More and more people agree that current systems of water, energy and food provision are on an unsustainable course. Policy and decision makers are concerned that overuse of land, high levels of emissions, increasing inequality, unhealthy diets, more frequent extreme weather events and other challenges, threaten food, energy and water availability and security and place pressure on the economy. Moreover, with targets to cut carbon emissions and climate change impacts elevating uncertainty over how resilient our food, water and energy systems are, stakeholders from industry, government, and civil society, are looking for support and help to make 'good' decisions.
Typically, options for solving problems facing the food, water or energy sectors are assessed in isolation; e.g. exploring how to meet energy needs, whilst overlooking the implications for water use, or setting targets to change land-use, ignoring knock-on impacts for agriculture, water and energy. This 'siloed' mindset is unable to grasp interconnections between these systems, or explore the benefits or trade-offs apparent when exploring one or another issue. Whilst governance structures struggle to take more of a rounded, systems view, there exist real examples in the UK of low impact across water, food and energy systems - at the 'nexus' of Water-Energy-Food (WEF). These examples can be found operating at many scales - from household, community or small business, up to local authorities, catchment areas or large corporations. Although there are important technical reasons why any particular example succeeds, there are many other things that are important for innovation. It could be an unusual system for buying something, such as online marketplaces like the Gleaning Network, that offers farmers and consumers a way of bypassing conventional food supply networks. It could also be because of an inspirational leader or team of committed people.
Understanding what makes innovations have low-impact at the WEF nexus is the first aim of our project. The second is to find out if it is possible to reproduce the conditions for a low-impact WEF nexus at a larger scale, replicate them in other situations, or proliferate them more widely at a smaller scale. Amplifying or multiplying 'good practice' in this way is believed to have the potential to deliver a step-change in terms of impact and resource use. We will also dig deeper into the power structures, behaviours and other important components of governance that can lead to a transformation.
To achieve our aims, we bring together a team with expertise across water, food and energy with physical science, engineering and social science backgrounds. This team will build models of a few case studies that have achieved low-impact across the WEF nexus. These models will not only capture physical attributes such as the source of electricity or food supply chain, but also be able to model how governance, power and behaviour have influence. By considering what might change over time - e.g. rainfall - the model will not only test if an innovation can operate at another scale, but also if it works under changing conditions. The data gathered will involve building solid relationships with stakeholders involved with our case studies, as well as a wider set of policy and decision makers. These stakeholders will be involved directly in the research through workshops and interviews. They will also have an opportunity to work with researchers to build a tool that uses both the findings from the modelling exercise and stakeholder views, to provide assistance with strategic decision making of relevance at different scales. The research will deliver a package of robust numerical and descriptive insights alongside a formal decision support tool and findings will be shared widely with academic as well as government, industry and civil society audiences.