Adam Cambridge

UK & Europe

Adam is a Technical Authority for Urban Stormwater Management at Atkins who is regarded to be a natural innovator of water and flood risk management challenges in urban areas. His experience is founded on flood modelling that has progressively expanded in a drive to place water and green infrastructure at the heart of towns and cities. Adam is a visiting lecturer at the University of Birmingham, is a committee member of CIWEM’s Rivers and Coastal Group, is an expert panel member of the Liveable Cities R&D programme, leads a Centre for Research and Innovation into Groundwater Infiltration into Urban Infrastructure, and is an advisor to the UK Water Partnership on urban simulators.

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The water and environment sector is transforming, largely, in my view, due to the role that digital services are increasingly playing in our day to day life. The increased use of digital services is profoundly influencing society daily, so it’s little wonder that it’s now also affecting the water industry, which is a powerful journey to be starting. 

The power of digital services is best visualised if you think back to the Arab Spring revolutions where governments were toppled for transformation - essentially through the use of online social media galvanising societal views. This showed that digital services can be the platform for citizens to make more informed and collective decisions for governance, or services, but may not necessarily be the enduring pieces of infrastructure that we need over the longer term due to the pace of technological advancement and disruption that can follow. What is clear, however, is that we are entering a digital age.

What’s fuelling the drive towards a digital age?

In the water and environment sector, we are already seeing the benefits of easier data access in the projects we undertake. For example, we can now freely access the whole LiDAR archive (a dataset that represents land surfaces) which allows engineering designs to achieve a high level of accuracy and more quickly than ever before. This enables growth, whilst embedding resilience to our new infrastructure, and supporting long term sustainability due to improved accuracy. So, we should not fear entering this new age.

Another aspect I believe is driving us towards a digital age is “generation Y” who are now either influential business leaders from setting up entrepreneurial ventures or surfacing through existing organisations to positions of influence. This generation are typically perceived as increasingly familiar with digital and electronic technology, and are therefore more open to a digital trajectory than previous generations. This poses serious challenges to existing processes in all levels of daily life and why the term “digital disruption” is in frequent use. However, for me being a part of “generation Y”, it makes me think that this could be the greatest journey to go on from a resource sustainability perspective.

What does the future hold?

With a more connected government, and a citizen based system (which has people in places of influence that value longer term sustainable outcomes), you can start to see how water and environment becomes an enabler for an enduring way of life, rather than a means to encourage the next wave of linear growth.  

However, what this does mean is that the UK economy, and every developed economy around the world, should be re-measuring the way growth is identified. This means that in the near future, if not now, we should be looking at how goods, services, and resources are provided, consumed, and importantly re-used to stimulate growth. An example of this in the water sector would be converting wastewater treatment sludge to biogas for powering businesses. A form of resource optimisation for circular economics, if you like.

While the conversion of waste to a useful societal resource is a very basic example, it demonstrates that our economic cycle is changing and will continue to do so as we increasingly enter a digital age and societal views shift towards supporting sustainability. The question is whether you will be disrupted, support disruption, and/or contribute to disruption? The future will be digital, greener, and more connected!

For Atkins, we see and understand the digital journey that we are on and in partnership with the Science Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are leading an industry event to ensure it delivers sustainable outcomes for water, the environment, and the communities that will rely on it.  We call it smart digital water management and we will ensure it delivers on its promise.

UK & Europe,

Those working within the sphere of environmental urban design will know, however, that while commitments such as this should be admired and continually incorporated into infrastructure investment proposals, actual implementation and delivery in industry has been broadly lacking.

So what’s stopping us?

As with many water and environmental issues I believe the problem inconveniently lies with people and the ability to leverage funding to re-design a more liveable city space, or of course ensure it’s designed properly in the first place, as I’ve outlined in my previous Angles articles. However, this isn’t necessarily true when you consider our counterparts in North America and Australia where Victorian design procedures are being revised from a dig, bury, and convey it as soon as possible approach, to one where we store, re-use, and infiltrate our greatest resource, water. The schemes being delivered more widespread in these areas of our globe are vindication that these alternative systems are beneficial and should be encouraged. And perhaps that’s the issue in the UK, we have been encouraging their use rather than actually implementing them.

Some in industry and academia will argue that the brakes on implementation have been put on as a result of failing to enact particular aspects of the Flood and Water Management Act (2010). Yet few seem to remember that this piece of legislation was born out of the 2007 summer floods when intense rainfalls were coupled with unusually saturated soils, so if more GI were in place, they would only have ever been able to intercept and infiltrate a bit more. We, however, innately know that such schemes would have provided so many benefits around the ability to restore water quality and resource following the floods, as well as provide benefits in health, wellbeing, and community resilience right up to date, it’s just that we haven’t holistically valued this. I am not implying that legislation isn’t required, but rather that we have been setting the goal posts up for GI implementation using pre-recessional systems when so much has changed in the economic and technological climate.

Another aspect that is holding us back from a framework that moves from encouragement to implementation is, well, us, as there are some great examples of where GI is being implemented in the UK. This is being stimulated in part because of needing to deliver efficiencies in the current economic climate, but also because the people involved are able to disentangle themselves from the legislative and financial game and really focus on delivering positive long term outcomes. So, we can deliver change, it just requires the right approach and the right people.

So how do we move forward?

More funding – yes, but this is unlikely given the current economic climate.

More design guidance – not really, we already have quite a lot of that.

Making delivery more efficient – ah yes, but so long as policies are flexible and can allow the community to co-create these spaces, as efficiency can sometimes lead to unnecessary amounts of unattractive concrete.

More legislation – it may help, but looking at the impact UBER has had on taxis worldwide do we need it?  

For Atkins part of the solution is to re-wire the valuation techniques by undertaking research into how mobile big data analytics can be used to understand the impact of infrastructure investment on people, really valuing green space like our work at Camley Street, and to setup a Green Infrastructure Implementation Group.  Techniques and approaches that build on our Sustainable Drainage System Studio and Flood DamaGIS tools that spatially screen and evaluate measures, but importantly, with the people that can make it happen.

Our future infrastructure is as green as we want to be, so disarm the barriers and follow suit if you do really want it.

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As has been rightly pointed out by the industry and media, this feels truly significant because it was only six years prior that the record was broken in Seathwaite (316mm), which is also in Cumbria. Many who were flooded then – in reportedly a 1:100 year plus event – have been flooded again with an event of even greater severity. Often flood events affect different people in different locations even if the events are not “playing the game” in terms of our understanding of frequency, but here lightning is truly striking twice; inhabitants of Yalding on the Medway have suffered similar repetition of flooding but not such torrential, record breaking rainfall.

It’s important not only because it allows the public to recognise that both the frequency and severity of storms may be changing, but also because these events shake up and redefine the datasets that we use to estimate return periods and flooding levels when we are trying to manage flood risk. People are engaging with the significance of the storm and isn’t it a coincidence that this is coinciding with the climate change talks in Paris?

For me, Storm Desmond is significant for a number of additional reasons that may not be immediately apparent to those overwhelmed by the scenes or shocked by the magnitude of the storm:

1 - Future cities need to become sustainable

The country’s desire to deliver economic growth that is truly sustainable needs to recognise that water quantity and quality is integral to delivering our city powerhouses of the future. If the £12 billion pledged for Local Growth Funds and £400 million pledged for the Northern Powerhouse fail to recognise the importance of the impact of too much or too little water in cities alongside the issues of transportation, energy, health, and citizen wellbeing these investments may need to be supplemented from time to time by an emergency tax relief pot, as is currently being proposed for Cumbria (source), to account for the likely increasing frequency of future severe weather events (droughts and floods). Not reflecting on sustainability needs now will mean we will need to prepare future budgets with ever increasing risk pots: might it not be better to build infrastructure that is appropriately designed in the first place?

2 - Resilience needs to be built in

The Government’s recent pledge in the spending review and autumn statement to increase capital spending on Department for Transport infrastructure by 50% to £61 billion needs to be coupled with robust flood risk management planning.  If it isn’t, our new transport infrastructure for future generations will just add to our stockpile of assets that are currently considered to be non-resilient by the Department for Transport following the 2013/14 floods (source). Resilience is not necessarily difficult or even significantly more expensive in capital cost terms to include, it just needs to be considered in our future plans from the start.



3 - Adopting data and technology for rebuilding

The fact that Storm Desmond was named by a crowdsourcing pilot project undertaken by the Met Office (source) is signposting for how flood risk management, and the engineering sector at large, should make better use of data and technology to improve how we design infrastructure for the future. “Big data”, “Data Science”, “Genetic Algorithms”, “Systems of Systems”, and “ Smart Cities” are all phrases that have been used in the context of driving efficiency, but they have been difficult to incorporate because of in-built barriers (e.g. legislative and economic). While Storm Desmond has caused awful scenes in Cumbria, there is now an opportunity to adopt data and technology solutions to better plan, manage, prepare, and respond to future events that seem to be changing.

4 - Reconsidering what we value in an uncertain economy and changing climate

Lastly, but certainly not least, we need to have a frank discussion about what we value more in our ever changing climatic and economic conditions. In a previous article (source) I highlighted that flood alleviation schemes must currently justify two to four times as much benefit to every pound invested in a transport scheme and we must ask ourselves:

- Do we value more transport that, if not appropriately designed, is frequently disrupted?

- Do we appropriately value that disruption or continue to ignore it?

- Do we value protecting houses from flooding?

- Or do we value all of the above and should we value these and others more holistically to ensure public needs are truly served?

An open discussion about what the public value most in their daily lives would be difficult to have and would ultimately be highly affected by the short term issues that a family unit, individual, or community were dealing with unless we can develop messaging to help people understand what future issues may need to be overcome.

Following the winter floods of 2013/14 this is something that we at Atkins have investigated through our Futures research and development initiative, uncovering that not only can flood and transportation appraisal methods be coupled, but such cross discipline linkages can add substantial weight to investment priorities (an additional 33% more benefit for the one case study considered). A technique that we call “FloodRoute” allows future transport infrastructure to be developed in tandem with flood risk management needs, so that resilience measures, such as traffic light re-configuration and appropriate mediums for communication, can be readily included alongside improved levels of flood risk management service.

So, is Storm Desmond significant? Absolutely, but rather than just “putting it all back together as it was and crossing our fingers” we should be incorporating our learning and innovations, so that we adapt and deliver new infrastructure that is more sustainable, resilient, smart, and valued by our country. We have the tools, the knowledge and the ability we just now need to support a call to arms to do it right, and do it right now.

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As the UK emerges from the financial crisis, the arguments for prioritising infrastructure needs that support economic growth, over those specifically aimed at delivering more sustainable benefit, will be justifiable to many. One area where this is particularly evident is the value placed on flood risk management, as alleviation schemes must currently demonstrate two to four times as much benefit to every pound invested in a transport scheme, which will be primarily justified on the basis that it supports economic growth.

Carlisle Flooding 2005
Carlisle flooding 2005

Climate change and its impact on weather however, is becoming a very real threat, and in recent years we have seen a number of flood events that have led to significant economic loss. The 2007 floods are estimated to have cost £3.2 billion [source 1 – PDF] and the clear up costs of the recent 2013 / 2014 winter floods totalled approximately £1 billion [source 2 – PDF]. Dealing with these events is then a significant cost, which is set to increase in the future due to the effects of climate change. So, my question is, why is such a comparatively low value placed on more sustainable benefits and what can be done to change people’s perceptions and priorities?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking at flood risk in silo. If we consider it through the lens of infrastructure that is linked to economic growth, perhaps flood resilience would be placed higher on the agenda. Following the 2013 / 2014 winter floods, the task of making the transport network resilient to extreme weather was described by Department for Transport (DfT) as “a big challenge” [source 3 PDF]. However, the risk was always present, it just took a flood event to bring the issue to the forefront of people’s mind and question whether investment was sufficient. So the challenge is then not to make the roads resilient, but to link investments and consider them in the context of an urban area that has wider needs.

Looking at investment in a wider and more integrated way would allow multi-beneficial schemes to be developed, but not necessarily implemented or adopted, because of concerns over ownership and responsibilities. A simple solution to this is to include the community as part of the solution, as most people have an interest in the area that they live in. However, the metrics used to justify sustainable investment are often not related to that individual and/or family, which quite clearly makes adoption more difficult. For example, the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) has found in a recent survey into climate change that:

"73 per cent of people want world leaders to agree a global deal and 66 per cent think action must happen now”, but “just 40 per cent of people recognise the impact of climate change on their lifestyle."

This certainly raises some questions as to how we’re promoting, or seeking buy-in, for a ‘future proofed city’ because it’s clear that images of weather chaos do not seem to be the mechanism for engaging the individual, and/or family, that ultimately are central to enabling sustainable change.

So, what are society’s top priorities?

A difficult question, as it will vary with time and as social attitudes change, but if we consider this in the context of our own lives most answers would probably boil down to having a happy family life, good health, and a well-paid job. This highlights that engineers and planners promoting sustainable water management in urban areas need to provide the traditional metrics, as well as the benefits to family wellbeing, health (by a reduction in NHS medical costs for example), and personal equity through incentivisation (reduction in taxes / bills). If done, this would link individuals and/or families to communities and allow government investments to be considered in a holistic manner, as well as more actively seek investment from the private sector.

What’s the next step?

To achieve sustainable change the investment business cases that are developed for infrastructure need to be expanded to not only identify multiple benefits, but link the benefits to individuals and communities. In the current economic climate these business cases must relate the benefits to infrastructure investment that is deemed to stimulate economic growth, as these are the solutions that will be implemented in the end.

[1] EA (2010) – The costs of the summer 2007 floods in England (Project: SC070039/R1)

[2] RIBA (2014) – Building a Better Britain: A vision for the next government – Flooding

[3] Department for Transport (2014) Transport Resilience Review: A review of the resilience of the transport network to extreme weather events

[4] DECC (2014) – Climate Change Survey: Populus Data Solutions

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