Alex Cech: Accelerating water innovation across Austalia and New Zealand
Utilities Digital Solutions Australasia and Pacific

Alex Cech: Accelerating water innovation across Austalia and New Zealand

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Dr Alex Cech provides an update on the W-Lab initiative to accelerate innovation across 100 utilities across Australia and New Zealand.

Uplifting customer service and value

Over 100 water utilities across Australia and New Zealand joined forces at the end of last year to launch the W-Lab initiative.

Led by the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA), the collaboration included implementing a roadmap to help explore innovations and connect utilities to technology companies.

W-Lab will scout for technologies and solutions, acting as the ‘point of entry’ into the Australian and New Zealand water industry.

We caught up with Dr Alex Cech, chief technology officer at Isle (Asia-Pacific), one of the partners involved in the W-Lab alongside ThinkPlace, to find out the latest progress.

With 15 years of engineering, consulting and entrepreneurship experience, she works as the “conduit” between Isle’s global network, new technologies and Australian and New Zealand (ANZ) water utilities.

Discussing the motivation behind creating W-Lab, she told Aquatech Online “WSAA recognised the need for a new dedicated program to raise awareness of innovative technologies and enable best practice decision making now and for the future. This aligns well with the shared member objective of uplifting customer service and value.”

The following is a summary from the interview:

Which innovation “lab” or accelerator programmes globally did W-Lab take inspiration from and why?

Dr Alex Cech OLY (AC): W-Lab was inspired by the best parts of two outstanding innovation programs, and the selection of the delivery team was based on the experience in the design and management of these programs both globally and locally in Australia.

Isle brings a wealth of experience and insights from the water sector gained from delivering TAG, the Technology Approval Group on a global scale for over 10 years - before innovation became a "buzzword". TAG provides an environment for utilities to evaluate and collaborate on new technologies in the water and waste sectors.

“A-Lab uses design thinking at its core to solve complex challenges."

Complemented by this, Isle was impressed with the capabilities of ThinkPlace in its partnership with MHC Consulting and ARENA to deliver the A-Lab. ARENA is the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and A-Lab is their innovation program to foster cross-sector partnerships and world-class projects to enable the transition to clean energy. A-Lab uses design thinking at its core to solve complex challenges.

ThinkPlace is Isle's partner in the delivery W-Lab. It combines bringing design thinking and technology innovation together that makes W-Lab unique and a world-first for the water sector.

Aquatech: Over 100 utilities joined forces to create a “technology roadmap” that places humans, not technology, at the centre. How important is this?

AC: Placing the most important part of their business at the centre united the ANZ water industry, enabling a diverse range of utilities to share a common vision and create a Technology Roadmap which is a first for the industry.

The Roadmap builds on the Australian Urban Water Industry's customer-centric focus to achieve better outcomes of service delivery and value. A common vision around a new water future was set by a diverse membership across Australia and New Zealand through this alignment.

The Roadmap and the process of W-Lab recognise that for technology to succeed, it must be aligned to the values and the needs of the people who are responsible for its practical application. This approach has been fundamental to the design and in the way we have engaged with participating members and is considered as critical to achieving success. To date, we are aware that the Roadmap is a daily reference tool members use within their organisations to motivate for a different approach or change.

Aquatech: How did you ensure you had a healthy balance of stakeholders at the table on this development?

AC: W-Lab harnesses a collaborative design concept called the "Four Voices of Design”. It is a concept that goes further than simple collaboration. It is a process for bringing together diverse groups of people and brokering a balance between those perspectives to identify and achieve shared objectives. Co-design is an antidote to promoting a narrow viewpoint as it engages all stakeholders in constructive dialogue to optimise the project outcome.

“Co-design is an antidote to promoting a narrow viewpoint as it engages all stakeholders in constructive dialogue.”

As a WSAA-led program, W-Lab was able to access all parts of the ANZ membership, including large and small utilities, councils, and regional utilities as well as the different "voices" within each. At the first W-Lab Summit, engagement was deliberately set to include all the voices within each member organisation, from CEO to frontline worker, from innovation to subject matter expert.

W-Lab also had a fantastic line-up of provocateurs who pushed thinking from other water businesses worldwide and outside the water industry - these included entrepreneurs, academics, consultants and gamification experts.

Aquatech: The WSAA summarises the ‘Technology Portal’ down to four stages: ideate, incubate, accelerate and communicate. Which of these areas do you think the water sectors across Australia and New Zealand need the most help?

AC: The accelerate phase is the stage where the majority of utilities need the most support. While utilities are enthusiastic at looking for new opportunities to improve their business, without clear motivation and effective communication, the right stakeholders cannot contribute to a meaningful process resulting in a confident decision on the adoption of new technology.

In this way Australian and New Zealand utilities are not unique. What W-Lab establishes is a process which provides the confidence and capability through collaboration in addressing risk, improving communication and achieving the positive change that is needed to achieve the common vision.

Aquatech: Some people say water utilities are not innovative – it’s not in their nature, especially to take risks with “new innovations” when delivering public water supply. Agree/disagree and thoughts?

AC: While the water industry is understandably conservative, from our perspective we continuously see our members pushing the boundary of what can be done within the often restrictive and onerous regulatory environment, to action new ideas for better value to customers and communities. The challenges our industry face present an imperative to seek ways to innovate, manage the risk and deliver at the same time.

“The context of risk with “new innovation” is high, so we are looking at how to create an innovation ecosystem.”

The context of risk with "new innovation" and delivering public drinking water supply or even the treatment of sewage for that matter is high, so we are looking at how we create an innovation ecosystem responsive to this high-risk environment.

By this we mean, that utilities don’t sit with all the risk but that we can leverage off existing, dedicated demonstration facilities and communicate very clearly with technology solution providers on the minimum criteria to be met for commercial application.

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