Henk Ovink on Disaster Preparedness, Water Infrastructure, and Inclusive Leadership

Henk Ovink speaking at a recent Bioneers Conference

Henk Ovink has built his career on water. A Netherlands native, he’s lived his life in areas surrounded by water, in a country that has collaboratively created water infrastructure suited for weathering natural disasters. The Dutch have nearly a millennia of experience working with water, having managed to create a collaborative system of local governance which has allowed a coastal country with so much land below sea level to continue to thrive. In recent years, the Dutch have upped the ante by actively working with nature to build even more resilience into their legendary flood control systems. The resulting effort lead to an ingenious, flexible and adaptive approach incorporating risk management, collaborative decision making along with cutting edge spatial planning and hydrology research. A culture with legendary engineering prowess has taken the inevitable next step, combining grey and green infrastructure into a flood risk management system that leverages humility in the face of natural disaster to bring out the best in human ingenuity and resilience.

As Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Netherlands, Ovink advocates for disaster preparedness and water awareness worldwide, emphasizing the necessity of inclusive leadership to drive results. Ovink’s work is increasingly important, as global climate change’s effects are being felt most strongly in relation to water. In fact, 90 percent of all global natural disasters are water related. According to Ovink:

  • By 2050, the number of people vulnerable to flood disasters is expected to reach 2 billion.
  • Climate change could force another 1.8 billion people to live in a water-scarce environment by 2080.

The disastrous flooding in Houston resulting from Hurricane Harvey is yet one more reminder of the necessity of disaster preparedness along with forward-thinking, resilient and flexible water infrastructure as our planet’s weather patterns become less predictable and more extreme. Below, watch a video of Ovink speaking at Bioneers 2015 about how collaboration can help solve such enormous challenges, and read an excerpt of his presentation.

Henk Ovink:

This is a map of the Netherlands in the 1500s, and if you would make a business case here — a benefit-cost analysis — we all would have lived in Germany by then, but we didn’t. We decided to work together on this great place on Earth, building new land out of water. Almost half of it is newly created lands by man, and it was not an engineering or a design thing, it was a collective approach. A collective approach that started in the 1100s, before we were a kingdom. Before we were a country, we started to collaborate.

Responding after floods in the 1400s, the Netherlands made new lands, creating over 22,000 kilometers of dams and dikes, using our river system for our economics, for the building of our cities, and we transformed our institutional world in such a way that water is part of the constitution.

The Netherlands responded to the 1916 flood and the 1953 flood with big infrastructure but also a collaborative program and progress, that was not so much about just building infrastructure, but marrying that investment in infrastructure with environmental, ecological and as social issues. So infrastructure doesn’t just build you concrete structures, it can actually make a better community and a better environment — if you are willing and able to do it right.

We started by building with nature, making more room for the water instead of less, opening up dams and dikes. That’s a problem because people have to get out of the way of that water, and how do you do that? When you talk to a farmer that’s been living there for generations, and you actually say, “We need your land because it’s good for the country.” That all starts again with collaboration.

Room for the River is a project that’s now been implemented. This is one part, the “Overdiepse Polder,” where all these farmers had to leave because we needed the land for water storage. But we changed the whole program by working together with those farmers, the families, our Army Corps of Engineers, our engineers and designers. They came up with a new model for farmers — farm buildings on high parcels of land so the farmers could stay. The cattle could stay. And they live now with water. It took 10 years.

We built our country out of water, in our cities, and we used that approach to institutionalize something that is actually very cultural. But how can we create that culture, this transformative approach when it comes to water, in other places in the world? How can we bring Room for the River to Bangladesh? How can we bring it Indonesia? To Egypt? To New York, for instance, Myanmar, Mozambique, Poland, Vietnam, Colombia, or perhaps even San Francisco?

My task as an envoy is to create alliances all over the world, in the developing world as much as in the developed world, to strengthen a collaboration that is dedicated to increasing water resiliency.

Can you bring that culture to New York, in a country where the federal response to disasters is not only growing but is only focused on repair investments? Can you add that added value to the approach the taskforce is leading?

We needed a trick … a bypass out of this institutional gridlock. I developed Rebuild by Design, a competition that was aimed at innovation and increasing resiliency in the region. There were several ingredients for Rebuild by Design. First, I needed a safe place — a place where it was not about negotiation but about collaboration. Most of the time collaborations end up in a mess because everybody wants to get the best for themselves. Changing the perspective from negotiation to collaboration demands a safe place.

It also demands a detour … a sidestep out of the institutional gridlock we’re in. Not aligned with current policy or regulations, because they will always fail. If you want to focus on something new that actually has transformative capacity, don’t care about rules and regulations. Create a place where you actually institutionalize that not caring, by working together and being very transparent.

Never blame our politicians for being they’re short-sighted. It’s tough, I know. But we elect them only for a short period of time, remember? Two years or four years. So what are you supposed to do if you only have four years to deliver something? You promised your voters that you were going to deliver something. No. That promise is actually a burden on us professionals to work with them and inform them about the facts of yesterday, the facts of today and the opportunities and possibilities of tomorrow. If we — as professionals — can inform our politicians and policymakers from this broad scope, they will become better decision makers. But if we blame them for short-sightedness, we will actually widen the gap.

Use design, innovations, creativity. A normal approach would focus on the technical, solving the problem with engineering. An engineer has a solution before the problem exists. A designer has a question before there is actually a problem. So the designer focuses on the process and the opportunities that are way beyond the actual approach. You have to create this mix, where the technical parts becomes opportunistic.

At the same time, add ambition. Two degrees, we say: Two degrees is too much. We know that when it comes to climate change. Add the ambition for transformative capacity.

And forget about superheroes. They don’t exist. It’s all about the talent of the world meeting the talent of these regions in these places, and there is no distinction between those talents. Everyone’s at the same table with the same position, otherwise these processes will fail.

Collaboration and inclusive leadership are at the heart, and we know it. For me, inclusive leadership meant the door was always open. You were never too late. And it didn’t matter if you came a month after we started or two months, you could always join and become part of that family. Because the rules had to be redrafted everyday. You have to be flexible and adaptive, especially when it comes to collaboration.

We started the Rebuild by Design competition by not asking for solutions but for talent. We reached out to the world and got 148 teams — interdisciplinary teams that existed of engineers and designers, but also social scientists, ecologists, environmentalists, former politicians, policy makers. We selected 10 teams: 250 professionals. They embarked on an inclusive approach where we met with over 500 organizations, more than 3,500 people and months of research, trying to find out what the interdependencies, vulnerabilities and opportunities of the region were. After that research, they came with opportunities — the hot spots of the region — to really bring change.

We selected 10 of those 40+ opportunities and rather than starting to build designs and projects and solutions, we started to build coalitions. These design teams became coalition makers. They became the matchmakers between the communities, the businesses, the government, the insurers and the investors in those places, and those coalitions in the end delivered solutions that are implemented when they’re good.

Out of the ten, we selected six. It was a regional approach connected with all people in that region, supported by philanthropic organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation and JPB; by partners like New York University, the Municipal Art Society, the Regional Plan Association, and the Van Alen Institute; by 500 other community organizations like Occupy Sandy; the good old lower east side and the mayor of Hoboken. This collective force in the Sandy region created 10 approaches, reaching across all these disciplines, connecting the politics of the big guys with the needs of every community in the region. They did it by design, and that design, in the end, delivered 10 projects. We selected six, allocated almost a billion dollars, and they’re now into implementation.

Rebuild by Design started with leadership, was embedded by collaboration and innovation, saw ownership on all level by design, and inspired the federal government to ask me to develop a National Disaster Resiliency Competition. Rebuild by Design was not a plan. It was a process. It was dedicated to changing culture.

We have to think ahead, because we can’t stop at thinking only about our own communities. This is not about 2018 or 2019. This is about a century ahead. We have to use this approach that is transformative, that changed the hearts and minds of these people, that helped these people as well as your neighbors in Los Angeles to get to a global water approach. It is not about making a plan, but really about changing culture, not only in your backyards but across the world.