The Grand Challengers Podcast Episode #22

“God-like technologies in medieval institutions”, discussing paradigm shifts for greener, water-resilient cities

Guest: Françoise Bichai

January 23rd, 2024

Episode Teaser


“…I think what’s important is to question the way we’ve been doing things so far…”

Françoise Bichai – Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Geological and Mining Engineering at Polytechnique Montreal and a passionate water engineer, interdisciplinary scientist and avid traveler. Françoise studied a Bachelor in Civil Engineering in 2005 during which she worked on NGO projects in South America. After obtaining her PhD in environmental engineering in 2010, she once again undertook her postdoc across the world, including Spain, The Netherlands, and Harvard University in the US. Françoise is passionate about adapting our water infrastructure to cope with growing cities and climate change, all while bringing nature back into the cities.

On today’s show, we hear about Françoise’s multi-faceted and incredible journey as we discuss the complexities of collaborating across disciplines, drawing upon inspiration from symphony orchestras and our very own childhood memories. We learn about what is required for a real paradigm shift towards more sustainable water infrastructure and the fundamental knowledge she is developing within her research team to bring nature back into our cities, one benefit at a time.


Françoise Bichai is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Geological and Mining Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, specialising in integrated urban water management. She obtained her Bachelor in Civil Engineering from Polytechnique in 2005 and continued thereon with her Masters and PhD in Environmental Engineering, which she conferred in 2010. An NSERC doctoral and postdoctoral fellow, she accumulated a wealth of international experience, including research stays in the Netherlands (KWR Watercycle Research Institute), Spain (PSA-CIEMAT), the United States (Harvard University) and Australia. Notably, she participated in the Harvard Water Security Initiative, a highly interdisciplinary research group led by Professor J. Briscoe (Stockholm Water Prize laureate).

Françoise has experience in environmental consulting and project management in Quebec (Golder Associates Ltd.) and with international organisations in the water sector (e.g., GWOPA, UN-Habitat). She was a lecturer-researcher at UNESCO IHE-Delft (Netherlands), where she maintains an affiliation as a visiting researcher. Prior to embarking on her research career, she was heavily involved in a number of NGO projects in Latin America.

Her research program at Polytechnique aims to develop decision-support tools for municipalities to increase the resilience of urban water systems under natural and anthropogenic pressures. In particular, she is interested in understanding and managing risks related to urban water quality and quantity in hybrid systems, i.e., in the role of decentralised or small-scale systems (including green infrastructure for stormwater management, satellite wastewater systems) that integrate into existing centralised urban water systems.

Resources Related to the Episode

  • The overarching and original quote that found its way into the episode’s title and discussion framing is: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” by E.O. Wilson (American Sociobiologist, Harvard faculty, 1929-2021)
  • Françoise’s music career:
  • We refer to Martijn Kuller in Episode 3 – check out his Episode as it complements this episode quite nicely.
  • Learn more about Engineers without Borders Canada as well as the World University Service of Canada (WUSC)
  • Peru and its landscape: Things to do and impressions of its landscape
  • Drinking water 101: Chlorine Disinfection [CDC Link] [SDWF]
  • Read about the incredible life of Professor John Briscoe
  • The T-Shaped Professional in interdisciplinary work [Wikipedia]
    • The original article about the concept in the Harvard Business Review [Link]
    • Another interesting article about i-shaped and t-shaped professionals in the Harvard Business Review [Link]
    • The article about the surfers and the divers [Link]
    • Useful special issue on the topic in Nature [Link]
  • The cylinder’s projections from different angles as an example of perspectives [Link] [Reddit Discussion]
  • Françoise’s paper on the Australian work: Bichai, F., Ryan, H., Fitzgerald, C., Williams, K., Abdelmoteleb, A., Brotchie, R. and Komatsu, R., 2015. Understanding the role of alternative water supply in an urban water security strategy: An analytical framework for decision-making. Urban Water Journal12(3), pp.175-189. [Link]
  • More on the Millennium Drought and Australia’s Water situation
  • Some research on the economy of density: Eggimann, S., Truffer, B. and Maurer, M., 2016. Economies of density for on-site waste water treatment. Water research101, pp.476-489. [Link]
  • Françoise’s paper on the paradigm shift in water: Bichai, F. and Cabrera Flamini, A., 2018. The Water‐Sensitive City: Implications of an urban water management paradigm and its globalization. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews: water5(3), p.e1276. [Link]
  • Vulnearbility of systems to climate change, particularly in northern latitude regions: Leveque, B., Burnet, J.B., Dorner, S. and Bichai, F., 2021. Impact of climate change on the vulnerability of drinking water intakes in a northern region. Sustainable Cities and Society66, p.102656. [Link]
  • Disney’s Fantasia – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice:
  • On green infrastructure:
    • For more discussions around opportunistic planning of Green Infrastructure, refer to Episode 3 with Martijn Kuller and its accompanying show notes.
    • On ecogentrification or green gentrification:
      • Depietri, Y., 2022. Planning for urban green infrastructure: addressing tradeoffs and synergies. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability54, p.101148. [Link]
      • Zuniga-Teran, A.A., Gerlak, A.K., Elder, A.D. and Tam, A., 2021. The unjust distribution of urban green infrastructure is just the tip of the iceberg: A systematic review of place-based studies. Environmental Science & Policy126, pp.234-245. [Link]
    • House prices vs. Green Infrastructure: Pandit, R., Polyakov, M., Tapsuwan, S. and Moran, T., 2013. The effect of street trees on property value in Perth, Western Australia. Landscape and Urban Planning110, pp.134-142. [Link]
    • Françoise’s research relating GI to active mobility and the terminology: Lemieux, C., Bichai, F. and Boisjoly, G., 2023. Synergy between green stormwater infrastructure and active mobility: A comprehensive literature review. Sustainable Cities and Society, p.104900. [Link]
    • GI and Snow:
      • Gougeon, G., Bouattour, O., Formankova, E., St-Laurent, J., Doucet, S., Dorner, S., Lacroix, S., Kuller, M., Dagenais, D. and Bichai, F., 2022. Impact of bioretention cells in cities with a cold climate: modeling snow management based on a case study. Blue-Green Systems5(1), pp.1-17. [Link]
      • For a further perspective on GI in snow conditions, check out Episode 21 with Danielle Dagenais
    • The work on the drinking water temperature and GI synergies is still under review, it will be posted here once published.
  • The SSANTO Planning-Support Tool developed by Martijn Kuller, which Françoise and her team are now working to expand and adapt to the Canadian context.
  • Françoise mentions Danielle Dagenais from University of Montreal, she is the guest of Episode 21, which you can check out here
  • Françoise’s paper on solar disinfection and using lettuce – “Thanks a Lettuce” 😉:
    • Bichai, F., Polo-López, M.I. and Ibañez, P.F., 2012. Solar disinfection of wastewater to reduce contamination of lettuce crops by Escherichia coli in reclaimed water irrigation. Water research46(18), pp.6040-6050. [Link]

Connect with Françoise Bichai

Related Episodes

Episode #3 – Martijn Kuller
A game of planning, a set of maps and a match of nature-based solutions
Episode #8 – Megan Farrelly
Don’t forget the social – experiments in urban water and energy transitions
Episode 20 – Belinda Hatt
Stormwater control measures, healthy waterways, battleships and karate at the riverside camp
Episode 21 – Danielle Dagenais
The paradox of nature – process and parts and its implications for green infrastructure