Supporting innovators – the inspirers of change

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Needs around water and wider issues such as sustainability and climate change demand innovation – including, but not limited to, technology. Sudhir Murthy and Claus Homann look at how IWA aims to support the people who will make this innovation happen – the innovators.

Innovation in the water sector is much discussed. Just what innovation means is open to debate – should the focus be on invention or implementation? Even so, two things are clear: there are great and growing needs in the sector and in the many areas with which water connects; and the world is desperate for greater action on these needs, with barriers to be overcome to achieve this.

In the water sector itself, there are huge infrastructure needs worldwide. This is the case for greenfield locations, where billions of people are yet to receive new infrastructure. It is also the case for brownfield sites, where there is a need to ‘build back better’.

Water connects with wider needs too, such as those covered by Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, 3 and 10, and action on water brings the potential to promote well-being and prosperity in urban communities (including connecting with the post-COVID-19 agenda).

There is also a need to develop sustainable solutions that address the demands of climate change. This is particularly so given that the combination of urbanisation and climate change present a perfect storm around ensuring access to services.

People as much as – and often more than – process are crucial for innovation

It is essential to recognise that action on these needs will be delivered by people. There are many people who want to step away from the usual way of doing things – the usual actions generally bring the usual results – and break through the barriers to action. Let us call these people innovators.

On the one hand, this means innovators who are in the water sector. These are not just inventors of technologies. It includes, for example, those in the utilities who deliver services. None of these innovators can break through alone – meaning it is important for them to connect with others with similar ambitions. On the other hand, it also demands a broader group of innovators, who need to connect with each other to address the multiple challenges of sustainable development, urbanisation, and climate change.

Innovation beyond technology

Innovation is about connecting people, implementing ideas, and delivering end solutions. This can certainly mean delivering technology and infrastructure.

One key to unlocking change on this front is to recognise that solutions in water are built on different components and approaches whose lifespans and obsolescence vary greatly, from years to decades to even a century.

This means innovation is also about ensuring people give new concepts the gestation space required for them to be integrated in end solutions. This also underlines the importance of design and procurement processes, for example, which should acknowledge and respond to the different speeds of innovation in the water sector.

We can see then that people as much as – and often more than – process are crucial for innovation. Innovators of different kinds need to connect to realise innovations. And innovations are not just technological innovations. Indeed, perhaps the biggest potential for innovation is in non-technological areas, such as finance, governance, regulation, or business models.

So, in looking to connect innovators of all types, we are talking about the span of those involved with technology, from academia and technology providers through to end user utilities, as well as regulators and International Financial Institutions, for example. And to achieve change, there needs to be ‘pull’ on the part of utilities, and we need to consider novel enabling business processes that can fundamentally impact climate change adaptation or mitigation and sustainability with an emphasis on SDGs.

In this respect, we can see that technology is not so much the main barrier to innovation as the human factor. We see this human dimension at the heart of the ideas of leading thinkers on innovation – there are many, but we can mention here Otto Scharmer and his Theory U as one example.

All of this underlines the need for innovation in the ways we think, act, collaborate, and create value. In our sector, this can mean showing how access to clean water can create huge value amplification to society locally and globally. Through water, this human aspect of innovation delivers a spectrum of end benefits.

Introducing innovation

This all points to a need for active steps to promote and cultivate innovators and innovation.

The water sector is used to taking a project-based approach. This brings efficiency and coordination when what needs to be done is known.

Active steps to help bring innovation can include a ‘preject’ phase – a phase before the project. This ‘walk in the wilderness’ provides an opportunity to get hold of the challenge and energise problem owners. It can even reveal that no project is needed.

This phase can challenge those involved to work with approaches such as divergent and convergent thinking, out of the box thinking, or six hats thinking, or even Agile and Lean approaches. Relevant here are perspectives such as those of Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, author of  What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve, who advises us to think deeply about whether we are solving the right problem.

There is uncertainty involved, which may be uncomfortable for a typical project manager. Articulation of the challenge may be the most difficult part of this whole process, but once developed, the process can be progressed by creating the right incentives and structures.

The phase can last for minutes or years, but it brings those involved to a place where sponsors, innovators and facilitators are set for implementation in the project phase.

IWA’s opportunity for action on innovation

The International Water Association’s vision is of a network of water professionals striving for a world in which water is wisely, sustainably and equitably managed. Its mission is to promote knowledge and provide agenda-setting leadership for the global water community by, for example, being a catalyst for innovation, knowledge and best practice to the sector, external organisations and opinion leaders. Such ‘innovation’ is not an aim in itself: there are unmet needs for which it is hoped new solutions can be unlocked to see those needs met.

Of course, IWA is in many ways all about innovation, visible through its publications and specialist networks. Extra efforts already include our Awards programme. But water needs are great, and IWA is ideally placed to make a vital contribution. For this reason, IWA has established the Innovators Platform steering committee to shape a new initiative.

This group provides a microcosm of some of the most influential innovator groups. Complementing our own expertise in water utility innovation, the group includes Sergio Campos of the Inter-American Development Bank, Bernard Koh of Singapore’s PUB, Bernadette Conant of the Canadian Water Network, and Valerie Naidoo of South Africa’s Water Research Commission.

The committee has been meeting regularly over recent months to formulate its proposition, but some things are clear, driven by a desire for IWA to make a prominent contribution beyond what is already established.

Recognising the barriers that exist, it means looking to address aspects such as governance, finance and regulation, not just technology. It also means looking to include focus on sustainability, action on climate change, and approaches that are restorative, resilient and provide a means to build back greener, as well as responding to the broader agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals. The committee anticipates that, not only is this where the biggest gaps to fill are, but that most other initiatives do not focus on these aspects and so are not directed at these gaps. Addressing these gaps can have dramatic changes to society at large.

The Sustainable Development Goals provide a shared statement on global needs, and so these should feature in the framing of the initiative. While water has a connection with all of them, the extent to which water is an enabler varies. The aim should be to focus on innovation where water may today or in the future play an important role, contributing in the sphere of the water, energy and food security nexus.

This creates and agenda where there is a focus on those areas where water can have the greatest impact, built around core water needs such as those set out in SDG6, and connecting clearly with needs and concerns of developed and developing countries alike.

A ‘Challenge Boat’ concept

To deliver on this vision, the committee has been exploring a ‘Challenge Boat’ concept in our own preject phase.

A ‘Challenge Boat’ approach could be designed to facilitate structured connection with ‘owners’ of issues or needs to create space in which water-centred innovation can deliver and amplify solutions to the end customers of these owners. This can provide a focus for ‘innovators’ – i.e., people and organisations aspiring to unlock progress.

The Challenge Boat can be the focus of a solution-enabling approach: especially through making connections between people, supporting the mobilisation of their joint action. At a practical level, solutions can also be enabled by, for example, prizes, awards, communicating knowledge, visibility, and access to capital.

It can also tap into motivations such as ‘build back better’, responding to issues such as post-pandemic recovery and the need for climate action, and water’s regenerative contribution in this. This all connects with core urban water needs, such as lack of access, overcoming revenue shortfalls, and improving quality of life around access to sufficient clean water.

The Challenge Boat approach can also support or form processes and methodologies to create connectivity and ‘deep dive’ spaces around critical challenges.

Connecting the innovators

Key actors are water utility innovators (individuals and organisations) and financiers, including IFIs, i.e., those who are willing and have the vision and commitment to identify, adopt and implement new approaches to overcome barriers and meet end needs and goals.

By creating a solution-enabling environment, the programme will by nature be about bringing together different actors and types of innovator, all seeking to contribute to progress – by taking different actions. It needs problem owners willing to articulate needs and advance solutions.

This approach will leverage another important aspect of innovation, which is that innovators are themselves often bridges between communities, such as between finance and utilities, or regulator and utilities, or between academia and utilities.

The implementation level of the Innovators Platform may also include a focus on connecting and informing those who want to be ‘innovative’ (i.e., develop ‘how to’ and concrete case studies).

By supporting these connections, the initiative will allow innovators, acting through water, to address the needs that we see across the Sustainable Development Goals and the need for action on climate change, in particular.

The committee has been developing its ideas through action learning where the end result is not known. We hope this approach will inspire the initiative itself. The aim is to connect innovators so that they can succeed in the face of their own struggles, helping them reformulate their problems, connect with others who have the power to help, and most of all to encourage innovators to take different actions to create results that have not been seen before. •

The authors

Dr Sudhir Murthy is CEO of NEWHub Corp, USA

Claus Homann is Chief Operating and Strategic Officer, Aarhus Vand AS, Denmark

Both are co-chairs of the Innovators Platform Steering Committee


The IWA Innovators Platform steering committee

The IWA Innovators Platform steering committee brings together representatives of some of the key organisation types that have a crucial role to play in accelerating innovation around water. Covering segments such as utilities, financing, technology, and research, these are the sources of the innovators prepared to take the lead on bringing about change.

The committee members are:

Dr Sudhir Murthy (co-chair), CEO NEWhub Corp, USA, and IWA Senior Vice-President

Claus Homann (co-chair), Chief Operating and Strategic Officer, Aarhus Vand, Denmark

Sergio Campos, Chief, Water and Sanitation Division, Inter-American Development Bank

Bernadette Conant, CEO, Canadian Water Network

Bernard Koh, Assistant Chief Executive, Future Systems & Technology, PUB, Singapore

Dr Valerie Naidoo, Executive Manager: Business Development and Innovations, Water Research Commission, South Africa