Published 2018-11-22

This post is also available in Swedish

Annika Malm: driven to do good

The idea was that she would be the architect who created perfect construction plans. This never happened. Instead, water and wastewater filled her life and became her passion.
‘I like to make sure old things get used,’ says Annika Malm, Director of the newly launched programme Mistra InfraMaint.

Gingerly, I suggest that infrastructure may not be as exciting, as either a job or a research field. Her answer comes quickly.

‘There’s hardly anything more beautiful than an old brick pipe, but that’s not why I chose to work on water and wastewater. Rather, it’s my desire to take care of old things and make sure they’re used. That’s both fun and exciting.’

Malm also believes that, as a society, we must become better at making the most of what works and ensuring it does so in future too.

‘Everything else is a waste of resources.’

And now she has the chance to take her dedication one step further. As the new Programme Director of Mistra InfraMaint, she will be involved in the development of an industry that few people are researching, and in which investments have long been neglected.

She did not actually set out to devote her life to water and wastewater. In her youth, she dreamt of becoming an architect, developing perfect construction plans and optimising the various functions of buildings. To this end, she followed the four-year Technology Programme at upper secondary school.

Although the construction industry was in crisis when she completed her training, she went ahead and got a job. But it was not as enjoyable as she had imagined. To achieve what she wanted, she rapidly realised she would need to be a civil engineer. Thoughts gave way to action, and soon she was enrolled at Chalmers University of Technology.

‘My idea was that I would spend my life renovating old buildings.’

Again, things turned out differently. The construction courses at Chalmers University of Technology were simply too dull — at least when she compared them with the water courses she was following at the same time. There and then, she changed her life goals.

‘What’s fun and exciting is that water and wastewater aren’t a matter of precise science. They’re about analysing the limited knowledge we have and then making reasonable trade-offs.’

If it’s such fun, why have so few realised it?

‘It’s strange. But the truth is that we who work on infrastructure issues are dedicated to our field. The faces of many of my colleagues light up when they talk about what they do. Personally, I think it’s about having a feeling that we’re part of, and in charge of, something that benefits everyone.’

Malm sees more reasons why infrastructure is exciting — not least, that it is an area where developing and testing new technology are possible.

‘What’s more, there’s a lot for people interested in sustainability and environmental issues to do.’

One example is that those who ensure that rail transport is working properly are simultaneously helping by letting more people choose to travel by rail instead of air. And those who make our cycle paths safe make pedalling to work a viable alternative to burning petrol.

‘Conversely, you can justly claim that most things are a flop if the infrastructure doesn’t work.’

Malm is undoubtedly dedicated to her field. But, as a researcher, she has sometimes felt a little lonely over the years. She is in fact one of the few people with a PhD in water and wastewater.

Now, however, things are set to improve. As Mistra InfraMaint’s new Programme Director, she will ensure a much higher profile for infrastructure issues as a research area.

‘When I first saw Mistra’s call for proposals for the programme, I felt pure joy. Those who had formulated the text had managed to identify exactly what I think are the needs in the field. It’s not all about technology; it’s just as much about organisation.’

To explain what she means, she points out that Sweden has 290 municipalities and they all have to develop their own plans for maintaining their own roads. This means that there are only a few people who do this job in each municipal area.

‘It’s almost an impossible task. Maybe they can keep up with ongoing maintenance, but few have time to think long term. So we have to help the municipalities with staff training, operational planning support and improved organisation.’

She has high hopes of the programme deploying six PhD students (of a total of ten) in municipalities.

‘They’re going to act as bearers of new knowledge while helping to build bridges between the municipalities and the researchers, for their mutual benefit. What the municipalities can give back is more data that the researchers can use in their work. Today, there are major shortcomings there.’

The programme has just had its kick-off meeting, formed a programme management group and launched some of the 20 projects that are planned altogether.

These projects will address both very down-to-earth problems, such as how to maintain concrete structures, and questions like how to apply innovative solutions in practice. Equally important are the projects that aim to create decision support for everyone in the industry.

‘We’re also going to run an overall synthesis project. In it, we’ll find ways to share knowledge among various areas. But to succeed, we must start by creating a common language for various research disciplines. That’s crucial if the knowledge we have and get is to generate new models and methods that can be distributed to everyone.’

What’s the best thing about launching a big infrastructure programme?

‘That it’s so big and we’ve now got an opportunity to spread the enthusiasm and joy in industry.’

Malm spoke about what she considers to be the three biggest challenges to Swedish infrastructure, and what the Mistra InfraMaint programme can do about them:

  1. The skills shortage

The goal is to halve this shortage through targeted training courses for workers in the field, but also by spreading both existing knowledge and awareness of all the innovations that lie ahead.

  1. Too little maintenance

According to estimates, Sweden has underfunded the maintenance of its infrastructure by around 40 per cent, and has been doing so for a long time. This funding needs to be doubled.

  1. Changes in society

These relate to challenges due both to a warmer climate and to increased digitisation. It is now time to act to tackle looming problems, rather than just reacting to what is happening now.

Annika Malm in brief

Home: Gothenburg
Education: Master of Engineering from Chalmers University of Technology and a doctorate on how to prioritise various measures to optimise maintenance of water mains, by doing the right things at the right time, and not to waste money.
Work: employed at Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and as Programme Director of Mistra InfraMaint
Family: partner and five children (including stepchildren)
Interests: running, reading, life

Programme website: https://mistrainframaint.se/en/home/

Text: Per Westergård