A Conversation With SIWW’s Ryan Yuen

By Ryan Yuen 27 July, 2021

It was a different SIWW this year due to the pandemic & a more holistic agenda with hot new topics. We sat down with SIWW's Ryan Yuen to get the SIWW2021 scoop & see what's next

Despite going fully virtual just six weeks before the event (due to pandemic), SIWW2021 has been a success; upsides incl. many new participants & 140 hours of virtual content
SIWW is unique as it's run by a utility; as challenges change as will the agenda - digital water, resource recovery & climate resilience will continue to be key topics
The water sector cannot continue as usual; ambition is for SIWW to become an 'always-on' global platform for knowledge exchange & strengthen its value to wider Asian region
Ryan Yuen
Author: Ryan Yuen
Mr Ryan Yuen currently holds the position of Deputy Director, Industry and Technology Collaboration Department in PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency. He is also concurrently the Managing Director of the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW). Ryan is trained as a Civil Engineer from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor degree (Civil Engineering, with First class honours) on a Singapore Government scholarship. Throughout his career, Ryan has taken on leadership roles in policy, strategy, business development, communications, public engagement and outreach, and regional operations. Having worked in the public service, private and non-profit sectors, he has built up an extensive network of contacts with local and international government officials, industry and business leaders and international organisations. He is experienced in leading global teams across different countries with a proven track record in delivering results.
Read more from Ryan Yuen →

Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) 2021 recently wrapped up on 2 July, and it was an action packed 10 days. It was a different SIWW in several ways, including that it was the first ever fully virtual event, and the agenda was more holistic including todays’ key water & climate issues. And it wasn’t just us that were impressed, the event attracted 5,000 global attendees and had 140 hours of content with more than 16,000 views. The centrepiece and kick-off for the full event was SIWW2021 Spotlight – two high-level plenary sessions with key water leaders & global CEOs that were followed by a conversation with Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister. See our 5 key takeaways from the Spotlight session here, plus checkout out our other key takeaway articles – the need for innovation in policy more than tech, how to deal with uncertainties from coastal threats, roundtable chat with six previous Lee Kuan Yew prize laureates and a Phnom Penh water story for all.

We were also lucky enough to sit down with Ryan Yuen, Managing Director of SIWW, the man who makes it all happen and ‘it’ is a lot! So, what makes Singapore and SIWW such a success? Why did the event include new topics like coastal threats this year? What does SIWW’s future look like? See what Ryan had to say in our interview with him below.

CWR: Congratulations on hosting such a successful 2021 Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) – and all done virtually for first time! The global pandemic has posed some serious challenges but have there been any upsides or new opportunities that you have found for the event?

Ryan Yuen (RY): Thank you for the opportunity. The global pandemic has certainly caused chaos to our planning. SIWW was originally supposed to take place in July 2020, but later rescheduled to June this year. When it later became apparent that the international travel restrictions weren’t going to be lifted anytime soon, we had to pivot the event into a fully virtual format about six weeks before the start of the event.

An upside to the online format were many new participants

Despite organising SIWW for the first time in the fully virtual format, we have been pleasantly surprised by the strong international interest and participation. One upside for us was the opportunity to reach out to more international participants from around the world. In fact, we noticed that quite a sizeable portion of our participants are new to SIWW and have never attended a physical SIWW previously!

CWR: Before we dive into this year’s event, can you share a brief history of SIWW. Why was it first organised? How has is changed over the years? What are the goals of SIWW, and have they changed?

RY: Singapore International Water Week was established in 2008 as a global water event to co-create innovative solutions to solve the world’s urban water challenges. Organised by PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, SIWW was created as a show for water utilities and industry to share, learn and exchange knowledge, best practices and solutions from one another. That objective has not changed one bit and continues to be our unique value proposition. Water professionals know that when you come to SIWW, you will learn about the latest innovation in urban water management.

CWR: SIWW is big event with lots going on and this year was no different with 100+ hours of virtual content plus the Water Expo plus the Innovation to Practice series plus even more. How do you put an event like this together? 

RY: When we first sat down to develop the programme, we thought – how can we make this virtual SIWW special, and how can we add some cheer to the international water community in these challenging times? Afterall, there hasn’t been a single large-scale international water event for the past 18 months.

With everything going on, we thought – how can we make this SIWW special? …

…we couldn’t have done it without our partners

So, we decided to be bold and ambitious by putting a programme that will speak to all water professionals around the world, covering all aspects of the urban water cycle, with particular emphasis on solutions and successful case studies. What resulted has been truly amazing – 140 hours of online content spread over ten days, eight hours each day in up to four parallel sessions.

Of course, we couldn’t have pulled this off without the strong support of so many partners– our sponsors, strategic partners and session co-organisers. In particular, I would like to give a big thumbs up to the Water Convention Programme Committee who has been absolutely amazing with their passion and dedication in putting together a high-quality Water Convention and thematic webinars at short notice.

CWR: Singapore is known as one of the countries that really understands water’s value and one of the best at managing water. This year, you had Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister come in for a special 1hr15 session during the Spotlight Day, it’s fantastic but also rare to see such commitment from such senior officials. Does the Singapore government provide support for SIWW? What is their role in the event, if any?

RY: As a small city state with no natural water resources, water is of strategic national importance to Singapore. In a way, the value of water is in the DNA of every Singaporean.

“…the value of water is in the DNA of every Singaporean”

Recognising this importance, the Singapore Government has invested heavily over the years to build up our water resilience with diversification into climate resilient sources such as NEWater and desalinated water. Thanks to this investment, we now have a vibrant water ecosystem here in Singapore. This commitment extends to SIWW, which is regularly attended by our political leaders. As a biennial event that gathers the world’s water leaders, experts and practitioners, SIWW is a key part of this water ecosystem.

CWR: Another difference at SIWW this year was the agenda. SIWW has previously been a very water industry and technically focused event but this year there were many different topics discussed, including coastal threats, carbon zero utilities and women in water to list a few. What made the agenda this year so different? Is this something to stay for future SIWWs?

RY: Unlike other major water events around the world, SIWW is unique in that it is organised by a water utility, so issues that matter to utilities will always be on the agenda. When we conceptualised the programme, we wanted to make sure that the content is reflective of the current trends and issues that occupy the minds of water professionals working in the sector.

Digital water, resource recovery & climate resilience will continue to be key topics in future SIWWs

Based on the feedback, I think we have done that reasonably well. Moving forward, emerging themes such as digital water, resource recovery and climate resilience will continue to be key topics to be featured in future SIWW, as these issues will be critical to shaping the water sector in the future.

CWR: Can you share some of your key takeaways and/ or favourite moments from SIWW 2021?

RY: One thought that struck me as I listened to the sessions is how resilient water utilities have been during this pandemic crisis. Despite disruptions to global supply chain and the threat of human-to-human transmission, water utilities around the world have remained steadfast in their mission to provide clean water and sanitation services to the communities they serve.

It struck me during the event, just how resilient water utilities have been during the pandemic crisis

Another lesson that I picked up is that as a water sector, business cannot continue as usual and innovation and new approaches will be required for us to tackle the challenges facing us. Utilities will need to transform and operate in a circular approach rather than linear approach. Adapting to an uncertain future will require utilities to innovate and build stronger multi-stakeholder collaboration and partnerships, tapping on the know-hows of industry, learning from the lessons of other utilities, and building trust with local communities.

“As a water sector, business cannot continue as usual and innovation and new approaches will be required for us to tackle the challenges facing us.”

Ryan Yuen, Managing Director, SIWW

CWR: We were pleasantly surprised by the frank conversations during the Spotlight session and also throughout the event. Some very real conversations about the very real existential risks we face and how we are tackling them, it’s not often you get that at a conference. Were you expecting such conversations? 

RY: Frankly, I was not surprised at all. One thing I’ve learnt from my interaction with the international water community is that the sector has many like-minded professionals who are deeply passionate in wanting to make the world a better place!

CWR: Where do you see and where do you want SIWW to go in the coming years? With speakers this year saying that innovation is needed in the policy and commercial spheres rather than technical to advance water and climate action, does that change anything?

RY: Over the years, SIWW has built up its reputation as the global event for urban water innovation and solutions. This has served us well and differentiated us from other shows around the world. But the world is facing unprecedented challenges and there is so much more we can learn from one another in the water sector. Simply meeting once every two years will not be enough for us to move the needle.

My ambition is for SIWW to become an “always-on” global platform with year-round online content…

…and also, to strengthen our value for the region

So, my ambition is for SIWW to be more than just an event that happens once every two years. I would like to see SIWW becoming an “always-on” global platform with year-round online content that informs and educates water professionals on key topics and trends, cumulating in the biennial event in Singapore. This recently concluded virtual event, along with our inaugural webinars last July, sets us on this journey.

I use the term “Global Event with Regional Footprint” to describe SIWW. As one of the largest international water events located in Asia, the content and discussions at SIWW will have to remain relevant to our regional partners and stakeholders. I would like to see us strengthening our value offerings to the wider Asian region and bringing in more visitors and delegates from the region to the event.

CWR: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us Ryan and just before we end, something a bit more fun, if you could make a water related wish, what would it be? And of course, if you have any last words you would like to share.

RY: I wish that the global uncertainty around the pandemic will improve quickly, so that the water profession can redouble our efforts to tackle climate change, which is really the challenge of our generation. And I wish to invite all readers to join us at the next Singapore International Water Week which will take place from 17-21 April next year in Singapore!

Further Reading

  • Singapore: Making Business Unusual the Norm – Covid disruption has seen old businesses die and new ones sprout up. CWR’s Dawn McGregor shares how Singapore is innovating its climate threats into building resilience & new ways of making money
  • Singapore: Future Ready in Water – EDB’s director of cleantech, Goh Chee Kiong, shares his views on SIWW, key technologies surfacing, new growth markets for industrial water and the role of government in innovation from R&D to piloting and eventually commercialisation.
  • Learning From Singapore’s Circular Water Economy – Hong Kong is facing an imminent water crisis yet Singapore’s novel circular water economy approach may offer solutions from which HK can learn. Utrecht University’s Julian Kirchherr & Circular Economy Academy’s Ralf van Santen explore
  • Managing Transboundary Water Supply Risks: HK vs Singapore – Does Hong Kong’s commercial contract for Dongjiang water offer as much security compared to the international water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia? Chenlin Zhao from the City University of HK explains why
  • Water Efficiency Policy: A Technological High-Water Mark? – From biomimicry to data analytics, Singapore is developing new technology to produce clean water without sinking the environment. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Tommy Kevin Lee and Cecilia Tortajada expand

More on Latest

  • SIWW Spotlight 2021 Key Takeaways – Impressed with the frank conversations & SLR focus for the first time at the 2021 SIWW Spotlight, see what other takeaways CWR’s Dawn McGregor has from the centerpiece sessions
  • Why Isn’t Water Top Of The Climate Agenda? – If water risks were properly valued, they would be much greater than the energy transition risks so, why isn’t water at the top of the agenda asks Eco-Business’ Sonia Sambhi who caught CWR’s Debra Tan & other water experts at SIWW 2021
  • 3 Ways To Deal With The Deep Uncertainty Of Sea Level Rise – SLR uncertainty is here to stay but it can be minimised as discussed at SIWW 2021. CWR’s Ronald Leung & Dawn McGregor share what the climate & planning experts advised
  • Game Changers: 6 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laureates – We would be fools not to tackle 3 game changers for our future water & climate according to 6 LKY laureates. CWR’s Dawn McGregor breaks them down
  • Behind Phnom Penh’s Water Success Story – PPWSA, a once-bankrupt utility now outperforms those in LA or London. CWR’s Soomin Park & Dawn McGregor shares 2 keys to its miraculous transformation & 2 new challenges it faces