Complexity Approach to: Water Systems

View Paper


Water is a religious ritual and entertainment, medicine and nourishment, energy and industry, conflict and social unrest, it crosses all borders between ecosystem, industry, economy and society. While water is an incredibly simple molecule, it is also an incredibly complex system in the particular role that it plays within almost every major biological and industrial process on the planet. It is the most essential infrastructure to our economies, when regions have fresh water, their economy tends to improve dramatically. Agriculture flourishes, better health care can be provided at hospitals and clinics, more jobs are produced and the level of poverty typically diminishes greatly.

Water Systems

The OECD defines a water supply system as such: A water supply system is a system for the collection, transmission, treatment, storage and distribution of water from source to consumers. All existing water supply systems are built on top of preexisting natural hydrologic cycles. Water supply systems are thus a form of socio-ecological system composed of both ecological components and engineered components, the two networks overlap, interact and are interdependent throughout the water cycle.
Water systems are invariably complex systems in that they consist of many interacting and interdependent variables on many different levels. From various ecological components, including climatic, geological and biological elements, to technology in the form of pumps, pipe networks, dams to socio-economic elements such as various businesses, manufacturers, markets, regulations and end-users.

At the beginning of the 21st century water is again becoming a central issue, as a number of different factors come together to create what is often called the water crisis. The World Economic Forum, ranked water crises as the top global risk to industry and society over the next decade. Climate change, increasing water scarcity, population growth, demographic changes, urbanization, pollution and ecosystem degradation all pose major challenges for water supply systems around the globe. As a result a recent comprehensive study by McKinsey & Company predicts that, on current trajectories, and even allowing for efficiency gains and excluding the impacts of climate change, in 15 years the world will demand 40% more water than we can sustainably supply.


To meet these challenges water systems will need to transform along a number of dimensions to build in a whole new set of capabilities. The basic architecture to what is currently a centralized linear system with top down management will evolve into a more distributed nonlinear form, and we already see this happening, distributed water systems are on the rise. We see an increased focus on nonlinear cyclical processes for recycling water, a move towards quality and access over volume. Added to this in the coming decades we will see the rollout of smart water networks as water systems become more responsive, adaptive and dynamic. In the paper we trace five main shifts that we see happening, from supply focus to utilization focus, from a centralized to a distributed structure, from linear to nonlinear, from volume to access and from static inert systems to becoming more dynamic.


Before anything, solutions to the challenge of water will require a recalibration of how we contextualized the issue. The water crisis is not a crisis of scarcity, it is a crisis of management. There is clearly no shortage of water on this planet, what there is a shortage of is effective systems of organization for managing the provision of that water. In our paper, we present a set of solutions built upon the framework of integrated water management, that brings together a number of new ideas to the management of water such as distributed water systems, fit-for-purpose usage, water as-a-service and agile water systems.

Dig Deeper

Download our full report wherein we trace the industry’s history, current development and major vectors of change as we try to meet the water crisis and move into a new paradigm in water management.

Download PDF