Exploring Resilient Water Futures with a SPACE10 + TU Delft Residency
Photo — Olivia Lifungula
Written by Linsey Rendell
Water is essential for all life on our planet. But as our cities grow and their water demands increase, water infrastructure in many parts of the world falls under enormous pressure. Partnering with TU Delft, we invited six designers to explore visions for resilient water futures.
Water resilience is a global challenge. Demand has already outpaced population growth, with urban water demand set to increase by 80 percent by 2050. But most cities are not water-resilient, generating competition and putting pressure on surrounding regions — so much so that half the world’s population is already experiencing severe water scarcity at least one month a year. In short, our progress on Sustainable Development Goal 6 is precariously off track.
‘We know water scarcity is a problem, but it can sometimes be hard to grasp, or know how to tackle it,’ says design producer Elsa Dagný Ásgeirsdóttir.
Guiding the residents through a two-month remote residency was our knowledge partner, TU Delft, and mentors Dr Doris van Halem, scientific director of the university’s Water for Impact program, Damienmarc Ford and Didier de Villiers from TU Delft’s African Water Corridor program, SPACE10’s head of creative Mitsuko Sato, design consultant, curator and writer Jane Withers, and Francesca O’Hanlon, founder and CEO of Blue Tap. At SPACE10, our projects often take an interdisciplinary approach, and our aim with this project was to reframe the water crisis by matching academics and engineers with designers.
‘Engineering has become quite set in its ways. The robustness of the field is incredibly important. But the downside is, it doesn’t leave room for the kind of freedom and creativity that might be necessary to solve complicated problems. And I think that is something that could come externally — for example, by the creatives in this residency.’
Dr Doris van Halem
Scientific Director, Water for Impact, TU Delft
Historically, cities were built around pre-existing water sources. But as our cities have sprawled and swelled, natural resources and water infrastructure have come under increasing strain. The climate crisis is making droughts and uneven rainfall more likely. As a result, many cities are facing the possibility that a moment comes when taps are turned off.
Historically, it was common for cities to rely on only one or two water sources. Switching to an alternative water source is complicated: it requires different technologies, but also a different mindset. As a result, today they are not water-resilient.
Another problem is siloed thinking. Drinking water, wastewater, sanitation, and water resources management are often governed and financed through different government departments. ‘If you look at the water sectors, they’re all separated — and they hardly talk to each other. But obviously, all water is linked. It’s not one-dimensional,’ says Dr van Halem.
We wanted to explore how to make cities more water-resilient — whether through researching alternative water sources or re-thinking existing systems.
To understand water pressures cities face today, and explore possible solutions of tomorrow, we’ve honed in on three cities — Hong Kong, Mexico City, and London. We recognise there is no single solution, but there is potential to learn from one another as we tackle water challenges from plural and localised perspectives. Here is what we have learned.
Hong Kong: Made With Rain
When designers Andrea Li and Michelle Lim looked into Andrea’s native Hong Kong, they discovered 46 percent of the city’s water is used by industry and services. ‘Optimising water use in industry is really a hot topic. It’s good for the industry itself, but it also reduces competition between industry and households. By having more efficient use of water in industry, it means there’s more water available for households,’ says Dr van Halem.
In Hong Kong, it rains a lot. And yet the island city directs 90 percent of its annual rainfall through the storm drain system, and imports 80 percent of its water from its neighbouring mainland area. ‘People have water coming out of the tap so they don’t think about it too much, but in the climate crisis we must re-evaluate our relationship with water,’ says Andrea.
What if water-intensive industries in Hong Kong could replace their water use with rain?
Beverage production is particularly water-intensive: it takes 168 litres of water to produce one pint of beer and 36 litres to produce one small box of lemon tea. Lemon tea is synonymous with Hong Kong’s local cafe culture and identity. So the team envisioned a rain collection system that blends into Hong Kong’s mostly flat rooftops and is used to make boxed lemon tea. ‘It was important to us that we celebrate Hong Kong’s architectural details and unique signage,’ Michelle says.
‘We imagine a future where industries value rainwater as a precious resource and people seek out products and services that are made with rain.’
Mexico City: Äkua
Mexico City’s water crisis is multifaceted. The city is sinking, it floods regularly, there’s contaminated tap water, failing infrastructure, and the city’s wastewater flows untreated into the neighbouring valley. Nearly 20 percent of residents don’t have reliable access to drinkable water. In wading through this complexity, Kelsey Bair and Itamar Lilienthal’s exploration went through several evolutions. ‘We really wanted to resolve the big, city-wide issue: that when it rains, it pours, and then it floods. Yet with all that water, people are still thirsty,’ says Itamar.
Mexico City was once the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán — a floating island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, crisscrossed with a system of dams, reservoirs, tunnels, and rivers designed to control salinity and manage seasonal flooding. After the Spanish invasion, the settlers drained the lake and built on top, concreting over the porous volcanic soil that helped absorb excess water. Today, the city faces a paradox — too much contaminated flood water and too little drinkable water. It’s a complex ecosystem in need of decolonising.
‘Locally, there’s a tendency to seek solutions from other parts of the world. So we talked with people who are experiencing this reality firsthand, with the hope it would lead us to a genuinely local response,’ says Kelsey.
While researching low-tech water filtration methods, the team found the answer was right in front of them: nopal (prickly pear cactus), a traditional and plentiful source of food that grows symbiotically with tezontle (lava rock) all over Mexico City — so culturally significant they appear in the Mendoza Codex and on the flag of Mexico.
What if Mexico City embraced vernacular biomaterials to filter water?
Research has shown nopal can clean contaminated water 300 times more efficiently than aluminium sulfate, a commonly used filtration agent. Tezontle’s mineral structure acts like a sponge, trapping pathogens. Together, they could provide accessible water filtration for households or neighbourhoods.
‘The piece can be made entirely within the city. We see it as a way to give power back to the people and inspire connection to Mexico City’s extraordinary lake ancestry,’ says Itamar.
Access to clean water is an issue that affects people around the world — meaning that water filters can make a big difference to everyday life at home.
London: Pipe Anatomy
London’s once-revolutionary water supply system is now outdated in its rigidity and inability to move with the city. The Victorian-era infrastructure was built to serve a population of four million — not today’s 8.7 million, or the additional two million expected by 2050. The old pipes buckle and break with ground movement and pressure, while seasonal temperature changes expand and compress joints, causing them to burst.
During their research, Elissa Brunato and Christoph Dichmann learned that one-quarter of water leaks from the crumbling infrastructure before it even reaches people’s homes. Coming from drought-stricken Australia, Elissa was shocked at the waste. ‘This place, known for grey skies and rain, is literally wasting clean water,’ she says.
Each week, on average 1,300 pipes are repaired — a costly process that involves manually locating leaks and digging up the roads. Around 600 million litres of drinkable water is lost per day — that’s enough to meet the needs of 20 million people.
What if London’s water pipes could mimic nature’s self-sustaining systems?
‘Rather than thinking about pipes as static 3D objects, we are suggesting the use of intelligent materials that can respond and react to the surrounding environmental pressures over time,’ says Elissa.
They envision pipes whose design embeds the fourth dimension — time — to counteract deterioration and allow pipes to better cope with the dynamic environment of the city. ‘When we consider time, we require new materiality. So we’ve visually explored what this might look like — to prompt a mindset shift, and challenge engineers and construction experts to rethink the properties of pipes,’ says Christoph.
‘Water losses through leakage are a huge problem,’ Dr van Halem agrees. ‘The organic, flexible pipe network inspires us to re-think the rigid and conventional water distribution network we rely on today.’
Radically collaborative ideas
Water resilience is set to be one of the biggest challenges humanity faces in the coming decades. Currently, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water — and rapid urbanisation and the unfolding climate crisis will add to water stresses globally.
‘Everything we do in life costs water. Cities need to be adaptive to be water-resilient,’ says Dr Doris van Halem. ‘And resilience is also about flexibility — recognising opportunities, and daring to try them instead of doing the same thing that was always done.’
For us at SPACE10, this residency has highlighted the complexity of water issues in cities. We have learned we have a long way to go towards valuing water. But we have also learned that we can design meaningful, imaginative solutions when we engage in an open and collaborative dialogue between designers, experts, industry and citizens. We hope these visions might inspire more resilient water futures.
What we have learned
- Water issues affect everyone — as long as the tap is running, we don’t think about it. But even very rainy cities experience water shortages, insecurity, and infrastructure problems.
- City infrastructure needs to be updated. We can design short-term solutions, but the reality is that our water systems need to be dramatically reimagined for long-term resilience.
- Find solutions through the lens of design. Play and creativity can break through complex issues and siloed thinking. Water is too important to be left to governments and engineers to solve.
- Think local to solve global. In order to address the global water crisis, we should first look inward and around us. Small details can make a big systemic difference.
- And look back to find a way forward. To envisage resilient water futures, we need to embrace local and Indigenous knowledge. Looking at historical and present systems, both natural and human, can help us find courageous, interdependent pathways forward.
Andrea Li and Michelle Lim are graphic and interaction designers based in London. Together they established liim Studio — an experiential design studio exploring participatory experiences that bring people together.
Itamar Lilienthal and Kelsey Bair form the circular research and design house Casa Tamarindo. Working across the San Diego-Tijuana border region, they explore how art can be used to create bridges between culture and sustainability.
Christoph Dichmann and Elissa Brunato are a design duo based in London. Their joint practice, AusBlau Studio, leads playful investigations into materiality, ecosystems and the human experience.
Dr Doris van Halem is Associate Professor in the field of drinking water treatment at Delft University of Technology and scientific director of Water for Impact, where she leads drinking water research with and in the Global South.