People power – how collaboration is the route to innovation

Edinburgh, host of the 2019 IWA LET Conference (© bnoragitt / iStock)

The UK’s Cranfield University is helping to organise this year’s IWA Leading Edge Technologies conference. Keith Hayward spoke with Dr Ana Soares about the theme of water sector innovation.

Whether it is members of a research team interacting to meet the challenge of reinventing the toilet, or scientists and engineers forging new links at international conferences, collaboration offers a route to innovation. That is the message from Dr Alison Parker and Dr Ana Soares of the UK’s Cranfield University – the former working as part of the Nano Membrane Toilet team (see separate article) and the latter involved with organising the forthcoming IWA Leading Edge Technologies conference.

“It has been a huge team effort, benefiting from expertise from a number of different fields and a large number of individuals,” says Parker of the NMT project.

Her expertise, like that of several in the team, is in sanitation in low income countries. She explains that the project has also brought in colleagues who normally work on wastewater treatment in the developed country context of the UK, Europe and North America. “They have been able to take on this novel problem and really apply their knowledge and make some incredible leaps in innovation,” she says.

It has also provided Parker with an opportunity to work with an energy team focused on the goal of using combustion to make the toilet energy neutral, and with a design team and other colleagues looking at business models.

Soares, though not involved directly with the NMT project, has a similar view as far as her work is concerned. She describes herself as a biotechnology engineer, dealing with science and processes in technologies interacting with microorganisms or their by-products in the water cycle.

“Currently, the water sector is moving towards delivering services and high water quality production within the circular economy context,” says Soares. The focus of her work at Cranfield is mainly on nutrient removal and recovery, as well as energy production and savings within wastewater treatment plants.

Achieving progress in these areas depends not just on an understanding of microbiology but also, for example, on the development of sensors, which is another focus for Soares. “As we understand more about how microbial systems work, greater control and automation means we can capitalise on the advantages of those processes,” she says. This presents an opportunity to, for example, reduce treatment process footprints, optimise and improve yields, and reduce manpower requirements.

“To integrate all these ideas, we require knowledge of certain areas, and we need to develop collaborations with all the key stakeholders,” she says. “This might include colleagues from academia, the water industry, technology suppliers and, when delivering the circular economy, also includes regulators. Also, the general public will have a key voice in all those aspects.

“To develop good collaborations, the best starting point is networking,” says Soares. Here she makes the link with the forthcoming IWA Leading Edge Technologies conference taking place in Edinburgh, UK, in June. Soares is chair of the organising committee for the event, and Cranfield is the co-organiser.

“LET is designed to be the place where new ideas, concepts, and innovation are introduced and this will offer an opportunity for different stakeholders to interact,” says Soares.

Networking at the IWA LET 2019 conference

“LET will provide a platform for creating new networks, and new collaborations with people that have the same interests – related to improving and increasing efficiency within the water industry. We want to discuss the development and implementation of innovative processes and technologies, and areas that might actually change the way the water industry works at the moment.”

Soares also notes that the progress her colleagues are achieving with the NMT offers wider promise, and signals positive change in the water sector.

“The water sector is moving from a more conservative industry to a more innovative industry – the NMT clearly shows that,” says Soares.

The NMT could overcome the need for heavy infrastructure, which is a major limitation for developing countries, she continues. However, this is relevant in developed countries, such as the UK, in places where there is still a reliance on septic tanks.

“The potential this offers in terms of water reuse, safe treatment of black and yellow water and recovery of important by-products, makes it a very interesting package,” she says. “It opens new markets, new applications, and new thoughts about how we view the water industry.”

The 16th IWA Leading Edge Conference on Water and Wastewater Technologies takes place on 10-14 June 2019 in Edinburgh, UK. For more details, see