Know better, do better! Utilities should provide both service and social value

By Bu Lam, Director of Sanitary and Stormwater Utilities

What is water equity? The more I think about it, the harder it is to define concretely. Water equity isn’t a thing. It’s not a destination, and it’s not an outcome. Cathy Bailey's talk showed us that ACTIONS should define water equity. Water equity relies on foundational yet simple steps. And it depends on our utilities’ commitment to work alongside the community as service providers AND invested community members.

It's this second point that really resonates with me. Utilities have focused so much on being great service providers for so long. But we may have lost sight of another responsibility: to be great community members. In other words, in our pursuit of providing service value, we've forgotten that an equal emphasis should also be placed on delivering social value.

What can a utility do to provide social value?

  • Ensure that access to water services is affordable for all members of the community
  • Maximize community and economic benefits for all members of the community when investing in water infrastructure and services,
  • Provide opportunities for all resident voices to be heard in the development of programs
  • Provide opportunities for all residents to participate in the decision-making and governance process.

Providing service value and social value through deliberate and meaningful actions ultimately contributes to greater equity within the community. These are important steps to take on Kitchener's path to water equity.

Out-of-sight, out-of-mind no more!

For decades, utilities operated in the shadows. Like the buried infrastructure that utilities managed, we were often comfortable being out of sight and out of mind. Cathy's talk urges us to get out of that comfort zone. To truly serve communities, utilities have to engage with and be part of the community they serve. Cathy showed the way with examples of how her utility engages with neighbourhoods and meets residents where they live. Utility staff participate in community events and sponsor community activities. In other words, they invest time in getting to know their community – and, more importantly, have their communities get to know them. These efforts help humanize the utility and put faces on services that are too often out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

Getting into neighbourhoods builds trust, rapport and connection with the community. It also provides an opportunity to understand local needs and circumstances better. By going to meet people where they are, we reduce barriers to engagement. This makes it possible to hear from community members left out by traditional forms of engagement. Not only does this lead to more equitable engagement, but it builds stronger relationships with the community.

How will Kitchener advance water equity?

Kitchener Utilities - Gas, Water, Sanitary and Stormwater - are still early in our water equity journey. But the Director of Gas & Water, Greg St. Louis, and I are committed to this journey. We've begun laying the groundwork to build relationships and trust with our residents. We're changing how, what, where, and how frequently we engage with residents through:

  • pop-up engagement events
  • virtual and in-person public information open houses
  • QR codes on construction signs
  • notifications through the MyKitchener portal
  • information shared through our social media feeds
  • online surveys
  • opportunities to participate through our Engage pages

These engagement approaches are not one-offs, and we'll continue trying new methods to reach the whole community. This is the City's engagement standard. As a utility, we’re working to ensure that community feedback and relationship-building guide the collaborative development of utility programs. It's our new approach and commitment to live by the mantra echoed in Cathy's presentation - Know Better, Do Better!

Help Kitchener advance water equity. Join the conversation by sharing your ideas!

We want to hear from you. Tell us:

  • What did you take away from Cathy’s talk that you’d like to see in our community? What might water equity look like in Kitchener?
  • Water inequities come in many forms. What stories or examples are you hearing about water vulnerabilities in Kitchener?

Share your thoughts and ideas

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Thank you to everyone who joined us for this five-part speaker series in 2022/2023. Together, we explored topics related to how we can make city infrastructure and services more equitable and accessible for all residents. The speaker series has now concluded. If you have any questions, please contact the Planning division at

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