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We need to understand what water innovation is - Fiona Regan

Thursday, 14 September 2023

Ahead of the Aquatech Innovation Forum, where she will be moderating the opening discussion, Fiona Regan, Director of the Dublin City University (DCU) Water Institute, offers insights into the challenges and opportunities in the field of water technology innovation. 


Innovative solutions in water technology

Over the years, you've witnessed remarkable advancements in water technology. Could you highlight some of the major obstacles and challenges that continue to impede the widespread adoption of innovative water solutions? 

There is a real need to identify, test and deploy innovative solutions that accelerate progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – clean water and sanitation for all – everywhere. 
However, from a utility perspective, the job needs to be done within budget and in a certain timeframe, to meet compliance requirements or supply the service, that in itself does not provide much space for innovation or for adoption of alternative solutions. Water service providers are resource-limited, sometimes lacking sufficiently skilled staff and financing to invest in research and testing, and deploying new technologies.  
Innovative solutions do exist. Advances in sensor technology, computing, artificial intelligence, and big data management, can help monitor water quantity and quality and inform operational decisions by the policy makers and water management companies. Also, innovations in nature-based systems to manage water are available that can contribute to resilient water management.

I believe that we can see improved adoption of solutions, if we build and nurture multi-stakeholder platforms to promote innovation uptake at all levels – local and national. This should include civil society associations – to build a partnership for change. To further encourage adoption, support should be given to entrepreneurs who promote water innovation, so that new ways to sustainably manage water evolve.


Working together to breakdown barriers

Innovation often faces roadblocks when it comes to established industries. How can stakeholders, from governments to corporations, work together to break down these barriers and accelerate the adoption of cutting-edge water technology solutions? 

First of all we need to understand what innovation is. Let’s not turn people off with terms.  

Innovation is a new idea or a new method, it is the practical implementation of ideas that can result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in how we offer services like water supply and sanitation. Innovation means doing things better and more efficiently by adopting technology. But utilities are tied by their obligation to provide the service.  

However, technology solutions are available to perhaps help utilities solve big challenges: like leak repair technologies that can find and fix buried pipe leaks, and artificial intelligence that can predict the risk of leaks, and sensor technologies for in situ water quality monitoring.  

So why then are these solutions not deployed? 

Today’s water utilities are in a difficult place. The impacts of climate change, the needs of populations in urban areas and an economic crisis like none other - all demand that they do more with less. Utilities must provide resilient, efficient and sustainable water supply and sanitation services to more people with limited budgets. Therefore, innovation may not be a priority.


 Aquatech Innovation Forum

The upcoming Aquatech Innovation Forum is generating excitement across the industry. Could you share what you're most looking forward to at this event, and how do you envision it propelling the conversation around water technology? 

We need to bring the know-how of innovators together with potential end-users.  

We are living in an age of massive technological innovation. Some call this the Fourth Industrial Revolution. However, adoption of new technologies by utilities has been slow, such as opportunities perhaps to deploy solutions that could significantly improve safety, water supply efficiency, operations, treatment and monitoring.  

What I hope from the Aquatech Innovation Forum is a no frills open discussion about bridging the gap between innovators and users. It will be an opportunity to ask the questions about the implementation of solutions, where we already know there are challenges (leaks, treatment, cost of chemicals, operations etc).  
Also, a bigger question: how can the risk of testing innovative solutions be overcome, where data generated could lead to new businesses and scale-up opportunities? This is linked to disruptive innovation, where new opportunities might appear on the back of gathering data.  


Sparking meaningful discussion

As a keynote speaker for the opening session, what reactions do you hope to provoke among the attendees? What key message do you intend to convey to inspire a shift towards more innovative and sustainable water solutions? 

My message is about collaboration. We hear the phrase, ‘collaborate to innovate’ and it’s true.  

Collaboration across domain/expertise areas is needed. Translating technologies from one area (materials/polymers/additive manufacture/ AI) to the water area is a route for innovation. We need to collaborate across disciplines.  
I believe that the water and sanitation sector needs strong water champions. This includes people from government, policy interface, research, local water agencies and the public. We need to build local ecosystems that are conducive to innovation while establishing more concrete commitments for the global community, both public and private. Modularity of systems offers potential for rural application and scale-up, and potential for integration as the need arises. 
There is a big gap of information on existing technologies and the potential benefits such technologies can bring, creating a supply-demand information gap. This will require data to be more transparent and available for measuring success. Data from testing technologies is hugely valuable both to the utility/community and also to the developer for building opportunities. Win-win! 


Stakeholder collaboration

In your experience, collaboration has been a driving force behind successful water technology initiatives. How can different stakeholders, including researchers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers, collaborate effectively to ensure the operationalisation of these innovative solutions on a global scale? 
This will require new models and platforms for radical, inclusive, collaboration. I strongly believe that we need collaborative incubation centres for water technologies. We need test beds, demonstration sites that are managed with access support, engineering support, acceleration opportunities to meet the full end-to-end needs of the developer/innovator if you like and the utility or service provider.  Because here we are not just talking about utilities, we need to think about water reservoirs, flood risk management, desalination for drinking water and so on.  
Water is not seen as an essential resource in many areas of the world – until now.  
Imagine, establishing test beds that could be accessed internationally with specialist capability to trial technologies to gather data to prove the technology. These types of infrastructures are available for testing marine energy systems, why not establish this kind of test bed infrastructure for water resource management? 
Developing countries where water stress has been experienced for decades are excellent test beds for scale-up of AI-based monitoring systems, or water pumps and modular treatment infrastructure.   
I love to read about innovations that have a positive impact like – automated leak detection devices that have saved millions of litres of water in India, wave powered desalination, or technologies using machine learning that can optimise crop yields in West Africa. There are so many great examples, that can have a huge impact.  
Political leadership and political will in government are critical for increasing the reach of innovation.  


Regulation for innovation

Navigating regulatory landscapes can be a daunting task for innovators. What strategies can be employed to encourage regulatory frameworks that foster rather than hinder the integration of novel water technology solutions? 
Firstly, regulation is the main driver for innovation or lack of, in the water sector. I believe that climate change creates a significant driver in terms of achieving water security globally.  
Our language needs to change from water supply to water security.  
I talked about the importance of multi-disciplinary test beds and incubators – which must be seen as part of a collaborative framework for innovation. These must include regulators to guide the process of innovation and subsequent development and scale-up. 
Entrepreneurs world-wide are seeing a greater willingness by utilities and business to test technologies – this is so critical. Some examples include: the remote sensing (satellite and drone-based) of water, which can help with water accounting for example; the IoT or AI, enabling smart irrigation, water quality control, when coupled with the significant computing capacity available, means we can develop usable models for water management.  


Sustainability and technology

Sustainable practices are at the core of innovative water solutions. Could you elaborate on how the synergy between technology and sustainability can lead to long-term positive impacts on both the environment and communities? 
In the context of climate change we need to consider a sustainable future.  What that means in water terms is a secure (in terms of supply and safety) water resource. As the global population heads towards 9.7 billion people by 2050, it is critical to produce more with less everywhere. By developing water innovations with this ethos, we prepare for future water shortages and challenges, where currently they are not critical, and meanwhile we can provide solutions where they are most needed.  We cannot continue to use water at the volumes we currently do.  
Remember, your shower should be no longer than your favourite song – not Stairway to Heaven! 
The entire world, not just the developing world, will need to increase water resource resilience and sustainability. Innovation and technology have a vital role to play in scarcity and safety, water efficiency, utility operations, monitoring and treatment and data and analytics. 


New blood entering the industry

The water crisis is a pressing global issue. What advice would you give to young professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs who are passionate about making a difference through water technology innovation? How can they channel their enthusiasm into tangible solutions? 
This sector needs specialists in all disciplines from engineering, life-sciences, governance, corruption, finance and economics as well as communication, to meet the needs of a changing climate, a growing population and a water resource under pressure. 

There is nothing more valuable than working in a field where there can be significant improvements in quality of life and ecosystem health.  This can also lead to better ecosystem services, economic and sustainable development. 
A key to channeling enthusiasm is to understand the needs, speaking to utilities, local authorities or even better to visit places where water stress is a real issue, and seeing the potential for impact of implementing innovative solutions on the ground.  
Something perhaps worth considering is that disruptive innovations are not breakthrough technologies,  but rather they are innovations that make products and services more accessible to a larger population. Therefore enthusiastic entrepreneurs might consider reengineering an established technology or system to create something that can be taken up on a large scale. We see the potential for AI in this area, really transforming how data can be used to create solutions at scale. Networks to encourage transdisciplinary discussions could be part of the proposed incubation or test beds I mentioned. 


Multi-stakeholder collaboration

Often, the benefits of innovative solutions might not be immediately apparent to all stakeholders. How can effective communication strategies be employed to bridge the understanding gap and garner support for these transformative water technologies? 

I come back to multidisciplinary or multi-stakeholder collaboration. This means communicating across topics where we are outside of our comfort zone. But this is a great opportunity to learn. Workshops involving multiple disciplines and stakeholders are valuable to aid information sharing, using data gathered, case studies and multiple examples. 
It is interesting for me to see a growing appetite for innovation in many parts of the world.  However, the regulatory framework, satisfaction level with current technology and reluctance for change hinder adoption and testing. The problems are many and varied: leaks, water quality changes due to climate change, chemical usage costs, removal of emerging chemicals, lead in old infrastructure, water conservation, water supply, wastewater treatment etc.  
I observe the Utility of the Future Programme of the World Bank, which has objectives of improving and transforming utilities, bringing utilities along with peers (globally) and strengthening their capabilities to build tools for the water and sanitation sector. There is a recognition of a longer term process that is collaborative and requires resources.  
Again I would like to see water innovation and test platforms, to match innovators with opportunities.  By creating communities we can accelerate innovation, supporting technology development and implementing financing mechanisms. Collaboration is key to progress towards global water security. Without recognising and improving water security issues, regions and countries will not be able to adapt, decarbonize, or be resilient to climate change.  


Fiona Regan will be hosting the opening keynote discussion – The Innovation Forum Great Mash Up – on Monday 6th November, part of Aquatech Amsterdam. For more information and to register, visit the website of the Innovation Forum.