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Dan Lambert's "Perfume of Possibility"

The Perfume of Possibility

"What makes me optimistic? It's a great question and a big question. The 'perfume of possibility' is the way I would describe it. When you're in a room and there's an essence of an atmosphere where people are looking at what's possible and looking at things from a frame of reference of the possible opportunities or the possible ways to change or evolve or create new things. And I think that that perfume of possibility is really very closely tied to hope, and I love being around people that are full of hope."

That's what Dan Lambert told me when I asked him what makes him optimistic.

In this Optimism Cafe, I was joined by Dan Lambert, one of the most interesting thinkers in the water sector and one of the most interesting engineers in Australia. He is recognised by Engineers Australia as one of Australia's most innovative engineers and in 2021 was awarded the highest honour in Australia for civil engineering, the Sir John Holland Award.


Victor Perton:  Dan, what makes you optimistic about the water sector in Australia and the world?

Dan Lambert: "I feel very fortunate to be in the water sector because we have an opportunity to shape the future. And it's been fascinating to watch the sector evolve in recent years to become more customer-centric, more focused on sustainability, and more on our social and environmental impact. And that holistic approach is something that makes me optimistic."

"And the role of different industries, not just operating in isolation but collaborating, is one that excites me. So when we talk about water, very much water helps shape cities; it helps shape our regions. And it also plays an intrinsic role in energy, food, and waste. And we get to partner with many incredible people and organisations to shape the future."

Victor Perton:  May I read you a quote from Singaporean Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam?

Tharman says, "The tipping points are being reached, and the consequences are now accelerating. So we must create bases for optimism to see us through this storm and emerge fitter and stronger. To arrest the fundamental causes of this perfect long storm, we have to innovate and collaborate our way through and understand the basis for optimism that already exist."

And among the tipping points, Tharman referred to water, saying, "Climate itself has its own vicious loop, climate, water and biodiversity. The water crisis and the loss of water from the soils and forests are now denuding their ability to store carbon, for instance, reinforcing the climate crisis."

Now I think Tharman is one of the best thinkers in government anywhere. So how do we in the water sector respond to his challenge to create the basis of optimism and reinforce the bases of optimism?

Dan Lambert:  "That's a great quote, and Tharman's a great thinker.

"Interestingly enough, last year, I took on the role of chair of a group called Carbon8. And they look at regenerative farming and regenerative agriculture, and their whole focus is carbon in soil. And when we think about carbon in soil, it produces so many fantastic outcomes. Not just around the carbon, but soil retains more water, so it has benefits in terms of flooding and erosion. The soil becomes nutrient-rich, which generates better agriculture in terms of the vegetables, fruit, etcetera that are grown.

"So the basis of optimism is, I think, that we increasingly understand the interconnectivity between water, for example, and the food cycle, or water and energy and waste. And how we come together and look for those opportunities for collaboration, like the green hydrogen project at Yarra Valley Water, are ones we can use to inspire each other. And one of the things the water sector does a great job of is sharing knowledge.

"So when a great initiative happens at Yarra Valley Water or Unitywater, where I am or elsewhere in Australia or the world, we share it to try and learn from one another rather than necessarily compete with one another because we all have a collective vision of delivering better outcomes for customers and the environment.

"So that basis for optimism for me is we're already seeing a lot of that collaboration happen in the water sector. So how do we share some of the benefits of that approach with other industries? But also, how do we more effectively partner with other industries to learn and grow and create solutions together?"

Victor Perton:  Dan, you are the Executive Manager of Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions at Unitywater, which delivers water and sanitation services to one of the most beautiful parts of Australia. So would you tell us more about what sustainable infrastructure solutions involves and what change you are seeing and driving?

Dan Lambert:  "When we look at sustainability, we've obviously got a sustainability strategy which we're focusing on, and there's a whole number of aspects to that. But from an environmental perspective, two of the key areas we're looking at are net zero carbon and net zero nutrients into waterways. And net zero carbon's an area that obviously involves looking at renewable energy looking at different approaches to how we operate our system more effectively.

"But the net zero nutrients is an area I'd like to talk a little bit about today, in that I think we were the first water utility to make that commitment, and it's starting to happen elsewhere. But it ties in very closely with how do we protect our waterways? How do we make sure that we have environmental outcomes beyond just carbon? And that biodiversity comment you made earlier, the thrill and joy I get of looking at the whales in the morning, needs to come from looking at our treatment processes and delivering different outcomes.

"And so a sustainable outcome is us not just providing clean water to customers and taking the waste water away, it involves reliable supply, sustainable supply and sustainability in terms of our business model, sustainability in terms of affordability for our customers and sustainability from an environmental context. And it's a fascinating role because it ties in to so many different aspects of engineering and economics and environmental outcomes.

Victor Perton:  And it must inspire your community, school children and teenagers. One of the things we do is sponsor the Nelson Mandela Youth Leadership Summit, and we get these wonderful teenagers and early twenties young people, and they're after making a difference. So if they can be inspired by what you are doing.: What are you seeing in your community in terms of support for that sustainability effort by Unitywater?

Dan Lambert: "Great question. We recently engaged with the community around sustainability, and it's been fascinating to see the evolving support and awareness and engagement around sustainable outcomes. And I think as a society, we are changing very rapidly in terms of the community embracing it, but also, as you touched on there, a generation coming through that is really driven by their values and their purpose in life. And so I think the water sector provides a vehicle for people coming through to really connect with the vision and purpose of Unitywater and other water utilities.

So for us, it's asking how do we articulate that vision and purpose that we have?  And it's also about engaging with the universities, engaging with the schools, raising awareness, and looking for partnerships. We do a lot of work partnering with the University of Sunshine Coast, providing scholarships for students, and providing support in terms of the university courses.

So I think that engaging and partnering and sharing our passion is something that hopefully... In a positive way, our passion and purpose should be infectious and it should be something that people catch and it inspires them whether they end up in the water sector or elsewhere. I think we all have a role to inspire others around us.

Victor Perton: What the world wants is infectiously optimistic leaders like you.  One of the things you do is the International Advisory Committee of the University of New South Wales Global Water Institute. So what does that institute do, and what's your involvement?

Dan Lambert: The Global Water Institute does a lot in terms of leading thinking around policy and research. And as part of the advisory committee, we look for opportunities for partnerships for the institute. We look for opportunities to help frame their thinking about future trends and where we should be investing in terms of the types of ideas and policies and research frameworks we should be developing.

And really helping for them to collaborate with industry. I think sometimes as universities and institutes, we can become quite focused on research funding and engaging with government, but that connectivity with the industry is so important so that we help solve problems in practical ways.

Victor Perton: You recently posted on LinkedIn that lovely phrase, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." And you highlighted the world's largest fog harvester producing water from fog, I think in Morocco. And having lived in San Francisco, I would've liked to produce water from all the fog that was around me then. So what's the innovation and the technology that's exciting you both today and for the future?

Dan Lambert: "There's so many; it's a big question. And I think that there's a lot of exciting innovation happening in the digital space, and how we get more predictive with our networks in terms of failures et cetera, is a really exciting area. But for me it's, what is the next evolution? So yes we're evolving the way we treat wastewater, the way we operate our networks.

"But taking it down to a micro scale and looking at the household level and the precinct level water solutions, I think is a fascinating one. And there's this technology constantly evolving around, how do we create a closed loop water supply for a household scale water network? And how do we harvest water from the air like that fog solution, but on a micro scale? How do we think at a household or a street or a precinct level to reuse water, and what step change and impact is that going to have on our water utilities? And how do we as water utilities evolve and adapt to these big step changes that are coming, is an exciting question"

Victor Perton:  I remember Professor Turton from Cape Town who had to work on the terrible crisis they had where they nearly ran out of water. And he said to me, "The challenge for a country like Australia which is wealthy, lots of renewables, lots of ocean around us, is starting to think of water in abundance rather than water in scarcity." What do you reckon about that provocation?

Dan Lambert: "I like it as a concept because it provides a different frame for us to think about things. We are one of the driest continents on earth, so there are challenges that come with that. But we are surrounded by huge volumes of water. For me it's the question of, yes, there's huge volumes of water potentially from seawater where a lot of our population is near the coast, there are significant volumes of water available from wastewater, and there's obviously the rainfall sources of water as well.

"But for each them, they have different challenges. Rainfall, you've got variability. For wastewater, there's engaging with the public and taking them on a journey of the acceptability of using it for drinking purposes. And for detail, there's the energy challenge of treating it. So continuing to look at all the different sources of water and saying yes there's a lot, but what's the sustainable, responsible, reliable way of delivering outcomes for our communities?"

Victor Perton: "Beautifully put. Now one of the challenges for Australia is, we are in the top 10 world economies and yet we keep thinking of ourselves as small. And oftentimes, foreign affairs refers to us as a middle power. Well, if there are roughly 200 countries and we're in the top 10, I'm not sure why we keep thinking of ourselves in that way.

And you are the Chair of the Expert Review Panel of the Australian Water Partnership, which is I think a really important part of Australia's development aid commitment. So what are some of the projects that are being developed there? And what successes can we claim, for instance, in the Pacific and in Asia?

Dan Lambert: "I love being part of the Australian Water Partnership because of the intent with which it was created. And for context, the Australian Water Partnership receives DFAT funding. And the focus of the work that we do is to take Australian expertise in water management and then help support the development of water solutions, specifically in Asia and the Pacific.

"And when we think about what Australia's doing in the water sector, and we think about leadership, there are some phenomenal things happening in the work we're doing in pumped hydro.  As Australian Water Partnership, we've engaged with Australian partners to look at how that could be applied in the Himalayas and how we can not just apply it but transfer the knowledge. And a lot of it's about capacity building.

"It's not about us going and building things in these countries necessarily. It's really about engaging in partnerships where we can share knowledge and collaborate and look at what are bespoke ways to deliver those solutions. So pumped Hydro is a great example.

"We're looking at a partnership with the Australian Water Association at the moment and building on some of the work that's already been done with them, twinning with water utilities in Asia and the Pacific, and developing outcomes at a utility level and a national level around building maturity, capacity capability and helping them solve challenges. Because water is a massive problem.

"Well, water is a massive opportunity, Victor, and I think that that opportunity is one that Australia is incredibly well placed to help solve."

Victor Perton: "Spot on.  I travelled in Central Asia,  Ukbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. They had a Soviet legacy of over-irrigation and bad agriculture practices that denuded the countries of water.  For solutions and expertise, they thought of Australia.

We've got a natural leadership, and there's a stereotype of us, and I think you exemplify it, of being relentless optimists. 

Just keep going. That old Australian expression, "She'll be right, mate" says, "Yeah, leave me to it, and I'll get it done."

"You go beyond that because I think you are one of the most consummate partnership makers, and collaboration and partnership are key.

So Dan, to the Optimism Cafe, and to our colleagues in the water sector in the world, what's your concluding message on optimism, water and the future?

Dan Lambert: "Well, in terms of optimism one of the sayings that I love and tend to really focus on in life is carpe diem. And many of you will have seen the Dead Poet Society movie and Robin Williams and "Seize the Day."

"And I think that how do we wake up each morning and frame our mindset to, what's possible?

"And we could all wake up with different moods and different mindsets about getting out of bed and what we're going to do, and those things. And one of the things that I'd encourage everyone to do is start the day reflecting on what you can be thankful for. And what's that perfume of possibility of what you could help create and shape, and who you can do it with.

"Because I think that partnerships conversation, life's about relationships, and it's about people and learning from each other and coming together to create incredible things. And my advice is carpe diem, do it with others, and have fun on the journey of helping solve society's challenges."

Victor Perton:  I was reading recently, Steven King the horror writer, every morning before he gets up he does what you advocate. He spends five minutes meditating on what he's grateful for before he goes out and scares us all to death.  And Bill George the Head of Leadership at Harvard, when I interviewed him on Australian leadership and I said, "What makes you optimistic?" He said, "Being surrounded by positive people." And I think Dan, it sounds like you've got the Bill George solution. Surround yourself with positive people and being an infectiously optimistic leader yourself. Thank you so much for your generosity and your time today in our Optimism Cafe.

Dan Lambert:  Thanks Victor, its great to be with you. I'm really inspired by what you're doing and look forward to continuing to stay connected.



Worth Doing: Our 5-Minute Survey on "What makes you Optimistic?"



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