Innovation Series AWWA

Introducing Innovation, Part 1: Innovation’s Challenges and Key Players

Let’s face it—the easy problems in the water industry have already been solved. To tackle the next wave of truly challenging problems over the coming years, the water industry must embrace new models of innovation and collaboration with the goal of enacting several step-change improvements across the global landscape. Accomplishing this will require new ways of thinking, increased investment in research and development (R&D) leading to breakthrough technologies, cross-discipline dialogue to break down barriers for more rapid development of new solutions, more flexible business models to share risk and reward and reduce nontechnology barriers to deploying these new solutions, and courageous legislation to enact pricing signals to drive much needed behavioral changes.

Recognizing the Challenges

One significant challenge for accelerating progress in the water industry, especially in the United States, is determining who owns the innovation mandate. The fragmentation of the industry and resultant solution sets, coupled with the differing frameworks and the opaque pricing signals of regulatory agencies, have left the innovation question at the starting gate. Unlike other technology sectors, it is much less clear who in industry, government, or the marketplace is charged with, resourced, and engaged enough to drive real change in the water sector. The US Environmental Protection Agency does excellent work in many important areas; however, unlike its peer agencies, it has a relatively small focus on R&D and has traditionally been more comfortable wielding a stick than a carrot. Although everyone alludes to the water–energy nexus, myself included, the US Department of Energy and, in particular, its innovation-focused Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy have done little about engaging in R&D efforts in water technology. Perhaps the most troubling symptom is the uniform sense of resignation among long-time water industry players in this dialogue. Through my involvement in financing and now leading Oasys Water (providing forward osmosis desalination technology), I have seen enough to appreciate the frustration of my much longer tenured colleagues—the pace of evolution in the water industry can leave you deeply wanting. It does not need to be this way.

Engaging Key Players

A much more open approach to innovation and collaboration is required to deliver truly novel solutions and grow the industry. This innovation and collaboration must fall to leaders from across the industry, including those in larger water companies, small startup companies, research settings, legislation, and regulation. Together we can drive this innovation dialogue and mandate by using our collective knowledge to make courageous and creative decisions. We have the power to drive innovation and realize the economic benefit of growing the market and profitability of new solutions.

If we can embrace a fresh mind- set on innovation, the water industry will be much more able to meet the world’s rapidly rising demand for freshwater, simultaneously reduce the cost to produce and reuse water, and deliver ever more sustainable solutions. So, where to begin? Taking a fresh approach to innovation will not be easy or quick, but there are already important and influential models of such innovation and collaboration that we can borrow from and adapt to the water industry.

This blog is an excerpt from Jim Matheson’s article for the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Journal entitled “How to get real innovation flowing in the water industry.”