The Innovation Forum 2021 returned this year. Find out why it was the perfect reunion for the global water sector to kickstart Aquatech Amsterdam.
A perfect return
Celebrating Water’s Changemakers. That was the tagline of this year’s Innovation Forum, which kickstarted event proceedings in Amsterdam.
Innovators, investors, start-ups, utilities and even a futurist united together to kickstart Aquatech activities.
For many, it was the first international trip – a celebratory reunion of an industry, an international community, a connected tribe that for the best part of two years had been communicating virtually from their homes during the uncertainty of a pandemic.
For this year’s event, we wanted to shake things up. We wanted to bring new people to the sector. Fresh perspectives can bring a lot of value and often spot the opportunities in the challenges others have been trying to solve for some time.
What started with awkward handshakes/fist bump combinations, rapidly moved into relaxed, open conversations between friends old and new.
On the Sunday evening, a small, invited gathering of 60 water professionals joined what was the industry’s first F**K Up night - a partner brand and movement that celebrates stories of personal and professional failure.
Not designed to point the finger at utility faults, mistakes or endangering public health, we wanted to bring in stories from the wider water innovation ecosystem.
Three speakers took to the stage to share stories of when things didn’t work out – a rarity for a conservative industry normally afraid to talk about failure. We brought hushed, whispered stories from the side-lines to the main stage.
An entrepreneurial start-up, Victoria Edwards, co-founder of FIDO Tech UK, joined together with leading consultant, Dr Piers Clark, founder and chairman of Isle and HP Nanda, global VP of DuPont Water Solutions.
“Learning from failure is relatable to all of us – we just don’t talk about it.”
The three stories shared (I won’t publish here), not only sparked cathartic feelings for the speakers but also the audience too. Learning from failure is relatable to all of us – we just don’t talk about it.
By the end of the evening, the audience joined the stage to openly share their own failures in an open, honest and human dialogue perhaps alien yet equally refreshing as the first reunion of water professionals.
Always ask why
Kickstarting the Innovation Forum the next day, Shawn Harris discussed moving from the US to the Netherlands – a move that sparked her entrepreneurial journey to found fruit and vegetable produce company, Nature’s Pride and rightly earn her moniker ‘the avocado queen’.
She spoke openly about the increased interest from entrepreneurs into climate solutions, why aligned action is needed from investors into water and why she believes in investing to co-founders.
Immediately afterwards a panel discussion threw together futurist Aric Dromi together with seasoned water professional Wim Drossaert, CEO of Dutch utility Dunea.
Looking into a possible future, including 2050 fictitious headlines of water wars and an environment riddled with PFAS, the heated exchange provided some early, and very provocative food for thought for the audience.
Ben Tam, chief executive of Isle expertly navigated the discussion through to an optimistic outcome that challenged the industry to challenge itself to do better, to ask why and reflect on how current minor challenges, without action, could snowball into giant ones.
Culture change, not clash
The Innovation Forum brought together not one, but four discussions on culture change. This included innovation internally within utilities, through to investor diversification on water, partnerships and merger & acquisition activity and also AI, digitalisation and overcoming ageing workforces.
New people joined the conference - for many, the first time attending the Innovation Forum. This included Louise Vinther from Denmark, lab agent from the Innovation Lab.
With a background in psychology and experience in “culture mapping” Danish utilities, she orchestrated a discussion between UK and Flemish water utilities on their internal processes.
The conference then built to a crescendo in the afternoon. Starting with a “Digital Derby” – four digital start-ups pitched to an experience panel of judges, with the audience voting in real-time.
Amanda Sequeira, co-founder of start-up Vapar, which uses AI to cross reference internal sewer CCTV images and spot anomalies, secured first place with the majority of votes.
The “Battle of the Gladiators” then concluded proceedings, with three teams of two anonymous “changemaker scouts” bringing a chosen changemaker to the Colosseum.
The scouts passionately pitched the innovations to Will Sarni, founder of Water Foundry and given the moniker “Caesar” to give a thumbs up or down.
This edition of the Innovation Forum was, without doubt, one of the most challenging and yet rewarding to bring together.
Full credit goes to the Aquatech Amsterdam team and the advisory board in their support to make this happen.
I’m convinced that we need more outsiders in the water sector. We need to positively frame the innovators, the innovations and the great things this industry is doing to bring in a wider perspective.
The Innovation Forum accomplished that. It was exactly the event we all needed after a respite. To drive innovation, we need collaboration and that is best done in person, together.
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