conversation into how Arup can align its own research agendas to face sustainability challenges openly and collaboratively.

“It’s becoming an increasing discussion in the water sector about making the data open source,” says Daniel. He points to recent trends in the power sector, where the move toward privatisation has created an environment where much of the data collected by utilities is made public.  

“There is a lot of data out there for the water sector. I think the benefits and opportunities around that data and how to utilize it for efficiency of operations isn’t fully being captured yet.  There’s a lot of opportunity for the water sector to get more efficient in how we run our systems and how we leverage our access to information to do that more effectively.”

Daniel believes a similar level of access in the water sector would enable people with a deeper understanding into how water is currently being used, by who, and when. The ability to then work with this data to help us make decisions can allow us to  contribute more meaningful insights back to the water sector to help our utilities meet future scenarios head on.


  • We can’t crystal ball the future. However, by using scenario modelling we can explore trends to help make choices about forces already shaping the world.
  • This work has since opened up similar conversations with other utilities, and informed the New Zealand National Water Survey the following year.
  • Open source data can help us all be better informed, better equipped and better prepared.

This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Daniel Lambert
Daniel is a civil engineer and Water & Urban Renewal Business Leader for Australasia.

Ask Daniel about

  1. How scenario planning works and where we've identified opportunities, and risks, for the water sector going forward
  2. How working with a number of water utilities around the world has strengthened our understanding of the sector globally and where there are lessons that can be transferred from one utility to another
  3. The opportunities data and analytics present and how utilities can leverage digital to improve their efficiency


Research TEAM

Walter is a senior economist in our Environment & Resources team.
Dr Therese
Therese is a water engineer based in our Canberra office, and leads our research efforts across the region.

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