The advantage of being new
With only a year in, Stephane Bessadi still basks in that glow of optimism, ready to push the boundaries of ADB to innovate and introduce technologies that have long been practiced by the private sector.
Senior water utility specialist Stephane Bessadi is all about alchemy and experimentation.
He likes tinkering with new ways to solve pervasive urban water issues, and he feels that a good working water utility needs the right balance of elements. Marseilles-born Stephane, who has spent 15 years working for the private water companies, primarily Suez Environnement, has accumulated all that he can from the corporate sphere, including that boldness to pilot novel ideas and services. At the turn of his fourth decade in life, one could say that in a process akin to trial and error, he’s rediscovering his inclination for development—and so he joined ADB at the start of 2017.
His first experience of international development was in South America, doing his applied studies as part of his master’s degree in water management at Engref Montpellier, a French institution specializing at said field. His first job also had him based in Guinea in Africa for Agence Française de Développement (AFD). According to Stephane, he wants to bring his private sector experience and knack for innovation to invigorate the work of development.
He says: “The cities of Asia continue to grow and grow, but what is not growing at the same rate are water resources. So at some stage, if there is no tremendous effort in terms of efficiency, there will not be enough water for everyone.”
Stephane entered ADB as part of the Experts Pool, a recently formed arrangement to attract private sector talent, and he is imbibing the role completely. As part of the Urban Sector Group secretariat, he provides close support to operations, including current projects in Georgia, India, Nepal, and the People's Republic of China, as well as supervises the next phase of the Water Operators Partnerships (WOPs) Program, in which the plan will have longer and larger interventions for recipient water utilities that can pave the way for loan investments.
Below is an excerpt of the interview with this Frenchman, who counts travel and outdoor sports as his interests outside of his passion for water:
“It's still a long road ahead but I strongly believe that if you don't test things, it's very difficult to innovate. All the big innovations in the world have come from testing, from experimenting.”
Senior Water Utility Specialist
Why did you leave the private sector and join ADB?
Stephane: : Actually my first work experience was with a donor, a bilateral French agency, the Agence Française de Développement. It gave me a taste for development; but I really wanted to work on the ground and to learn from the private sector. I did not want to have an administrative career, so after my experience with AFD I quit and began working for a private company. And after 15 years, I wanted to go back to the development world. Lucky enough, there was this opportunity with ADB. It was the perfect timing for me. I had turned 40 and I thought this was a good time to start a new chapter of my life.
Also, I had a taste of Asia before and I liked it. One of my sons was born in Singapore, and another in Jakarta, and one in Saudi Arabia.
You’ve been with ADB for almost a year. How is it so far? Does it meet your expectations in terms of working for development?
Stephane: Yes. In my previous professional life what I really liked was the technological innovation. I was very interested with that, especially during the early parts of my career. When I was working in Jakarta, for example, I had the opportunity to develop a new technique to find invisible leaks. When I was in Saudi Arabia I developed a smart system for water management. That’s what I liked in my previous life, to be able to transform an organization through technological tools and advanced smart systems. And this is what I liked in ADB. I really felt that I was coming at a good time, wherein the organization really wants to transform itself and use smart systems, new technologies, and innovative tools. There’s this willingness to transform. Of course, it’s still a long road ahead but I strongly believe that if you don’t test things, it’s very difficult to innovate. All the big innovations in the world have come from testing, from experimenting. I don’t know anyone in ADB who will not be supportive if you have a good idea.
What have you done to apply new technologies and innovate in ADB or how do you plan to introduce it?
Stephane: What I learned working as an operator, especially in difficult conditions, is that technologies give you a plus because you can collect data and you can understand the situation much more easily. Most private companies will focus on innovation for developed countries or high-tech cities like Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong; but I think it’s important that ADB supports innovation in more deteriorated conditions. To make a parallel comparison, today in developing countries everybody has a smartphone. My idea is to implement technologies in different countries like Nepal, Georgia, or [the People’s Republic of] China, and in the Pacific that can adopt climate change data to asset management, make it mainstream.
As an example, when I was in Saudi Arabia, I introduced a new management tool based on about 400 field data loggers and in one year we were able to collect pressure and flow data in real time. This data logger is a small technological application that you put under the ground and connect to the network. You plug it to the pipes and it can record what is the pressure and flow of your network. If you put that everywhere you have a real-time understanding of how your network is behaving. You can quickly collect data that will take you five years to collect if you are using traditional application. So little by little, I am trying to introduce new technologies more systematically in ADB in parallel with the infrastructure. Plus, there’s an idea that these technologies should not be reserved for high-tech cities or developed countries, so let’s try to use it.
What about the thinking that questions the use of smart solutions when basic access is still lacking?
Stephane: These smart solutions may help to accelerate basic access to everyone. It will not replace the infrastructure but it may help to implement the solution more wisely and more rapidly. For example, again if you use the comparison of the phone, who today will recommend to develop a fixed phone infrastructure in one country? Nobody, because it’s already gone. If you take this example and transfer it to water, then why will you still use old technology if you have something better on the market? Of course you need to make sure it’s cost-efficient. You cannot introduce a very expensive technology in a very low-income area. I think this is our role in ADB, to push the markets to develop a cost-efficient solution.
Everything now seems to be about data from technology, especially to understand a situation.
Stephane: As you know to work in one country or city, you have to understand the situation and I strongly think that the diagnosis part is extremely important. It has to be an overall diagnosis where you take into account not only the technical aspect but also the capacity and operational constraints. Currently, we are developing a utility diagnostics tool that will introduce these different components – capacities, technical, and organizational levels of the utility – to make sure that we make a good diagnosis and be able to understand how we need to develop the utility.
In my previous professional life, one important lesson I learned was a good utility operation is like alchemy, or chemistry. You need a lot of different ingredients to make it work. And in order to identify all these ingredients we are developing this online diagnostics tool that will allow to diagnose all these components and to propose practical solutions to address issues, including climate change. This is really something we want to introduce. It’s impossible today not to take into account climate change so we’re also trying to develop an ADB tool that at asset level can consider climate change data at the short, medium, and long term. It’s really something we hope is innovative and of course the idea is to develop the best infrastructure with ADB funds and to make sure they are operated the best way possible.
Do you foresee any challenges in wanting to be innovative in ADB, since the organization itself is still trying to learn this?
Stephane: I think having worked in challenging contexts gave me this trait of being persistent. I’m not stopping at the first difficulty. I think having landed a role in SDCC [the Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department] is the perfect place to experiment since we are less on the operations and the daily stress of project implementation. We have more chance to link with other partners and experiment things. It’s also why I will start to push, as much as possible, for field experimentation in the scope of a technical assistance or even in projects, and to try bringing in new types of actors in ADB.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Stephane: I like outdoor sports and it’s what I try to do during summer or vacation. I like hiking or going to the seaside. Eventually I’ll try to start that here in Manila. For now during the weekends I’m quite busy with my family, organizing our activities. I’m the driver on weekends! I like music also. I play drums and used to play guitar before. It’s a good way to socialize in any country you’re going or if I want to take a break from work. It’s also something my spouse and I impart to my kids, playing an instrument. We have a music room in the house. I hope it’s not too hard for the neighbors!