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Accelerating Innovation in the Urban Water Sector

Our water systems need innovation, but the task of bringing new ideas to fruition falls on a sector that is regarded as conservative and risk averse, writes Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute.

Written by Michael Kiparsky Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Cars drive on Woodman Avenue in Panorama City, Calif., along a culvert where rainwater runoff is directed to a leach field on the side of the street. Water agencies increasingly need to rely on innovation to meet new water challenges, say experts.Michael Owen Baker, AP

Climate change and population growth are rapidly increasing stress on our water systems, challenging their ability to deliver critical services. To respond to this, we need more than simple course adjustments in how we manage our water – we need entirely new paradigms that will improve resource efficiency and support more sustainable urban water systems.

Considerable work is being done to develop new visions for sustainable water infrastructure. Actualizing these visions, however, is another battle, one that requires increasing innovation in the urban water sector.

Sewage as a source of heat, energy and nutrients? Modular water recycling systems for buildings? Engineered wetlands as water treatment systems, flood management and new habitat rolled into one? Urine-separating toilets?

These creative new concepts are challenging and complex to operationalize. And bringing these ideas to fruition must be done by our water, flood and wastewater systems managers – collectively a sector that is widely, albeit mostly anecdotally, regarded as conservative and risk averse in its decision-making. They face little upside and significant downside when it comes to new approaches, which creates a bottleneck for innovation.

These observations beg the question: how do we accelerate the pace of innovation in the urban water sector?

Evaluating Barriers to Innovation

President Barack Obama tours a local farm that has been affected by drought with Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown (left) in Los Banos, Calif., in February 2014. NASA scientists have begun deploying satellites and other advanced technology to help California water officials assess the state’s record drought and better manage it. (Jacquelyn Martin, AP)

President Barack Obama tours a local farm that has been affected by drought with Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown (left) in Los Banos, Calif., in February 2014. NASA scientists have begun deploying satellites and other advanced technology to help California water officials assess the state’s record drought and better manage it. (Jacquelyn Martin, AP)

In spite of (or perhaps because of) its importance, innovation has become an overused (as well as a loosely used) term, arguably in danger of losing its meaning. In our work, we define innovation as the development, application, diffusion and utilization of new knowledge. We focus on the institutional factors that matter for innovation – the rules, norms and conventions that influence decision-making play a crucial role in determining how innovation does and does not proceed.

We recently published a survey of wastewater utility managers in California. The survey was designed to assess the innovation deficit in urban water organizations and to identify means of supporting innovation. Our international group of collaborators conducted the survey in collaboration with the California Association of Sanitation Agencies.

The survey evaluated managers’ perceptions of innovative activity and the barriers and opportunities they face as decision-makers responsible for adoption of new technologies and management practices.

Key takeaways include the following:

  • Managers on the whole report spending relatively little time on activity related to innovation, which is expected by definition. But they also report spending less time than they think they should spend, given the challenges facing their utilities.
  • Managers believe innovation holds promise for better water quality and reduced costs. However, they are much more optimistic about its long-term potential than its short-term promise. This is important because the perception of limited relevance in and of itself may restrict long-term change.
  • Managers have a skewed perception of their own innovativeness – they think they are more innovative than they actually are. Approximately 87 percent of managers reported that their organizations have average or greater innovativeness relative to other utilities.
  • Key perceived barriers include cost and financing, risk and risk aversion and the regulatory environment. Interestingly, managers reported feeling relatively unhindered by the organizations they represent, including feeling freedom to make their own decisions and relatively unhindered by their boards of directors or staff.

There is a tendency to lionize risk takers and innovators in our modern society. So it is crucial to realize that the conclusions from this research should not be interpreted as personal judgements of the managers in this sector. Rather, it is an assessment of the lack of incentives and resistant conditions we have created for them to work in. It is those conditions that we study, and collectively can seek to change.

If the results from our work reflect broader realities in the municipal wastewater sector, they imply that systemic underinvestment in innovation cannot be resolved at the level of the individual agency or manager in isolation – which makes it all the more pleasing to observe some emerging actions by industry groups such as the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation, forward-looking regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water and, of course, ongoing research at a number of institutions around the world.

Ultimately, stronger incentives for rapid innovation are needed at multiple institutional levels if we are to develop advanced urban water systems that can sustain and protect the next generation.

This story first appeared on Legal Planet.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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