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Abertay’s interactive visualisations expertise to help safeguard UK’s food security

15 May 2015

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A development view of energy performance across different building designs

Scientists and engineers at Abertay University are to be part of a new £1.4 million research project – funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – designed to help safeguard the future of the UK’s water, energy and food security.

Water, energy and food are three of the UK’s most valuable resources, but they are rapidly running out – the world’s population is predicted to rise to more than eight billion by 2030 so there will be an increasing demand for, and shortage of, all three over the coming years.

The project has been set up in direct response to this and will be the first ever to simultaneously investigate how water, energy and food systems interact.

Typically, these systems are investigated in isolation, but all three are actually interdependent, which means that any shortage or disruption of one has an impact on the other two.

This inextricable link is known as the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus and is believed to hold the key to setting the country on a more sustainable trajectory.

The project will do this by exploring how existing initiatives that have a low impact on the WEF nexus achieve this, as well as by exploring whether these initiatives could potentially be replicated on a wider scale and in new contexts.

The project will use Abertay’s expertise in complex systems modelling and interactive visualisations to help people ‘see’ exactly how these initiatives work and – if they were to be replicated – how they would impact on the environment as well as on the lives of those living close by.

Dr Ruth Falconer, Senior Lecturer in Modelling and Visualisation within Abertay’s SIMBIOS Centre – the Scottish Informatics, Mathematics, Biology, and Statistics Centre – who will lead the research at Abertay, explains:

“The way we currently use our water, energy and food is not going to be sustainable in the long term. Indeed, the UK government's chief scientific adviser warned back in 2009 that – combined with climate change – the demands we currently place on these three resources could create the ‘perfect storm’ for a global crisis just 15 years from now.

“So we need to find ways to prevent that from happening and to manage our resources more responsibly.

“We know that there are some existing initiatives that already use water, energy and food systems in a sustainable way. These examples can be found operating at many scales – from households, communities or small businesses, up to local authorities, catchment areas or large corporations.

“Although there are important technical reasons why any particular example succeeds, there are many other things that make them successful as well.

“It could be an unusual system for buying something that offers farmers and consumers a way of bypassing conventional food supply networks for example. Or it could be because of an inspirational leader or team of committed people.

“Understanding what makes these initiatives successful is the first aim of our project. The second is to look at ways in which these initiatives could potentially be reproduced – either by scaling them up, replicating them in other situations, or by proliferating them more widely on a smaller scale.”

The project is ambitious, and will bring together inter-disciplinary groups of scientists based at six universities and two research institutes from across the UK to achieve its aims.

The team will be made up of water, food and energy experts as well as engineers and physical and social scientists who will all work together with stakeholders to gather information of all types about what makes the identified initiatives so good.

The modelling and visualisation experts at Abertay will then use this information to build models using the Sustainability Assessment Visualisation and Enhancement (SAVE) concept that was developed at the university to bring simplicity to very complex systems.

SAVE has already proven successful in urban planning where, traditionally, the tools to support decision-making processes consist only of 2D plans or static images and are dominated by the perceptions of the ‘expert’ decision-makers – such as the policymakers or the planners.

The visualisation component of SAVE – when applied to urban planning – is a 3D interactive model that combines information that assesses the physical, social and economic aspects of a particular urban design.

This makes it possible for people to see how the development will look and provides a wider understanding of its social, economic and environmental implications.

The models for the WEF nexus project will be similar and, once created, will be used to build a Decision Support Tool that will make it possible for all stakeholders to compare the low-impact WEF nexus interventions and assess whether these would be appropriate to their needs.

Dr Falconer continues:

“Working with stakeholders from the start is key to the success of this project, as it will enable us to not only capture physical attributes of an initiative – such as the source of electricity or the food supply chain – but also how governance, power and behaviour have influence on the different initiatives as well.

“The models we build will combine this information and bring it to life in 3D, making it possible for us and the stakeholders to explore the real world impact of the non-rational behaviours – how people and organisations interact and make decisions, for example – found in policy, institutional and governance structures that are inaccessible to those not involved in making the policies.

“We’ll be able to consider things like what might change over time – for example increasing rainfall – and how this affects everything else within the WEF nexus.

“Then, by taking that into account, we’ll be able to test if an innovation can operate in another geographical context and at another scale, as well as if it works under changing climatic conditions.

“Another example might be an exploration of how a behavioural change – such as eating different foods and changing UK diets – will impact on land, water, energy and so on across the supply chain.

“This type of approach is extremely powerful in helping understand and evaluate options in the face of considerable uncertainty and complexity. By replicating existing case study findings, simulating effects of policy and behavioural changes at different scales, and modeling these under alternate future scenarios, we’ll be able to find effective policies and behaviours for low impact WEF nexus sustainability.”

While the project will look specifically at examples within the UK, there will be the potential for the knowledge and expertise that is gathered to be transferred in an international context so as to help set the world as a whole on a more sustainable trajectory.


For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E:

Notes to Editors:

In total, the EPSRC is investing £4.5 million to safeguard the UK’s water, energy and food security.

Abertay’s project is one of only three that successfully secured a portion of this funding.

It was allocated after the EPSRC sandpit event ‘Living with Environmental Change’.

A sandpit is a residential interactive workshop, designed to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to address research challenges.

Groups of scientists from across the UK are brought together to brainstorm ideas that will solve real world problems.

They are tasked with putting together a detailed project proposal in a limited amount of time, which they must then pitch to the EPSRC panel.

It is a competitive process and only those that are deemed achievable and likely to have an impact are selected.

In total, the research into the WEF nexus will be conducted by inter-disciplinary groups of scientists based at 19 universities and research institutes across the UK.

The other two projects that received funding will:

1. explore how shocks to the nexus – for example floods or energy shortages – may help improve the resilience of the WEF nexus. This will be led by the University of Southampton.

2. produce nexus models that describe interdependencies in the nexus systems using case studies in Devon, Oxford and London. This will be led by the University of Glasgow.

The project Abertay is part of will be led by the University of Manchester.

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