Social innovations for delivering Blue and Green Infrastructure: connecting multiple benefits, multiple stakeholders, and multiple disciplines

Policy Brief from the Interreg North Sea Region BEGIN project

Dr. Jannes Willems, Prof. Richard Ashley, Dr. William Veerbeek, Dr. Sebastiaan van Herk & Ellen Kelder (July 2020)

RECOMMENDATION 3: Stimulate multi-departmental and multi-stakeholder collaborations for BGI delivery

The Challenge: A risk-averse culture in urban water management

In an increasingly complex society, where climate change is only one of the many challenges faced in cities, there is a shift from problem-centred thinking to ‘opportunity-centred’ thinking13. Integrated multi-functional approaches are gradually becoming the new standard for service and infrastructure provision all over Europe, delivering many benefits simultaneously, e.g. safe and attractive city spaces at the same time as alleviating urban heat. The demonstrated multiple benefits provided by BGI in BEGIN support this trend. This means that solely relying on technical engineering expertise does not suffice anymore.

The field of urban water management has historically been highly-specialised primarily the responsibility of a mono-culture of water engineers, focused on ‘solving problems’14. This culture is known for its risk-aversion, for example by relying on well-established techniques used largely unchanged since the invention of underground drainage and sewers. The need to maintain public health and safety continues to encourage this approach, especially because of the fear of litigation after making mistakes. Tradition means that being the ‘technical expert’ can be used as a reason to consult with communities only in a rather limited way and to avoid innovations that appear risky.

The strong engineering-driven problem solving mono-culture may need to be challenged to ensure the appropriate incorporation of the wider contexts, behaviours and interdisciplinary approach essential for effective BGI delivery. For example, BGI use is dependent on land use planning and both land use planners and landscape/urban designers have the key role in what type of BGI is feasible and desirable in a particular context, albeit informed by the technical analysis provided by the engineer.

The social innovation: Reform technical urban water management departments

The BEGIN-project has identified three directions required for ensuring the essential interdisciplinarity in the approach to urban water management. The first entails the appointment of internal champions in the organisation that cross departmental and administrative boundaries. These individuals typically have a rich social network and can easily bridge boundaries between organisations, viewpoints, and interests. BEGIN demonstrates that BGI projects need to be led by urban planning and design departments, because of the spatial and land use requirements of BGI. As such, planners can link the different disciplines involved in the delivery of BGI, in which urban drainage is only one component of a BGI-project.

The second direction is the creation of planned spaces for experimentation, also referred to as pilots, living labs or testbeds. This can foster cross-departmental working, to which the different departments can contribute. Creating a distinct organisational unit, in which unhelpful organisational structures and responsibilities are suspended, is a way to experiment with new ways of working and with bringing different disciplines together. Pilots can work towards tangible outcomes (a BGI-solution), which can be used as prototypes. This prototyping highlights the learning-by-doing element of pilots. Moreover, pilots can help in shared meaning-making (aligning interests and viewpoints) and, thus, also in building coalitions that help deliver the BGI. BEGIN demonstrates that external facilitation in these pilots (provided by teams or organisations dedicated to innovation) is often required to break through the traditional practices that can stifle innovation.

A third direction is becoming part of capacity building networks that help in exchanging experiences and lessons learned. BEGIN has used city2city-learning, which have built on the inspiration of Learning & Action Alliances as defined in the previous Interreg North Sea project MARE, and as now being used routinely for BGI planning and delivery15.

Evidence from the BEGIN cases

The appointment of internal champions


Blue-Green department


Department of Place

Capacity building networks


Stronger positioning of BGI due to interdepartmental cooperation

Planned experimentation spaces


Antwerp’s CityLab Sint-Anneke Plage

Let’s start a conversation

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