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Basement Tech and the Utility Death Spiral

In the mid 1990s there was an atmosphere of change in the water and sewerage sector in Sweden. EU and its water framework, debates on nitrogen removal, Local Agenda 21, urine diverting toilets and national conferences for ”closing the loop” made a huge impression on a freshly baked engineer like me. Twenty years down the road, it might look like not much changed. We have kept on expanding our city-wide infrastructures and even making them regional, with trunk sewers and bulk water supply consistently extending their reach. Expansion was largely driven by economies of scale. Larger utilities can produce more at a lower marginal cost, and become more attractive employers for scarce engineers and technicians.  Interestingly, as the systems have grown, they have also become integrated with other infrastructures, notably energy. And in that might lie a seed for disruptive change; perhaps a revolution, that may surprise us all.

Basement under the Live-In Lab at KTH

Utilities like Stockholm Water and Waste company, or Käppala WWTP, today captures the energy in the sewage flows. Heat is transferred onto the district heating grid, and organic matter is converted to biogas. But property owners are beginning to see the value in the energy and wants to use it themselves, to lower their energy bills. After all, why give away the energy for free, and then buy it back from the energy company? Two research projects at KTH are currently investigating wastewater heat reclamation. Many more initiatives seem to be coming up. At the Live-In Lab at KTH, a demo project on energy reclaiming, combined with on-property treatment and recirculation of bathroom water, is under preparation by the company Graytech. The technology, installed in the basement of new student flats, will be tested and evaluated through real-time monitoring. Similar initiatives are being pursued around the country, like the new residential development H+ in Helsingborg and the HSB Living Lab in Gothenburg.

What does this do to the large systems? Not much, at first. But as more or the value is being retained at the bottom of the pyramid – literally in the basement –  less accumulates at the top. There will be less heat to sell for the utility. If the energy saving devices are combined with water saving technology, as in KTH Live-In Lab, there will also be less sales for the water utility. Big deal!

Water is still cheap in most parts of Sweden and few consumers actually bother about the water bill. But customers care about health and reliability, and about sustainability. So they are willing to pay more for services that are not wasting precious resources, or that are percieved to be safer or more reliable. Successful providers must develop their ”value proposition” – as economists call it – to fit with the value preference of customers. This was one of the reasons why the British national water regulator OFWAT opened up for competition of water services within monopolised networks earlier this year. Exactly like what happened in electricity distribution in Sweden earlier !

The UK is different from Sweden, and maybe we will not see a similar development in water. But with water scarcity becoming a real threat in several parts of Sweden, and with threats of emerging pollutants looming, more and more customers might find local circular solutions a real option, and opt out of the large system. In energy research, there is a term for this. The American solar power researcher Wes Herche talks about this in a podcast, as the Utility Death Spiral. More and more customers are turning to increased energy self-reliance through cheaper PV panels. They remain connected to the grid but use less, mainly as backup. They become ”grid-sippers”. This leaves the utilities with fewer customers to carry the huge costs of maintaining the large-scale grid. This further alters the price-performance ratio in favour of small-scale solutions, producing even more grid-sippers. And on it goes, in a downward spiral.

Maybe we are right now seeing the beginning of a bigger change in water services,  driven from below (customers) and from the side (energy). While an imminent Utility Death is unlikely, we should prepare for greater flexibility and less hegemony. Interestingly, small-scale solutions for water and sanitation is seeing a boost in low-income regions, e.g Uganda, Kenya, or India, where we see heterogeneous infrastructure configurations emerging. There is fewer established monopolies there which creates greater flexibility and generates new viable business models. There is probably a lot to learn from these regions in the coming years. But I am saving that for another blogpost.

David Nilsson,

Historian and Engineer, Director of WaterCentre@KTH


Green Infrastructure and Tin Roofs

Slow-down, infiltrate, filter. These are the reassuring mantras at the heart of efforts to emulate the drainage patterns of natural systems and a practical strategy to mitigate the increasingly severe effects of urban flooding. Departing from the traditional hard-surfaced approach of “pave, pipe and pump” this naturalised approach to drainage represents the blue strand in the budding concept of “Green Infrastructure” (GI) which weaves together stormwater management, landscape, ecology, air quality, climate change adaptation, public health and recreation in the urban setting.

All infrastructure development requires significant space and careful planning. Green infrastructure even more so, as water is encouraged to slow, stop, infiltrate and evaporate where it falls. At the same time, the intensity of severe rainfall events is rising in many regions, requiring more space to deal with ever-increasing flows. So what does sustainable drainage and green infrastructure mean in different cities, especially for rapidly growing cities like Nairobi, Kampala or Lagos where the majority of new urban residents will live in low-income, dense and “informal” neighbourhoods where there is little space?

Many cities rightly feted for their achievements in Green Infrastructure – for example Portland, Melbourne, or Stockholm – represent different geographies. But they are also typically wet and temperate, well-resourced, and well-coordinated. Not seldom are they re-generating underutilised spaces when implementing GI approaches (e.g. Hammarby Sjöstad). Other successful strategies make use of new opportunities created by the vacation of previously occupied land (e.g. in legacy cities like Detroit).

Image: Hammarby Sjöstad (Mikael Sjöberg/ Top Image: Kibera rooftops (Joe Mulligan).


Image: Green Infrastructure development in the Cody Rouge area of Detroit (Joe Mulligan)

Green Infrastructure in the East African city: a pipe-dream?

In the rapidly growing cities where we are working in East Africa the catch-all concept of Green Infrastructure could have significant co-benefits, but also faces some knotty challenges. In many cities the public land along natural drainage paths is inhabited by the city’s poorest and most vulnerable (see for example Parikh et al, 2012); residents’ solution to a lack of affordable housing. The density, imperviousness and lack of sanitation services in these settlements create hotspots of flooding and public health risks while leaving little physical or political space to manoeuvre. Divisive planning regulation, sometimes stuck in the colonial era, increasingly intense extreme rainfall events, and the appropriation of green space into dense developments through both “formal” and “informal” processes compound the physical and social problems.

Video: flash flooding after 15 minutes rain in Andolo, Kibera (Pascal Kipkemboi)

A discussion on the potential and constraints of GI in rapidly growing cities is now timely with new investments in the networked and stacked infrastructures of roads, drainage, water and sewerage, as well as more holistic approaches to “slum-upgrading”, being planned in many cities. At the same time there is the risk of locking-in unsustainable practices and long-life infrastructures. In Nairobi, today there is concern that the proposed city-wide Stormwater Masterplan will encourage traditional hard drainage solutions that don’t activate the potential of green and open spaces and that are inflexible to future climate change.

Site, Settlement, Watershed – Networking Green Infrastructure from the Bottom-Up

As major upgrading works take time to plan and implement we also need to think about interim improvements to reduce daily risks for residents. In our work at KDI we have been piloting a number of sustainable drainage techniques in the Kibera neighbourhood of Nairobi at the very local scale. In practical terms, these include GI elements such as planted revetments, bamboo plantation for erosion control, structured detention and infiltration (using soft drink crates instead of expensive “stormblocs”) and rainwater harvesting. Even when harder drainage solutions are the only spatially viable solution, there are opportunities to improve public health, access and safety, and to create green, open and productive public space for social interactions, play and economic activity.

Image: Green Infrastructure and Public Space at the small scale in the Kibera settlement (Joe Mulligan/Pascal Kipkemboi)

At the larger scale Green Infrastructure in dense urban areas implies some unavoidable trade-offs. The question is; can residents and local authorities come together to discuss acceptable levels of risk and negotiate appropriate re-housing while creating space for social and ecological functions? The success of enumeration and participation processes in Kibera run by intermediaries such as Slum Dwellers International and Akiba Mashinani Trust (see Mitra et al, 2017) suggest this could be possible. If layers of local knowledge, scientific understanding of flooding, appropriate re-housing and integrated planning can be combined with green infrastructure as an organising framework, the co-benefits of ecological remediation, climate change adaptation, improved services and local development opportunities could be realised. That’s a lot to factor in, but demonstrating that GI techniques can actually work in dense, urban and low-income areas at the small scale might be a starting point for inserting them into larger discussions.

Image: A conceptual “Rivers and People” plan by KDI in 2016 for the co-development and rehabilitation of the Ngong River in Kibera.


Joe Mulligan, is a civil and environmental engineer and associate director of KDI working on water and drainage strategies in multiple contexts for more than ten years. He is also an industrial PhD student at KTH Division of Strategic Sustainability Studies.

Vera Bukachi is a civil engineer and the senior research coordinator in KDI’s office in Nairobi and is completing a PhD at University College London’s Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience where she has also taught urban drainage and flooding.


The water closet was invented at least 3,000 years ago. Well, not in its present form, of course. But simple flush toilets were used in the early Mediterranean cultures of Crete, and  then adopted by the Romans. Who handed them down to the modern Europeans much later. Isn’t it puzzling that the flush toilet is still considered the pinnacle of sanitation innovation in most parts of the world? Something that everyone  somehow aspires to have. Are there any other examples of technologies that have become stabilised in the same manner? I mean, seriously; after three thousand years, couldn’t we really have come up with something smarter? Stabilised is hardly the term to give justice to the situation; fossilised is probably more fitting.

Roman flush toilets in Ostia

This is just one of the many examples of how we have come to take certain things about water for granted. The ways we use and manage this scarce and vital resource through technology, our practices, values and attitudes have developed over hundreds and thousands of years. Through time, we have established patterns and socio-technical systems, some of which are now increasingly difficult to change. In many cases, we have become blind to our own behaviour, since we have gotten so used to them. The human cognition is triggered by anomalies, not stability, after all. We simply stop registering patterns that remain the same year after year, decade after decade. Now, in a world that is changing fast, politically, economically, demographically and environmentally, we run the risk of not being able to adapt fast enough.

More of the doom-and-gloom, anyone? Actually, that is not what this blog is about. To the contrary; we think this blog is about curiosity. At this very moment in time, there is a need to reflect and rethink water, so as to start imagining other patterns. Other ways of managing, using, thinking and valuing water. What we think is needed is an enlarged space to explore these ‘others’ and to encourage a reflective practice in both academia and in the water professions. And there’s a couple of way of doing that.

One is by breaking up truths about who holds the “privilege of problem formulation ” – as it once was put by Swedish philosopher and author Lars Gustafsson. Let many different voices be heard!

Another is by moving your own frame of reference. If we are – for instance – to study the water and sewerage systems in Sweden from the viewpoint of say Kenya or Uganda, you also start seeing new things. In fact, you’ll note that there might be more innovation activity going on in places like Kampala, Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, than in most Swedish municipalities, when it comes to digital payments and business models, innovative distribution methods, container-based sanitation, nutrient recovery etc. Our own patterns suddenly becomes visible, and you start asking questions around them again. What you can’t see; you can’t change.

Finally, a bit of boldness is required. Stupid ideas are often just stupid. But we must still have the courage to say them out loud. Sometimes they are not stupid at all at closer look. Innovation history is full of examples where new and first-glance ‘stupid’ ideas later revolutionised entire branches. And change can come fast. Ask the managers of FACIT, a world-leading office machine manufacturer who missed the shift from mechanical to electronic calculators and rapidly went out of business…

In this blog we will ask of scientists, practitioners and others, to reflect on what could be done differently when it comes to water, but also what works already. Can we re-think some parts? What could a different future look like? How can we refill our stock of knowledge, practices, values and attitudes for a water-wiser world?

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Dive in!

David Nilsson, Director WaterCentre@KTH

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

David Nilsson, Director of WaterCentre@KTH. Environmental Engineer , and Historian