BY SARAH WILD
Every summer, thousands of tourists travel to Greece’s idyllic islands to enjoy their sunny beaches. Even the global pandemic couldn’t keep visitors away, but water scarcity might. Many Greek islands survive on water imports and are struggling to meet residents’ and agriculture’s water needs – let alone those of tourists.
These islands illustrate the difficulties faced in other parts of Europe. Climate change is making extreme weather events such as drought more frequent, while burgeoning population numbers and competing priorities, such as agriculture and tourism, mean that there is not enough fresh water to go around. About one in five people in the Mediterranean region suffer from constant water stress – when demand exceeds availability – according to the European Commission.
To address these issues, the project HYDROUSA is piloting its water technologies at sites on three Greek islands.
‘It’s about tackling water scarcity issues in small and decentralised remote regions in the Mediterranean,’ explained Professor Simos Malamis, a water systems specialist at the National Technical University of Athens, Greece and coordinator of HYDROUSA.
The team, which includes 28 partners in industry, academia and government, develops and integrates different technologies to collect, treat, recycle and reuse water. ‘We want to do this in a sustainable manner, in a loop.’
Sustainable reuse is at the heart of the EU’s circular economy action plan, published in 2020. The bloc aims to ‘double its circular material use rate in the coming decade’, which will involve identifying value in products that have traditionally been considered waste. It has also invested extensively in research projects, such as HYDROUSA, to trial technologies to achieve this circularity and open them up to governments and businesses.
The circular economy includes water loops, in which water is treated and reused, with value being derived from extracted ‘waste’ in the water, such as phosphorus or salts. HYDROUSA is working to create these loops in remote areas to benefit local individuals and industries. It currently has six pilot sites on the three islands, trialling 13 different innovations to show their applicability under different scenarios.
Prof. Malamis’ favourite pilot, on Lesbos, includes the greatest number of integrated technologies, he says. Wastewater from a nearby town arrives at a wastewater treatment plant, where anaerobic bacteria break down the organic matter contained in the wastewater. This step produces biogas, which can be collected and used as energy feedstock. In the second phase, the primary treated wastewater runs through a constructed artificial wetland, which is made up of a number of plant species, which clean the water. The resulting water is then exposed to high-energy ultraviolet light to kill pathogens, after which local farmers can use it to fertilise and irrigate their crops, Prof. Malamis explains.
To show that it is actually safe to use, project researchers are also developing an agroforestry site, irrigated with their treated water.
Meanwhile, on Mykonos, HYDROUSA technologies harvest and store rainwater below ground, so that the water does not evaporate in the sometimes punishing Greek heat, and then disburses the water to households. On the island of Tinos, the project’s technologies help an ecotourist lodge recycle waste water and rainwater, using it to irrigate and fertilise food gardens which in turn feed lodge tourists and residents in the nearby village.
These solutions rely on multiple technologies merged together. ‘We have one system coupled together with another, which are from different companies, integrated, to produce the best result,’ Prof. Malamis said.
To combat water scarcity in remote locations, another research initiative, Project O, is blending technologies into water management modules and demonstrating them at four small sites. Importantly, the modules are mobile and can be installed where there are no other facilities.
Two sites are water utilities in Puglia, Italy and Almendralejo, Spain, with another at a saltwater aqua facility in Eilat, Israel, and one with a textile company in Omis, Croatia.
Big water treatment plants, such as those common in large cities, are designed to treat large quantities of water, according to Giulia Molinari, a former manager of Project O and now with IRIS, a company commercialising high voltage technology to clean water and working with the project. ‘It is highly inefficient to replicate them locally for a small scale,’ she said. ‘We are trying to use a lot of different technologies on the small- to medium-scale to tailor the quality to the needs (of the site).’
But the various sites and industries have different water requirements. For example, not all treated water needs to be potable, she says. In industry, wastewater treated to drinking quality would be ‘overengineered’ and needlessly expensive.
At the Puglia site, the water is for people to drink. It comes from an aqueduct, Acquedotto Pugliese, and its quality is variable, sometimes salty, sometimes heavily polluted. This means that the solution needs to be flexible, and also able to cope with comparatively small amounts of water (about 20 cubic metres a day). This situation is very different to those in traditional water management, where every day, large quantities of water are treated in the same way. ‘We can adjust treatment so that we do not treat it too much and use too much energy,’ Molinari said.
Project O’s response to the distinct scenarios has been to create four different modules, each containing a cascade of technologies to address the water requirements at each site. At the aqueduct in Puglia, for example, the module integrates a desalinator (which removes salt from the water) and advanced oxidation techniques (which use chemical processes to remove harmful bacteria and organic pollutants from water).
At the textile factory in Croatia, the team developed a module that uses sunlight to break down toxic organic compounds and disinfect the water, while in Spain sunlight powers advanced oxidation processes and contains adsorption technologies that can collect pollutants, while a control system integrates two technologies. The module used in Israel recovers nutrients from salty water.
Molinari works on a form of advanced oxidation technology that uses high-voltage electromagnetic pulses to break down pollutants. Currently used in the modules at the Puglia and Eilat sites, the short, but powerful bursts of energy damage illness-causing microbes and degrade organic pollutants, including many contaminants of emerging concern.
Both Project O and HYDROUSA are looking to address one of the most pressing problems in water management: how to treat water and reuse it in remote places, where there is no one-size-fits-all solution, without breaking the bank.
Given the interest from industry and municipalities, both think that they have numerous viable solutions to offer. And as fresh water becomes increasingly scarce around the world, governments and companies will be looking for technologies to treat and reuse whatever water sources they have, even if it was once considered waste.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine in March 2021.
Easing job jitters in the digital revolution
As new technologies reshape workplaces, EU research has come up with new ways to help companies and workers stay in control.
By ANDREW DUNNE
Professor Steven Dhondt has a reassurance of sorts for people in the EU worried about losing their jobs to automation: relax.
Dhondt, an expert in work and organisational change at the Catholic University Leuven in Belgium, has studied the impact of technology on jobs for the past four decades. Fresh from leading an EU research project on the issue, he stresses opportunities rather than threats.
‘We need to develop new business practices and welfare support but, with the right vision, we shouldn’t see technology as a threat,’ Dhondt said. ‘Rather, we should use it to shape the future and create new jobs.’
The rapid and accelerating advance in digital technologies across the board is regarded as the world’s fourth industrial revolution, ushering in fundamental shifts in how people live and work.
If the first industrial revolution was powered by steam, the second by electricity and the third by electronics, the latest will be remembered for automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, or AI. It’s known as “Industry 4.0”.
‘Whether it was the Luddite movement in the 1800s through the introduction of automatic spinning machines in the wool industry or concerns about AI today, questions about technology’s impact on jobs really reflect wider ones about employment practices and the labour market,’ said Dhondt.
The EU project that he led explored how businesses and welfare systems could better adapt to support workers in the face of technological changes. The initiative, called Beyond4.0, began in January 2019 and wrapped up in June 2023.
While the emergence of self-driving cars and AI-assisted robots holds big potential for economic growth and social progress, they also sound alarm bells.
More than 70% of EU citizens fear that new technologies will “steal” people’s jobs, according to a 2019 analysis by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training.
The Beyond4.0 researchers studied businesses across Europe that have taken proactive and practical steps to empower employees.
One example is a family-run Dutch glass company called Metaglas, which decided that staying competitive in the face of technological changes required investing more in its own workforce.
Metaglas offered workers greater openness with management and a louder voice on the company’s direction and product development.
The move, which the company named “MetaWay”, has helped it retain workers while turning a profit that is being reinvested in the workforce, according to Dhondt.
He said the example shows the importance in the business world of managers’ approach to the whole issue.
‘The technology can be an enabler, not a threat, but the decision about that lies with management in organisations,’ Dhondt said. ‘If management uses technology to downgrade the quality of jobs, then jobs are at risk. If management uses technology to enhance jobs, then you can see workers and organisations learn and improve.’
The Metaglas case has fed into a “knowledge bank” meant to inform business practices more broadly.
Dhondt also highlighted the importance of regions in Europe where businesses and job trainers join forces to support people.
BEYOND4.0 studied the case of the Finnish city of Oulu – once a leading outpost of mobile-phone giant Nokia. In the 2010s, the demise of Nokia’s handset business threatened Oulu with a “brain drain” as the company’s engineers were laid-off.
But collaboration among Nokia, local universities and policymakers helped grow new businesses including digital spin-offs and kept hundreds of engineers in the central Finnish region, once a trading centre for wood tar, timber and salmon.
Some Nokia engineers went to the local hospital to work on electronic healthcare services – “e-health” – while others moved to papermaker Stora Enso, according to Dhondt.
Nowadays there are more high-tech jobs in Oulu than during Nokia’s heyday. The BEYOND4.0 team held the area up as a successful “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that could help inform policies and practices elsewhere in Europe.
In cases where people were out of work, the project also looked to new forms of welfare support.
Dhondt’s Finnish colleagues examined the impact of a two-year trial in Finland of a “universal basic income” – or UBI – and used this to assess the feasibility of a different model called “participation income.”
In the UBI experiment, participants each received a monthly €560 sum, which was paid unconditionally. Although UBI is often touted as an answer to automation, BEYOND4.0’s evaluation of the Finnish trial was that it could weaken the principle of solidarity in society.
The project’s participation income approach requires recipients of financial support to undertake an activity deemed useful to society. This might include, for example, care for the elderly or for children.
While detailed aspects are still being worked out, the BEYOND4.0 team discussed participation with the government of Finland and the Finnish parliament has put the idea on the agenda for debate.
Dhondt hopes the project’s findings, including on welfare support, will help other organisations better navigate the changing tech landscape.
Another researcher keen to help people adapt to technological changes is Dr Aisling Tuite, a labour-market expert at the South East Technical University in Ireland.
Tuite has looked at how digital technologies can help job seekers find suitable work.
She coordinated an EU-funded project to help out-of-work people find jobs or develop new skills through a more open online system.
Called HECAT, the project ran from February 2020 through July 2023 and brought together researchers from Denmark, France, Ireland, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland.
In recent years, many countries have brought in active labour-market policies that deploy computer-based systems to profile workers and help career counsellors target people most in need of help.
While this sounds highly targeted, Tuite said that in reality it often pushes people into employment that might be unsuitable for them and is creating job-retention troubles.
‘Our current employment systems often fail to get people to the right place – they just move people on,’ she said. ‘What people often need is individualised support or new training. We wanted to develop a product that could be as useful for people looking for work as for those supporting them.’
Ready to run
HECAT’s online system combines new vacancies with career counselling and current labour-market data.
The system was tested during the project and a beta version is now available via My Labour Market and can be used in all EU countries where data is available.
It can help people figure out where there are jobs and how to be best positioned to secure them, according to Tuite.
In addition to displaying openings by location and quality, the system offers detailed information about career opportunities and labour-market trends including the kinds of jobs on the rise in particular areas and the average time it takes to find a position in a specific sector.
Tuite said feedback from participants in the test was positive.
She recalled one young female job seeker saying it had made her more confident in exploring new career paths and another who said knowing how long the average “jobs wait” would be eased the stress of hunting.
Looking ahead, Tuite hopes the HECAT researchers can demonstrate the system in governmental employment-services organisations in numerous EU countries over the coming months.
‘There is growing interest in this work from across public employment services in the EU and we’re excited,’ she said.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
New WEF Immersive Technology Hub to Address Climate Tipping Points
The World Economic Forum introduced a new polar tipping points hub today in its Global Collaboration Village. The purpose-driven platform, which is powered by next-generation technology, will bring global leaders together in the metaverse to solve the deepening effects of the climate and nature crisis. The hub is an immersive virtual reality space and will help confront the pressing issue of climate tipping points, particularly those located in the polar regions.
The launch of the hub coincides with the annual summer sea ice extent minimum in the Arctic, which adds a timely emphasis on the pressing need to address polar warming and climate challenges, and accelerate progress toward reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ability to simulate in real time the tipping points at different temperatures could help drive faster decision-making.
“Breaching the planetary tipping points will bring dire consequences for the interconnected ecosystems that support life on our planet,” said Gim Huay Neo, Managing Director and Head of the Centre for Nature and Climate at the World Economic Forum. “By understanding the drivers and impacts, the global community can respond more effectively to the climate and nature crisis. Through collective action, business and government can innovate, mitigate and adapt to the risks associated with global temperature rise and the resulting tipping points in the polar regions, and beyond.”
Highlighting the urgency of polar warming
Human-induced warming, as the world approaches and surpasses a 1.5°C increase, is edging dangerously close to triggering several critical polar tipping points. Among the 16 climate tipping points, six are in particularly precarious states, even with temperature rises below 2°C. Five of these tipping points are located in the polar regions, encompassing both the Arctic and Antarctic. This situation has far-reaching global implications.
The nexus of polar tipping points, with the potential to disrupt interconnected Earth systems, can lead to stability challenges across geographies. This includes the albedo effect, which relates to the reflectivity of surfaces. High albedo reflects more sunlight, while low absorbs, which has an impact on climate and temperature. In other words, the whiteness of the snow and ice layer reflects heat away from the Earth and prevents it from warming the oceans and land (including permafrost) even more. This albedo effect is declining due to polar ice and snow loss.
There is also a long-term linear relationship between carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity and Arctic sea ice decline, which means that, as emissions increase, sea ice will continue to decline. The decline is accelerating global vulnerabilities like extreme weather, heat stress, compromised food and water security, climate migration and disruptions in supply chains.
An evolving platform for visualization and collaboration
From within the Global Collaboration Village, a World Economic Forum initiative in partnership with Accenture and Microsoft, the Polar Tipping Points Hub offers an immersive experience that allows collaborators to visualize the ramifications of polar warming on Earth’s intricate systems. Through a monitoring station, visitors gain a deeper insight into three of the five pivotal polar tipping points that become precarious if temperatures rise by 1.5°C or beyond.
This initiative serves the dual purpose of enhancing awareness and facilitating cross-sectoral collaboration among Village partners and existing Forum communities. The hub is a work in progress, continually incorporating new data to ensure it remains at the forefront of polar and climate research.
“At the World Economic Forum, our central mission is to convene stakeholders for collaborative problem-solving, to improve the state of the world,” said Rebecca Ivey, Head of the Global Collaboration Village at the World Economic Forum. “The Village democratizes this process by using immersive technologies that enable us to achieve more, together, even across distances. Our aim is to make these tools accessible to diverse audiences, amplifying their potential to contribute to the betterment of the world. “
Partnering for a resilient future
The Polar Tipping Points Hub launch aligns closely with the Forum’s commitment to addressing global challenges through concerted initiatives. Compelling virtual immersion into the polar regions will illustrate current warming trends and the consequent cascade of risks, offering a vital tool for comprehending the urgency of unified action.
“The ability to connect and collaborate in shared immersive spaces, spanning distances and devices, can inspire team creativity and outcomes that may otherwise not have been possible,” said Navjot Virk, Vice-President of Microsoft Mesh. “The Global Collaboration Village’s Polar Tipping Points Hub demonstrates how people can leverage immersive experiences built on Microsoft Mesh technology to see and better understand the complex and interconnected challenges of global issues, like climate change.”
“With the Global Collaboration Village’s Polar Tipping Points Hub, citizens, organizations and government representatives have the opportunity to experience and engage with the consequences of climate change, one of the world’s most pressing challenges,” added David Treat, co-lead of Accenture’s Metaverse Continuum business group. “We believe that, by simulating future scenarios, immersive technology can drive a change in perspective while convening stakeholders in new ways to collaborate and shape potential solutions, which is exactly what prompted us to partner with the World Economic Forum for the Global Collaboration Village initiative”.
Collaboration on new and combined data sets from Arctic Basecamp, NASA, the National Snow and Ice Data Center and other institutions has also been instrumental to the development of the hub.
Generative AI to Enhance Creativity, Automate Routine Tasks for Future Jobs
How will large language models (LLMs), deep-learning algorithms that can recognize, summarize, translate, predict and generate content using very large datasets, affect current and future jobs? That is the focus of the new World Economic Forum white paper Jobs of Tomorrow: Large Language Models and Jobs.
The white paper finds that LLMs could be a boon for jobs that require critical thinking, complex problem-solving skills and creativity, including those in engineering, mathematics and scientific analysis. These tools could benefit workers by increasing the productivity of routine tasks and making their roles more rewarding and focused on a higher added value. This paper takes a structured approach to understanding the direct impact of LLMs on specific jobs.
“Generative AI is poised to impact labour markets significantly, but this impact will be highly different across different roles,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum. “Business leaders, policy-makers and employees must collaborate on harnessing the potential of new jobs while managing displacement and ensuring a future of work that empowers and elevates people.”
According to the analysis, which examined more than 19,000 distinct tasks across 867 different occupations likely to be impacted by LLMs, the industries with the highest estimates of overall potential exposure – both in automation and augmentation – are financial services and capital markets, along with insurance and pension management.
As LLMs advance, new roles will also be created, including AI developers, interface and interaction designers, AI content creators, data curators and specialists in AI ethics and governance.
The jobs most at risk of automation – with up to four-fifths of the tasks automated – are those that involve routine and repetitive language tasks, including roles such as credit authorizers, checkers and clerks. The occupations projected to remain relatively unaltered include education, guidance, career counsellors and advisers, with 84% of their tasks having a low exposure to change.
This new data on the impact of LLMs supplements and reinforces the findings from the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023, which found that up to a quarter of jobs are expected to change in the next five years from the combined impact of technology, the green transition and the geoeconomic outlook.
The paper argues that businesses and governments must take proactive steps to prepare for the effects of LLMs in the workforce, including by improving foresight, creating an adaptable workforce, implementing systems that facilitate job transitions and encouraging lifelong learning.
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