Guest Column | December 5, 2016

Integrating Innovative Technology Into The Public Water Sector: A Need For Equilibrium

DrUmble

By Art Umble, Global Wastewater Practice Leader for Stantec Consulting

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If we are to realize the promise of innovation, implementation cannot be a risky proposition for water managers.

The water industry needs no convincing that it plays a critical role in shaping how communities develop. Water that is plentiful, accessible, and available at a usable quality is at the core of stable public health as well as the production of goods and services which build economies that form the social and cultural fabrics of a society. Water is, therefore, the resource of life.

Preserving water as a resource requires continual innovation in the means and methods necessary to maintain its quality to at least the minimum standard essential to sustain public health and keep economies growing. Innovation is required to expand water supplies, to collect used water and treat it to acceptable quality standards, and to recover it for reuse. Clearly, many innovations in water treatment for potable uses have resulted in significant positive advances in public health over the past century. Our challenge now lies in promoting new innovations in the treatment and reuse of used water, thereby closing the loop in the water cycle. This will result in further enhancements to the environment and a long-term platform for business and industry to sustain economies. The question is, what exactly is innovation, and how can we better apply its value to the treatment of used water and water reuse?

Many have provided definitions for innovation, but there is a wide range of perceptions across the water industry in terms of the role that innovation plays. As a result, many remain unconvinced that innovation must be a crucial component of water management strategy for sustainable communities. By definition, innovation is a systematic process that translates an idea into a good or service to meet an existing or new need, and creates a value for that good or service. The value piece can take on a variety of forms — for instance, improved cost- or time-effectiveness, improved safety for the end user, increases in a customer base, etc. The key is that the value has to show up as an increase to the economic bottom line for the entities implementing the innovation.1

To date, the water industry, which serves the public interest, has placed primary responsibility for innovation on the shoulders of the technology developers and providers and has expected them to navigate complicated pathways to integrate their innovation into the public water market spaces. Furthermore, the water industry has set high expectations for innovative technologies, requiring innovations to be “disruptive” — that is, providing a standard of operation that shifts the needle of performance by as much as 30 percent or more over conventional technology.2 Are expectations such as these hindering the adoption of new, innovative technologies within the water industry? If so, perhaps a more balanced expectation between the public water sector and the technology developer/provider, i.e., an equilibrium of sorts, is in order.

The public water sector has traditionally been a risk-averse industry, and for good reason. Protecting public health and environment are responsibilities that cannot be compromised. Adopting new, innovative technologies must therefore be viewed with great care and scrutiny. But there are elements in the innovation process that the public sector should consider which could bring more equilibrium to the responsible parties in adopting innovative technology. Such could result in greater benefit to both the public end user and the technology provider.

First, traditional methods of delivering technology solutions to the public water sector have been that the technology developer/provider, and all others in the supply chain for that delivery, must assume all risk associated with the solution. If the solution is a success, the end users (the public) receive all the benefits/rewards generated from that solution. Conversely, the developer (and the supply chain) are shackled with all the consequences if the solution fails. This tradition is a significant disincentive to the technology developer/provider, and the result is technologies possessing potentially great benefit rarely reach adoption. Therefore, the public water sector would be prudent to rethink how contracting for new technology products and services is done. There need to be contractual mechanisms in place that no longer push all the risk up the supply chain, but instead provide means to share the risks and the rewards.3

Secondly, the public water sector and the technology provider must invite the regulatory community to a partnership table. Too often, implementation of innovative technology is discouraged because few mechanisms are in place for regulators to permit a technology process. Additionally, regulations are often faulted for being so prescriptive that they stifle innovation advancement and adoption. One way to overcome this is for competing technology providers to first partner with each other and then with the regulator and owner. Though it is provocative, and perhaps controversial, precedents for this approach exist. For example, in the aerospace industry, which is one of the most heavily regulated industries today, it is not uncommon for competing companies to work together on facets of technology developments because they all recognize that the public’s confidence can never be jeopardized.4

These partnered competitors then work alongside regulators and their potential customers to shape the regulations to be consistent with the technologies they need to integrate, showing that though standards need a degree of deviation, there is no compromise of public safety or increased risk. In other words, it’s in all their best interests to cooperate.

Finally, the public water industry must recognize that moving an innovation from invention, development, and pilot/demonstration testing into outright adoption requires various skillsets. Often, innovative ideas are conceived in academic laboratories where research and development skills are readily available and researchers are highly experienced in R&D objectives. The public water industry should not expect, then, that these same skillsets will be necessary for moving the innovation into the market. Rather, the skillsets necessary for adoption include focus on marketing, sales, business management, and socio-economic strategies. This is not to imply that the academic role is forever sidelined. Rather, it merely takes a diminished leadership role, but continues to provide the technical support necessary to ensure applications are appropriate and perform as intended.

Adopting innovative technology requires a balanced approach, an equilibrium of sorts, between the technology developer/provider and the public water sector. This equilibrium is critical to the adoption of new, innovative technology into the water sector market space. When risk is more equitably shared, when proactive, triangulated partnerships are established between technology providers, regulators, and owners, and when the appropriate skillsets are recognized and appreciated for their respective and specific roles in the innovation and adoption process, only then can the public water sector begin to envision the real value that innovation poses for the industry. Only then will the industry close the loop on the water cycle and realize the benefits of a “One Water” culture.

References

  1. Balmforth, D., et al., “Innovation: Stepping Up the Industry”; Institution of Civil Engineers; United Kingdom (2015)
  2. O’Callahan, P., BlueTech Research (2015)
  3. Balmforth, “Innovation”
  4. Ibid.

About The Author

Art Umble is the wastewater practice leader for MWH Global, now part of Stantec. He provides technical analysis and support to design teams for new and rehabilitated municipal wastewater treatment/ resource recovery facilities. Umble is a leader in initiatives promoting the integration of emerging technology with environmental stewardship. He serves as vice-chair of the Research Council for the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation, and advisor/reviewer for collaborative research projects at both WE&RF and the WateReuse Foundation. He is also a Fellow of the Water Environment Federation.