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Viewpoint – Pouring money down the drain: Can we break the habit by reconceiving wastes as resources?

Michael Bruce Beck
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria; and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College, London, UK; mbrucebeck@gmail.com

Michael Thompson
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria; and Institute for Science Innovation and Society (InSIS), University of Oxford, UK; thompson@iiasa.ac.at

Dipak Gyawali
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria; and Academician (Pragya), Nepal Academy of Science and Technology; dipakgyawali.dg@gmail.com

Simon Langan
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria; langan@iiasa.ac.at

JoAnne Linnerooth-Bayer
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria; bayer@iiasa.ac.at

ABSTRACT: As water-sector professionals re-discover the value in the 'waste' conveyed in 'waste'water, this Viewpoint argues that the theory of plural rationality (also known as Cultural Theory) may accelerate the switch from waste management to resource recovery. Accordingly, it extends the framing of plural rationality, from its traditional applications in matters of governance and social and economic analysis, to the beginnings of a set of plural schools of engineering thought. This sounds controversial. Indeed, we hope it is. For all too often ways to resolve water issues end up in the impasse of two deeply entrenched positions: the 'technocratic reductionism' of the 'quick engineering fix' to problem solving; and the 'participatory holism' of the 'local, socially sensitive, integrationist' approach. Plural rationality sees this is an impoverished duopoly. Our very strong preference is to find ways of promoting the creative interplay among plural (more than two), mutually opposed, contending ways of framing a problem and resolving it. This, we argue, should not only expand the portfolio of possible alternatives for technology-policy interventions, but also lead to the chosen alternative being preferable — in social, economic, and environmental terms — to what might otherwise have happened. Such solutions are called 'clumsy' in plural rationality theory. We use a synopsis of a case history of restoring water quality in the River Rhine in Europe, within a wider account of the sweep of resource recovery spanning two centuries (late 18th Century through early 21st Century), to illustrate how clumsiness works. This, however, does not extend to our elaborating our proposed set of plural schools of engineering thought beyond just its very beginnings. Our Viewpoint allows us merely to start framing the challenge of developing, and eventually applying, such a notion.

KEYWORDS: Circular economy; clumsiness, Cultural Theory, lock-in, nutrient recovery, plural rationality, plural schools of engineering thought, Rhine restoration, technological invention and innovation, urban metabolism