Winning the locals’ backing: Redevelop a sewage treatment plant through a human-centred approach
Happy Schooling—an Impossible Task?
As the world becomes more affluent, intensified economic activities have also brought along various types of environmental issues, affecting our living environments. Therefore, how to tackle pollutions properly and use our natural resources sustainably is something that tops the agenda of governments around the world. Sourcing the right sites for building large-scale waste treatment facilities is one of the biggest challenges, let alone coming up with a proposal that can meet the needs of the local communities while gaining the public’s support.
In the past 20 years, Hong Kong itself has explored various proposals ranging from building incinerators to landfill site expansions to tackle the problems but they are often stalled by objections from different stakeholders. When the Drainage Services Department (DSD) consulted the public on the redevelopment project for the Shek Wu Hui effluent polishing plant in Sheung Shui in 2015, they encountered the same situation. To overcome the challenge, DSD initiated a collaboration with Good Lab, a social innovation organisation, in 2017 to change the traditional way of public consultation through design thinking and rework the redevelopment plan, which eventually won the support from the local community, green groups and other stakeholders with its innovative and human-centred spirit.
Listen to the community with a demand-driven approach
Located in Shek Wu Hui, Sheung Shui, the 9.4-hectare effluent polishing plant is a secondary sewage treatment plant commissioned into service in 1984. It uses the conventional activated-sludge process that filters pollutants with biological tanks and sedimentation tanks, treating 93,000m3 of sewage produced by the residents in Sheung Shui and Fanling daily.
In 2015, DSD projected that the pre-existing facilities would eventually not be able to meet the future demand driven by the growing population in the northeast New Territories, so it planned to expand the plant area by 2.5 hectares, upgrade it to a tertiary sewage treatment plant and introduce the new MBR and MBBR technologies that would enhance its daily sewage treatment capacity to 190,000m3.
However, when DSD consulted the public on the redevelopment project, it was strongly opposed by the community. They worried that the expanded effluent polishing plant would further undermine the local environment, which already hosts several inferior facilities including the current sewage treatment plant and a slaughterhouse. “We revised our plan based on the views and concerns expressed by the residents, but still, it still failed to win their consent. Yet we still wanted to find out the root causes of their opposition, and tried to explore a win-win solution,” said Lau Wing-wah, Senior Engineer of Sewerage Projects of DSD. The department turned to Good Lab in 2017 to explore a new solution together through design thinking.
Respond to the needs of community by introducing eco tours
Design thinking emphasises the importance of observation and identifying the core problem by thinking from the perspectives of the stakeholders with empathy. With the help of Good Lab, DSD organised a series of interactive workshops and guided tours to collect the public’s opinions on the project and find out their actual needs. “We realised that the residents did not oppose to the plan without reasons. Actually, they hoped that the redevelopment project could at the same time improve the local living environment, create more public spaces and strengthen the connection with the surrounding areas,” said Lau.
Meanwhile, DSD also consulted experts from universities, environmental groups and different fields, and incorporated their advices into the new plan. “Through different sharing sessions and 3D community models, we explained to the public how the new proposal could respond to their needs. We also observed their reactions to further understand their needs,” added Konica Cheung Wing-yan, Senior Engineer of Sewerage Projects.
For example, Konica noted that the team proposed a new plan that includes more public spaces based on the residents’ demand. The new proposal would provide 2 hectare for that purpose and feature greening design in 30% of the construction area. “During the designing process, not only did we need to listen to the views of the public and the experts, but we also took into account of other practical considerations, such as how to make good use of public money and the ideas’ feasibility. The abovementioned changes would not induce additional costs while meeting the needs of the residents.”
Besides, the new solution also introduced the concept of shared space and proposed two educational trails with the themes of the use of water resources and environmental protection. Jointly conceived by DSD, the local community and environmental groups, these trails will link up the surrounding areas of the effluent polishing plant, allowing the public to gain a better understanding of its operation, and to discover the cultural heritage and natural environment of Sheung Shui.
The new plan is a result of engaging the community, residents, environmental groups and experts. Mr. Lau pointed out that DSD shifted from a problem-oriented approach to a user-oriented strategy. “As the planned trails will pass through a flood storage tank, we sought approval from the management to turn it into a multi-purpose public recreational space during the dry season. The management also facilitated the cooperation between DSD and the Water Supplies Department on the implementation of the Total Water Management Strategy, using the reclaimed water for flushing and non-potable use.” He believed the demand-driven mode of design thinking would be the driving force for innovation and new possibilities.
Unleash the power of human-centred approach through co-creation
Two years later, DSD presented the new redevelopment plan for the Shek Wu Hui effluent polishing plant at the Sheung Shui Heung Village Office in 2019. Mr. Lau shared that the proposal was well received by the public, and “it was commended by that year’s Civil Service Outstanding Service Award Scheme, furthering boosting the confidence of the team”.
Warren believed that the human-centred spirit behind design thinking is in line with the mission of public services to serve the citizens.
Warren also found this successful project a valuable lesson for other government departments and decision makers to learn from. “I hope that more departments will try to serve the public by introducing design thinking and promoting innovation from a human-centred perspective,” he said.