Q&A Nov 9, 2023

Catchments, Creativity and Communities: A Q&A with Lee Pitcher on Tackling Climate Change in the Water Sector

The water sector is simultaneously facing the biggest challenge in its history and its greatest opportunity for change — the key to unlocking it requires catchment-level thinking, creativity and progressive clients.

Q&A with Lee Pitcher Jacobs Director of Water and Environment for Europe

The water industry is under intense pressure to evolve to meet the complex challenges of climate change and higher demand. Lee Pitcher is one of the pioneering leaders in the shift from traditional methods towards harnessing more nature-based and sustainable blue or green solutions and a systems thinking, OneWater approach.

After studying economics and languages and earning a master’s degree at university, Lee has spent 22 years with water utilities, starting on the front line in public health as a sewer baiter to control the rodent population. Fast-forward through an agile career and varying leadership roles — including operations, contracts and customer services regulation strategy — and Lee became a Board member of Living with Water, a transformational water project he led for five years.

Now, the creative, multilingual, multiskilled Lee drives industry change for Jacobs, one catchment and client at a time. Here is his blueprint for success.

Hi, Lee. What does your current role involve?

My role is integrating teams and programs and filling the space between water, communities and the environment. We've been laser-focused on local water and environmental issues in the past, but now we understand that we must be more holistic and look at the greater catchment level. I help our clients see the bigger picture and how we need to manage the water cycle with the support of partners and stakeholders.

I’m a connector for Integrated Catchment Management (ICM). I’m a ‘glue’ for the right people and services.

How are you helping to solve our clients' biggest challenges?

Fortunately, I've just come from that side of the industry, so I know what works well and how significant the challenges are – they’ve never been as enormous as they are now.

There is a massive focus on the water industry, particularly on the environment and the cleanliness and health of waterways. High-profile celebrities are raising the pressure, and there’s a political angle. Add the increasing effects of climate change, and it provides high motivation for the regulators to dial up the responsibility of the water industry to change — not only in physical infrastructure but with widespread behavior and mindset change, too. Very few industries are as susceptible to climate conditions.

It is kickstarting the greatest transformation in the water industry since Victorian times, and it needs to be done extremely quickly and efficiently. We must move from traditional civil engineering and conventional thinking to a new way of working. ICM is a critical part of this OneWater solution.

It’s a systems approach to building resilience and reducing risk, and it’s done in partnership with all stakeholders to find long-term, end-to-end solutions. This takes away the client’s worst nightmares — when it rains, you don’t want flooding, or when there’s a long bout of dry weather, you don’t want water scarcity or dirty water. Clients want it resolved so they can focus on community improvements through transport, health and education. ICM tackles how you resolve those risks and enhance the area. It can create a better place to live, work and socialize, producing jobs, raising property prices and improving social benefits.

Could you please describe how ICM works?

For example, if floods occur annually in a specific area, you’d need a solution. In the past, we’d probably investigate the capacity of the sewer system or the drainage system and then build a tank or pumping station.

What we now need to do is to think much more broadly. The answer might not be about pouring concrete and burning energy to build a pumping station. We investigate the catchment, work with partners upstream and see how we can take water out of the system at the source. This all helps to reduce the size of the solution needed.

This requires more than engineering work, as securing funding is another significant challenge. It relies on ensuring you have a joint vision and objectives with your client and plan for the long term with all the right stakeholders and place-based knowledge.

The next step deals with data: what can we access, and how will we process and integrate it? The challenge calls for upstream thinking and collaboration with farmers and agriculture closer to the source. We’re constantly building capabilities but need the education providers to offer more blue and green-type engineering.

We’re using systems thinking, talent and technology to build resilience and stacked benefits for our clients.

What are the career lessons you've brought into this role?

  1. Reach for the biggest available pool of talent. Jacobs has incredible talent depth and variety, making building the multidisciplinary teams needed for ICM much easier.
  2. Your team should extend beyond your company’s organogram. You need a virtual team of external stakeholders, subject matter experts, academics, regulators, local authorities and more — it’s not just your internal team you should be relying on and investing in. Get it right, and the network capital will keep rewarding you in every role and challenge.
  3. Tailor your stakeholder engagement. One of the lessons I learned was to turn customers into advocates in different demographics through education and engagement. One example was in Hull, where the community had a heightened fear of water due to the 2007 floods: 91 out of 98 schools were decimated. We needed to make water fun and engaging again. We created a children’s obstacle course in Queen’s Park using equipment based on a water theme and offered amazing games that taught them about water management at home and at school. We had over 1,000 children attend, and it trended on social media!
  4. Reach out to academics and universities for help. Engaging with the right scholars and subject matter experts in your chosen areas can help you improve your offering and research.

What roles do technology and nature-based solutions play in ICM?

Firstly, there’s no silver bullet for resolving flooding or improving water health, but nature-based solutions and technology are essential pieces of the puzzle. For example, a nature-based solution like a wetland can hold back water to prevent flooding, retain it in the longer term and offer broader benefits. Working with the land and nature helps to create more sustainable solutions that include upstream thinking in the catchment, which helps to deal with more source issues and not just side effects.

Digital tools and data play a critical part in this, as they help you to understand the catchment and all the impacts that could potentially cause the problem in the first place. It offers better awareness and empowers decision-makers to make faster and smarter calls. For the first time in the history of the water industry, we’re starting to integrate data sets from all partners and their assets, offering a much deeper, richer overview of the catchments and interdependencies. This allows us to measure our progress and forecast forward. It enables us to optimize our current systems, and crucially, it helps us see the existing capacity. This means we can save on investments, including the carbon costs of building infrastructure.

This is crucial in helping to understand what’s needed and how we communicate with stakeholders and customers. Digital tools offer better ways to bring that data to life for that customer. It helps explain why you need to do that construction, and this education helps improve stakeholder engagement.

Lastly, technology allows you to test concepts safely and affordably. This helps improve risk and reliability, improves the strength of your investment and helps provide confidence that it’s the right decision.

“We don't just have engineers and project managers; we've got cross-sector specialists and subject matter experts for every part of the process. We work in a fully integrated team that uses our global capabilities and local expertise along with virtual tools to stand up and deliver quickly.”

Lee Pitcher

Lee Pitcher

Jacobs Director of Water and Environment for Europe

How do you offer the best value for our clients within this ICM framework?

Firstly, we’re not starting from scratch. We’ve been highly successful as industry leaders in integrated catchment management. We've got some great examples and a stellar track record. They’ve provided key learnings that help us to be more efficient. We’ve got tried-and-trusted, low-risk approaches we can apply to future clients.

We also offer a full range of support and services anywhere. We don't just have engineers and project managers; we've got cross-sector specialists and subject matter experts for every part of the process. We work in a fully integrated team that uses our global capabilities and local expertise along with virtual tools to stand up and deliver quickly.

Lastly, we’ve become adept at offering stacked benefits and creating amenity value for local communities. We ask questions like: How does that infrastructure become a great place where people want to spend their leisure time and where people want to invest in putting buildings around it? Unlocking these benefits requires considering the six capitals: how can the manufactured capital help with societal and environmental capital?

What are the most essential skills to future-proof a career in the water sector?

  1. The ability to create and share sound strategies. How can you define a vision for the future and take your leaders with you?
  2. Collaboration and persuasion. You will need to influence and compromise at the right time.  
  3. ‘Blue’ and ‘green’ engineering skills. These are vital to tackle our most pressing challenges, especially our climate response.
  4. Stakeholder engagement and education. How do we work with children and families across demographics to communicate some of the changes we need to make? How do we inspire them to join our industry?
  5. Data analysis and management. We need to use and display data and information in different ways to achieve varying goals, whether for clients or communities.
  6. Policy creation. It’s vastly underrated. We need to take our learnings in the field and turn them into iterative processes and procedures that take the industry forward safely and effectively.

What career achievements are you most proud of?

Winning the first-ever British Quality Foundation Award for Excellence in Collaboration. It was a wonderful achievement and led us to meet HRH Princess Anne, a patron of the British Quality Foundation.

The second was speaking live as a keynote speaker from the Blue Zone at COP 26. I was among all these fantastic global speakers, and my topic was community resilience around partnerships, working and flooding.

How would you describe your personal motivation in the work you do?

Have you ever heard of the PRINT profiling tool? PRINT is a new way of understanding what makes you tick and why you do what you do. It revealed that my biggest subconscious driver is to leave the world in a better place. That’s what is in my heart; it’s what motivates me. When I did that exercise, the results all totally rang true because I've always been like that. That’s why working in a role where I know I can positively affect people's lives is crucial.

Even with all our challenges, there's never been a more exciting time to work in this sector. We are the generation changing it for the better for our children through to their great grandkids. So many people and teams are passionate about making a difference now, and there are several levers we can now pull and push to make visible, long-term changes.

What is the best advice you've ever received?

Get the best brains around you. You need to remember that to get the best brains, you're not thinking about race, color, gender or background. Once you have them, you’ll succeed — no matter the industry.

What would people be most surprised to find out about you?

I've danced with Kylie Minogue. I love dancing and used to be good at it — if I dance now, I can’t move for the next few days! When I was younger, we got tickets to see Top of the Pops, a huge music program back then. Kylie was performing on the show, and the organizers placed people on stage near her who could dance. So, I wasn’t officially one of her backup dancers, but I was on stage dancing during one of her live performances.

What’s your secret talent?

I can speak French and Russian, but the most surprising one is probably that I’m a radio DJ! I do a show on a Friday night drivetime slot for a local radio station. It’s a relatively new experience for me, but I love it! It takes me from the end of a work week and transitions me smoothly into the weekend.

What do you most enjoy about being part of #OurJacobs?

I love working with lots of different, interesting people and discovering new connections daily. Your working day is never the same; the teams are filled with diverse talents. The common denominator: Everyone I’ve met is lovely.

About the interviewee

Lee Pitcher

Lee Pitcher is an award-winning executive with over 20 years of experience in the water industry. He is respected for his strong social values and dedication to environmental improvement through partnerships. Starting on the front line in the industry, Lee is now Jacobs’ Director of Water and Environment for Europe, with a keen interest in integrated catchment management. Before joining Jacobs, he was a Board member for the industry-leading Living with Water program, where, along with his team, he delivered several transformational projects to pioneer developments in urban water resilience.

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