Why aren't clean drinking water fountains as accessible as throw away plastic bottles?

Sensemaking / Why aren't clean drinking water fountains as accessible as throw away plastic bottles?

Fiona Dowson, top signal spotter of November 2017 questions the status quo on bottled water, and shares what drives her as top signal spotter.

By Fiona Dowson / 28 Nov 2017

Signals of change are new ideas or innovations that could change the game for sustainability in the future. Use the Futures Centre as your space to keep track of what's new to find opportunities for a sustainable future.


1) Fiona, please tell us a bit about who you are.

I often describe myself as a sustainability geek. I decided aged fifteen that I wanted to work in sustainability - although my school careers advisor had no clue what that meant which led to comic 'work experience' episodes checking environment health conformity of local takeaways and shadowing a pest control officer! Around 25 years later, after working in public, private, and non-profit sectors (including 10 years with Forum for the Future), I’m still passionate about creating significant change in society and business. I’m pleased, and a bit relieved, to see growing signs that business, government and society are (finally!) waking up to the benefits of sustainable development…but I know that we’re not home and dry yet.

I live in London with my young family - definitely one of my motivations for seeking out signs that a brighter future is possible.

I know a lot of people with children who feel quite anxious about what type of future their children will grow up into. If positive signals of change, like some on the Futures Centre, were more widely known about, they might feel more hopeful.

The 'future' unfortunately, gets a bad rep in mainstream media making it hard to see through the doom and gloom to a better future!


2) How did you first start spotting signals?

Aside from a bad habit spotting innovative new designs of recycling bins whilst on holiday in mainland Europe whilst running recycling collections for part of London early in my career…I first started horizon scanning research and signal spotting whilst working on strategy projects for both public sector and business at Forum. 

I’ve seen first-hand many times how even one or two signals can fire people up, bringing quite dry data about future trends to life, and helping people realise the future might be more different and change might happen more quickly than they had previously thought.


3) Do you scan for a specific area?

I keep a keen eye on the food and agricultural sector as my family is in farming and creating a sustainable food system has been the focus of my work for the last 5 or 6 years. I also find this field fascinating because farming and the land-based economy is so critical to society's future prosperity. It’s the key to maintaining a stable climate and the source of all our future needs…food, fuel, fibre, fresh air…flipping everything! If you start joining the dots between individual signals it’s clear there’s a huge surge of interest in bio-based resources across multiple-sectors but there has been much less analysis of implications of combined demand.

I also look for signals in circular economy, particularly the bio-economy aspect of it and new ways to get more from less.

And the other area on my radar is sustainable sourcing and supply transformation. I’m particularly looking at traceability solutions right now with the cotton industry and am also tracking signals of evolving attitudes to product sustainability certification - perhaps not so exciting as the latest technological innovations, but in my view structures and systems for creating change are just as important.


4) Why did you feel that “Pret trials in-store filtered water refills to phase out plastic bottles” was a signal of change?

Pret trials in-store filtered water refills to phase out plastic bottles

Pret is offering filtered water in an in-store trial. It might not seem like a big thing until you remember that Pret makes money mainly from selling bottled water. What the press release doesn't mention is the difficult "business case" discussions they no doubt had before this got a green light.

If you step back and look at the bigger picture, you might spot that we’ve designed our public spaces around disposable items. Every high street (or every street!) is served by a vast network of litter bins, regularly emptied and maintained by (or on behalf of) local authorities or venue managers. And alongside this, selling products in single-use plastic items (and other items of packaging) is a dominant business model - huge numbers of businesses make money from selling bottled water, and fulfilling our other refreshment demands.

We need to find a way to flip our expectations of what things we have on-tap (excuse the pun!) whilst we’re on-the-go. Why shouldn’t we have as many opportunities to get clean drinking water as we do to throw away plastic?

Pret's trial, and the trial by Coca-Cola of a new refill machine at Reading University, are pushing boundaries and if successful could help to change our expectations.

I’d love to see a publicly funded, clean, well-maintained water fountain on every high street to rival our litter bin network but, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely to materialise any time soon so welcome business efforts in this area. There are also potential benefits to brands popularising refill options, making them seem ‘normal’ or desirable, so it's good to see their willingness to trial new approaches, in the face of a potential conflict with their current business models. I think early business movers will reap rewards if they play their cards right.


5) What are your hopes for the future?

I hope that the momentum for sustainable development continues.  So much energy is being directed at it right now that I’m hopeful that things will be very different in the future and we’ll be able to create a good quality of life for a growing population. My daughter said to me the other day “I won’t need to learn to drive because the cars will all drive themselves when I’m grown up”. She may well be right…and I hope a lot of other things are different too. I really, really, really hope that future trends I’ve included in many a strategy workshop - such as 'global water supply to outstrip demand by 40% in 2030' - don’t come true. I can’t bare to imagine the world in which this becomes a reality just as my children are reaching adulthood - a time that should be full of hope for every generation. 



Thank you Fiona for sharing your drive for a better world and brining the significance of signal scanning to life. See more of what Fiona has spotted and written on her dashboard here.

// Become a signal spotter like Fiona. Submit your first here.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

Enjoyed getting to know Fiona! There's a TapIt water app maintained in the Washington, DC metro area that allows users to fill up their own containers with tap water. Hundreds of businesses participate. Here's a link: https://freetapwater.wordpress.com/

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