2020 has been quite a year. Industries around the world have been fundamentally disrupted. From accelerated remote working, to the adoption of digital solutions, some of the changes rapidly implemented will be here to stay.
Yet, this fundamental disruption has highlighted the importance of the water sector, often undervalued. Access to clean water and sanitation has been crucial to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
As we move into a new year, the challenge isn’t over. So what changes might we expect in 2021? We asked multiple water industry experts for their 2021 wish lists.
Implementing concepts of equity in water
Eva Martinez, head of smart water initiatives, FCC Aqualia (Spain)As 2020 has proven any prediction or forecast trend wrong, my water wish list for the water sector 2021 is both down to earth and still ambitious to accelerate water innovation.
First, let’s keep a holistic goal: pursue the vision of a smart water ecosystem, integrating intelligent digital tools, decentralised water services and decision making, reducing freshwater and energy use, and recovering nutrients and materials - resulting in a carbon free, sustainable hydrological cycle, in line with the concept of a resilient circular economy.
Development and adoption of technology is essential. Also, let’s prioritise communication, collaboration and inclusiveness:
- Communication to all relevant stakeholders, users and citizens to understand clearly the water challenges, so they feel connected to them, compelled to give a response, creating a smart society that understands the true value of water.
- Collaboration as key factor for accelerating water innovation. Increase of public private partnerships to implement effective models for water management and to find long-term solutions making resilient infrastructures.
- Being inclusive, building trust on new paradigms and circular models so that change can be embraced at all levels for the consecution of the sustainable development goals. For that, include sustainability, environmental and social factors as key performance indicators within the cost benefit analysis of new business models.
And then, keep innovating, considering water and water data as a service! Further research supported by smart technologies is needed for embracing and implementing concepts of equity in water, accountability, transparency, public participation and increasing quality and water services for all, leaving no one behind.
Accelerating zero carbon and zero pollution
Benjamin Tam, managing director, Isle UK (UK)2020 has been a year of disruption and through this we are seeing innovation in action. There has been a landslide cultural shift in the way we work, supported by the application of innovative solutions, which unfolded faster than anyone could have imagined. For 2021 I would love to see the effort continued to grasp the transformative innovation solutions, which can unlock the efficiencies and tools to needed to meet the looming challenges in the water sector.
What is transformative innovation? It is a form of innovation that can deliver a fundamental shift towards new patterns of viability in tune with aspirations for the future. It is the opposite of incremental innovation, where small additive changes help chip away at an overall goal. Unless faced with a seismic event, such as a pandemic, transformative innovation does not occur overnight. It requires massive collective effort, usually with a wide set of stakeholders, to stimulate and drive a shift in practice.
“Unless faced with a seismic event, such as a pandemic, transformative innovation does not occur overnight.”
In the UK we have seen the water sector coming together around a new innovation fund, which has a purpose to catalyse this type of innovation.
There are two particular areas of the sector, which I believe are prime for transformational innovation in 2021. Firstly, there is readiness to engage with the net zero carbon agenda, which means sustainably driving down carbon emissions across businesses. The UK has tough national targets and combine that with the recent emergence of a water sector strategy, it makes 2021 a ripe year for making substantial advancements in carbon reduction.
Secondly, and this is a personal one as I spend time in the rivers and sea around the UK, these open bodies of water are getting the spotlight of innovation to reach ‘zero pollutions’. For a myriad of reasons and legacy issues, we still see untreated wastewater and polluted run-off reaching the environment and the water courses. I’d advocate for this issue to be prioritised alongside leakage in water networks, where advancement in technology in the past few years has transformed understanding and operations. If that revolution can flow across to the waste networks we will see big progress in 2021.
Let’s focus on people, not just technology
Kelly Trott, VP of deployment & impact, Imagine H2O (US)Water innovation has an important role to play in building a better future. New technologies allow for advancements but contrary to common perceptions we currently have the technology needed to solve most water challenges.
In order to truly accelerate water innovation, we need to provide solutions to those who need them the most, at the right time, place and price. Water challenges are fundamentally a “people” issue, not a “technology” issue.
Which is why we need to focus on people, not just technology. For me, this means increasing engagement with local and global water innovation ecosystems. Such ecosystems transform ideas into reality by uniting people with varying ideas, visions and backgrounds. The best ecosystems include a diverse group of stakeholders (think investors, utility employees, community activists, entrepreneurs, politicians, etc.) that are all critical for innovation to succeed.
Through these ecosystems we can help more entrepreneurs develop and deploy solutions to our water problems, faster. And I think we can all agree that when water innovation wins, we all win.
Innovative procurement and progressive regulation
Amir Cahn, executive director, SWAN (UK)Even before Covid-19 hit, the water industry was experiencing its own digital transformation. I remember in 2013 when utilities were questioning if they could “trust the cloud” and the “value of real-time data?” Now utilities are adopting diverse AI applications and Digital Twins.
This change has been accelerated by an aging infrastructure and workforce, the rise of “smart customers,” need for resilient systems, among other factors. Still, many utilities in developed and emerging countries are just beginning their smart water journeys, which can be advanced by my two wishes for 2021: more progressive regulation and innovative procurement.
Global water and wastewater regulators play a vital role encouraging utility innovation and technology adoption. Some examples of this include mandating continuous online monitoring, providing financial incentives to facilitate technology trials, promoting collaboration, and sharing successful outcomes. These expectations need to be clearly defined and supplemented with sufficient guidance to be effective. If implemented properly, this will foster increased utility efficiency, attract more outside investment, as well as new ventures.
Utilities need to change the way they acquire technologies by streamlining the negotiation process and driving a more collaborative partnerships with vendors. One opportunity for this is the “Data-as-a-Service” (DaaS) model, in which a utility outsources the operation and maintenance of a certain hardware (e.g. water quality sensor or smart meter) to a vendor and only pay for the final outcomes (e.g. a summary report or predictive insights). This shifts the risks of data quality and data integration to vendors and allows utilities to develop performance-based contracts. To learn more, please refer to this recent article on DaaS.
I hope 2021 will allow for in-person meetings, but even in this virtual world, we can work together to reinvent our water future.
Let’s be intentional about diversity
Emma Weisbord, digital transformation practice lead, Royal HaskoningDHV (The Netherlands)Innovation cannot happen without diversity; diversity of thought, expertise, and of people. The Great Pause of 2020 gave us the space and time to see global inequities and diversity gaps in our sector, increasing our awareness about this topic and leading to some groundswell of actions.
On a panel during UKWIR’s 2020 Annual Conference, Lila Thompson, CEO of British Water, highlighted the importance of innovation through diversity. This is a crucial point, as diversity unlocks innovation by creating an environment where “outside the box” ideas are heard. This is fundamental in creating a strong culture for water innovation.
“If we want to accelerate innovation in 2021, let’s be purposeful in making a diverse and inclusive water sector.”
As a sector, let us be intentional in 2021 about diversity. If we, as a water community, want to accelerate water innovation in 2021 and beyond, let us be purposeful about making a diverse and inclusive water sector. Let us challenge one another and let us be uncomfortable with change.
Change and transformation are by nature uncomfortable and we should explore these areas of discomfort, as this is where growth happens. Let’s accelerate innovation by changing our mindsets, creating inclusive structures, and embedding equity, diversity, inclusivity, and decolonisation into our daily practice of work.
We all want the same goal of universal access to water and sanitation, but without incorporating diversity of opinion and creating space for differing world views, how can we expect to achieve this?
I challenge us all, in 2021, to move from awareness into action around making diversity and inclusion a priority. From sector leaders to emerging talents, let’s make 2021 the year that we prioritise educating ourselves, speaking up, making space, and being uncomfortable.
Facilitating an innovation ecosystem
Adam Lovell, executive director, Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) (Australia)Australia and New Zealand, impacted by drought, floods, bushfires and then a global pandemic, has experienced the resilience that is achieved through collective collaboration both within our industry and working across other industries. This has both catalysed and catapulted the focus on innovation and question then being, how might we sustain this focus moving into 2021?
We recognise that to harness the potential of innovation both locally and internationally, we need to facilitate the formation of a water industry innovation ecosystem. Such an ecosystem can provide clear linkages and pathways to incubate, accelerate and demonstrate the process and technological solutions to advance our industry forward.
That all sounds great you might say – but what should we focus on in 2021?
- Pushing forward the advancements of Wastewater Based Epidemiology (WBE) and integration into health systems, securing the role of the industry in the health of our communities over and above our 24/7 business of safe drinking water. In Australia and NZ we have used in assessing drug use, tracking Covid-19, but what about other indicators of the health of our urban communities?
- Water is the most circular of all the natural elements of our globe. Mainstreaming the transition to a Circular Economy with new business models and strengthening the industry’s role as part of the ada- Water is the most circular of all the natural elements of our globe. Mainstreaming the transition to a Circular Economy with new business models and strengthening the industry’s role as part of the adaptation and mitigation measures against climate change. Hydrogen, nutrients, plastics and a plethora of other valuable resources are at our fingertips.
- Providing the framework of building the digital utility and enabling data integration. In such a capital-intensive industry, driving value for customer and stakeholders through innovation in this space remains low hanging fruit.
Water as the driver for our future
Bianca Nijhof, managing director, Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP)
Although Covid-19 might be on its way out, droughts, flooding, pollution, climate hazards, conflicts and water shortage have not paused. The need for sensible and sustainable water management continues to be greater than ever. How? By linking to other sectors, continuously innovating and realising that water is essential to almost all societal, environmental and economical challenges.
Linking to agriculture, industry and climate adaptation
It is our responsibility to actively involve other sectors in our work. We have the expertise to help them meet their organizational ambitions whilst building a resilient planet. Knowing that agriculture and industries user the largest amounts of fresh water, in some countries up to more than 90 per cent, it gives me joy to see that more and more companies have put water on their balance sheet.
This year the water sector will more actively reach out to these and other sectors to help them. Next to that, we will strengthen the connection to urban resilience, to help provide a healthy and safe living environment for all.
Inspiring innovations for all
In innovations, it is often the expertise of the water sector that makes the difference. An example: within the circular economy much water is saved when wastewater treatment and use in agriculture and industry connect. Moreover, value is created through recovering resources like cellulose and humic acids. This way already millions of euros of costs are transformed into new sources of income.
The future is green, with more than a hint of blue
2021 is the year of building back better and greener. Whether you look at the world from a business, societal, health or ecological perspective: the future is green and water is at the centre of all these challenges. We are ready for it.
Let’s pursue disruptive change
Keith Hays, vice president, Bluefield Research (Spain)“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This was a phrase Winston Churchill is credited with saying towards the end of World War Two as he met with Stalin and Roosevelt, referring to the opportunities that present themselves when the status quo has been shattered.
Evidently, 2020’s pandemic has presented such a crisis, and such a set of opportunities going into 2021, particularly for the water sector. This is a time not just to supercharge trends that were already ongoing, such as digital transformation, but to also pursue those truly disruptive changes that can lead to more efficient, resilient, sustainable, affordable water and wastewater solutions and services.
What happens in 2021 probably means a lot more than we can comprehend right now—either we go back to doing things the previous way, or we put the world on different path. Bluefield has many items on its wish list for 2021, though the water sector tends to change in five to 10 year increments more than year-to-year. But there are several issues that we would like to see, and expect could happen in 2021 worth calling out:
“This is a time to not just supercharge ongoing trends but to pursue truly disruptive changes.”
- Utilities take a ‘build back better’ approach to weathering the economic downturn. Our review of 37 US utilities indicated uneven responses to the pandemic with downward pressure on revenues and cuts to capital investment. This is also a time to look for efficiencies in key areas such as work order management, non-revenue water reduction, and
- Big Data players become part of the solution, enter water sector in earnest with workable off-the-shelf solutions for municipal operators. Global data center water usage is projected to increase by 13 per cent to 221 million gallons in 2021. Players like Google, Amazon, and Apple have a huge role to play not only in reducing their water footprint, but also leveraging their AI capabilities to optimise water management.
- Veolia-Suez merger plans, whether they materialise or not, support positive market development. Veolia’s bid for control of Suez, after the purchase of Engie’s stake, has turned into an acrimonious, politically charged battle that will reshape the global water sector. This could lead to opportunities for smaller firms to exploit the merged entity’s integration struggles, while at the same time force a combined firm to optimize operations around the globe.
- Regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds gains national, and global traction. Early this year we published a focus report highlighting the massive challenges to remediate PFAs contamination in 49 US states. To date, only 12 states have put forth numerical limits for PFAS levels, with three additional states currently in the process of promulgating maximum contaminant levels (MCLs).
Positioning innovation as a need to have, not nice to have
Gaëtane Suzenet, managing partner, International Impact Partners (France)The issue in the water sector is no longer the lack of available innovative technologies and services, or at least no longer the main issue. It is now about the recognition of the true benefits of those innovations by the market at large, and not just by the water industry. There must be an acknowledgement of the value they can add to their activities, operations and financial optimisation.
We will only be able to say that innovation in the water sector is a success when the market will be adopting it as a mainstream activity and not as an exception or as a ‘nice to have’. To the credit of the water sector, the innovation market is growingly inflated and it can sometimes be difficult to identify innovations that stand out.
Innovation may have a cost. It should however be quickly compensated by its economic, financial, societal and environmental benefits. Here are some suggested lines of thoughts to progress towards a significant market uptake:
“Innovation has a cost that should be quickly compensate by economic, financial, societal and environmental benefits.”
- The market, i.e. water utilities, industry, agriculture, has to clearly engage in the innovation process and be associated with it to reach what is commonly called a ‘product/market fit’
- The innovators must also ensure that the technologies and services they develop are fit for purpose – the competition landscape should be better considered
- The focus for future activities should not just be on discussing the technology relevance, it should also be on combining it with: ‘market relevance, investment, entrepreneurship, and business scalability’.
Communicating the value of water
Oliver Lawal, CEO, AquiSense Technologies (US)What can the water industry learn from 2020 and how can we use that to accelerate water innovation?
The industry has some really good solutions that are better than we might realise. Of-course we should continue to push forward to improve. Increased efficiencies in process control, smarter deployment of sensing, increased use of technologies like UV-C LEDs, will keep raising the bar. However, we can definitely see wider deployment of what we already have.
“We need to constantly refine our message to the world of the true value of water – we save lives!”
This leads to communication. As widespread and tragic Covid-19 has been to the global human population, the fact remains that water and sanitation far outweigh it in terms of death, illness, and negative economic impact. So, we need to constantly refine our message to the world of the true value of water - we save lives!
Ultraviolet light technology for disinfection has seen a massive surge of interest in 2020. The realization that UV can be deployed for air and surface treatment on a broad scale to inactivate Sars-Cov-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) has attracted business interest from new players and resurgence of interest from existing players.
This has strained supply chains to the detriment of water treatment interests. However, the water treatment industry is decades ahead of air/surface solutions in the deployment of UV technology.
From hardware design, to measurement verification and validation standards, the water treatment industry has solved a lot of problems currently being pondered in other circles. It’s interesting then that they do not appear to have capitalized on that advantage.
It appears that UV water system manufacturers have largely stayed within their lane and not expanded into air and surface applications. Why is that? Do they have enough on their plate? Do they see that application as a potential short-term opportunity? Are they used to more stringent requirements and uncomfortable with a “backwards step” in terms of process verification? Whatever the case, the water treatment industry has a lot to offer.
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