There are opportunities to stimulate innovation by water utilities and across the wider water cycle. Keith Hayward spoke with Martin Shouler of engineering firm Arup, who will be chairing a session on innovation at the forthcoming World Water-Tech Innovation Summit.
Much is made of the need for more innovation in the water sector. This does not mean there should be innovation just for the sake of it. ‘Innovation needs to achieve something,’ says Martin Shouler, global skills leader for environmental services engineering with Arup. ‘Innovation is about doing things better, cheaper, cleaner and being more resilient. It is about the outcome rather than innovation in or of itself.’
Water companies are implementers of innovation and so have an important role in helping direct innovation towards these end results. ‘It starts with clearly articulating what the outcomes for a water company might mean, so that innovators out there who are developing new solutions then have a target to hit, rather than doing things in isolation and hoping that the industry will buy their great ideas,’ says Shouler.
Shouler will be chairing a session on innovation at the forthcoming World Water-Tech Innovation Summit in London, and his company is a sponsor of the event. For him, this articulation is a starting point for a more complex view of innovation that needs to be taken if progress is to be achieved.
‘It starts with clearly articulating what the outcomes for a water company might mean, so that innovators out there who are developing new solutions then have a target to hit, rather than doing things in isolation and hoping that the industry will buy their great ideas.'
‘A lot of people are wedded to the view that innovation is about technology. That is certainly part of it, but innovation can be around behaviours, processes and business,’ says Shouler. ‘Once we start looking at innovation and its adoption, we then have to recognise that there is a journey, from a spark of an idea, through the research and development phases, trialling, piloting, to implementation. That is quite a long chain of events,’ he continues. This then brings in all the participants in the water company supply chain, such as contractors. It goes wider still, including others such as researchers, customers, government and the whole regulatory environment. ‘Not all the levers are controlled by water companies,’ he adds.
Technology does of course have an important part to play in water sector innovation and Shouler describes a three-part concept as a basis for accelerating this contribution. The articulated need and the technology providers able to innovate and create solutions form two parts in the concept. The third part comprises the professional and financial services that can provide what Shouler refers to as ‘the glue in the middle’ – something which, in the UK at least, he says is ‘somewhat missing’. Initiatives such as technology incubators or accelerators, for example, can help water companies better identify promising new options. Equally, such initiatives can help the technology companies, who because of their size may lack some of the skills and capacity needed to get their technologies through to implementation.
Shouler notes the number of water innovation clusters that are underway or getting started in North America. As a new UK-based example of an initiative supporting innovation, he points to the Venturi web portal launched by his company and water research organisation WRc. He describes this as a marketplace to help bring together buyers and sellers.
‘It is a relatively new initiative, and it’s been received fantastically well both in the UK and overseas,’ says Shouler. Technology providers are adding their innovations, while municipal water companies are beginning to set out their challenges also. The site has already been showcased at a number of international events around the world and the initiative is also being complemented by a series of networking events in the UK, known as Wet Networks. ‘A future phase will be to bring in the accelerator element, providing some of the business and financial support to technologies,’ he adds, explaining that Venturi may also support innovation clusters in other parts of the world.
Innovation represents a change to usual practice, which brings risk. ‘Every innovation comes with risk attached,’ says Shouler. Accelerating innovation therefore involves identifying the risk and working to reduce or remove it, wherever in the supply chain it lies.
This means that one aspect of Venturi, and a general point for Shouler in how to accelerate innovation, is that the ‘glue’ should help identify those solutions able to help meet the end user needs. This ‘picking the winners’, as Shouler puts it, can then help reduce the innovation risk for both buyers and sellers, as well as for investors looking for opportunities in a sector that has a reputation for long lead times.
As to where these winners may come from, Shouler notes the potential to exploit technologies developed in other sectors. ‘Certainly we are seeing more and more that other sectors of technology can be deployed in water,’ he says. Mentioning the oil and gas sector as an example, he adds: ‘A lot of the technology used in that sector could actually, with a small adjustment, perhaps be used in the water sector.’
Another source may be highly disruptive technologies, such as digital. ‘It is probably a little bit early to determine exactly what it might do, but it is fair to say there will be digital disruption in and around our sector, which will help deliver this better, cheaper, cleaner future,’ says Shouler. ‘That could come on quite rapidly in all areas within the water sector,’ he adds.
Innovation across the water cycle
It is also clear that there are wider opportunities for innovation once the water sector is looked at from a broader perspective.
There is a time element to this – thinking ahead about the drivers for change and the life of the water infrastructure. ‘When we talk about water services, we are talking about services that we could be relying on for the next 60, 100, 120-odd years,’ says Shouler. ‘We need to look not just at the near future but out further, understanding the drivers of change.’
In this respect, the shift in the UK towards considering capital and operating costs combined as total expenditure is a positive move. ‘Totex is beginning to change our thinking as an industry, to think about the whole life costing of an asset,’ says Shouler. ‘This is driving new solutions.’
There are also wider opportunities for innovation to be had looking beyond water companies to the water cycle as a whole. This then brings in, for example, local authorities, developers, the water industry itself, farmers, and large water users. ‘They don’t all perhaps see themselves as part of that water picture, but if you start mapping out those stakeholders, you quite quickly see that they have responsibilities in the water sector,’ says Shouler. These users would then need to be brought together in a multi-stakeholder approach to identify opportunities. ‘I wouldn’t suggest it’s an easy task to do,’ he adds.
The opportunities at the household level is one potential area for innovation. ‘There is still a lot we could be doing there in driving down consumption, which then takes some of the stresses and strains off our system,’ says Shouler. ‘By pushing down consumption, through a mixture of new equipment and fittings and behavioural change, you can then provide enhanced resilience in the system to things like drought.’ This can also help reduce the pressure on wastewater systems and on the environment.
‘Work is beginning to happen in and around large cities at the moment, where you have got growth and perhaps limited capacity from an infrastructure point of view,’ says Shouler. This can mean looking at novel solutions to optimise use of the range of sources available, including the potable supply, stormwater, and black and grey water sources. There can be multiple benefits also. ‘Once you start considering the water environment in cities, you start to think about other benefits, such as health and wellbeing related to green infrastructure, if you think about managing stormwater in a more sensitive way,’ he adds.
‘If you think about it in the round, you’ll get a much more robust and integrated and therefore resilient system by simply working across a wider range of stakeholders, rather than solely relying on the water industry to solve all our water problems,’ Shouler concludes.
‘Innovation in the water sector’, blog article by Martin Shouler, http://thoughts.arup.com/post/details/589/innovation-in-the-water-sector
World Water-Tech Innovation Summit, www.worldwatertechinnovation.com
Venturi water innovation portal, http://venturiportal.com
- UK, Arup, WRc, innovation