Revamping design thinking to create sustainable delta futures

Written by Bhavna Bhasin, on 30 June 2022

The world’s deltas face unprecedented threats deriving from stressors such as rising sea levels, more frequent and intense rainstorms and droughts, and aging infrastructure. In addition, transitions in socio-technical systems such as energy, mobility, food and health also challenge deltas. Short-term adaptation measures offered in response, such as incremental adjustments to water infrastructure, won’t suffice in the long term. Earlier this month, leading scientists, designers and policy makers discussed a way forward during a three-day conference.

IHE Delft, TU Delft, Convergence and Deltares organized the Redesigning Deltas conference, held 16-18 June in Rotterdam.

Design serves three crucial purposes: it addresses complexity, fosters inclusiveness and helps politicize an agenda
Chris Zevenbergen
IHE Delft Professor of Flood Resilience of Urban Systems and conference chair

Mark Harbers, Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and Management, noted the urgent need in a keynote speech:

“Deltas and other coastal zones are most at risk. (These are) areas that are home to some 500 million people worldwide -  a number that will increase by 50 percent by 2050,” he said, adding that the Netherlands aim to support efforts to speed up the introduction of sustainable infrastructure in deltas to handle this challenge.

Some of this acceleration should be agreed upon at the UN 2023 Water Conference, which hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan, Harbers said. 

“The aim is to reach agreement internationally on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) faster, and on a concrete Water Action Agenda that will set out what participating countries will do in real terms to achieve the water SDGs.”

Speakers at the Redesigning Deltas conference shared a sense of urgency and highlighted the need for radical, collective and long-term pathways of change in rethinking deltas.

“A lot of experts, especially researchers and politicians, do not like the idea of acceleration, because they like to know things for sure. But I believe postponing is worse,” said Deltares Managing Director Annemieke Nijhof.

“With our knowledge and deep insights comes great responsibility; there is now a need for leaders who can be emulsifiers – who can bring seemingly unrelated fields and ideas together.”


While deltas around the world face similar threats, they differ greatly in their economical and socio-political contexts. A land-scarce, densely populated country like Bangladesh faces different challenges and choices in comparison to, for example, Vietnam or The Netherlands.

“We need to pause and ask how do people, land and water interact in different deltas?,” said  M Riaz Hamidullah, Ambassador of Bangladesh to the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, design-thinking supported by science is needed so that important decisions relating to the Dutch delta can be taken within four years, said Peter Glas, the Dutch Government’s Delta Programme Commissioner.

The role of design

The conference facilitated interaction between design, critical-design thinking and cross-disciplinarily studies to understand, question and change the socio-ecological relations that have and continue to shape delta futures.

To inspire change and co-create new pathways to a secure, sustainable and inclusive future for all deltas, strong international networks and partnerships that support the redesign of deltas and intensify joint research on design challenges are needed, the conference concluded. It further called for international multi-disciplinary programmes on design and design-based approaches.


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