Fostering Innovation in the Water Industry

To foster innovation in the water industry, we need open, engaging conversations that continually draw in perspectives from across different aspects of the water industry as well as those from analogous industries.

Mar 1st, 2019
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What will it take and why does it matter?

By Marianne Langridge MacDonald

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, an innovation is “the introduction of something new, a new idea, method or device.” Innovation is certainly a hot topic in all industries right now, and it begs the question: Why? Why do we care about innovation? Why do we want something new?

Innovation is desirable when the status quo isn’t good enough anymore or when our existing systems are lacking. This is true today in the water industry. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 2017 graded our country’s infrastructure a D+.1 You cannot attend an industry event without hearing about the challenges in sustaining our water infrastructure. Deteriorating pipes, mass retirements, emerging contaminants, droughts, floods, lack of funding — the challenges are numerous. We need new ideas, methods and devices. Why, then, are we struggling to innovate?

Marianne MacDonald talks with Angela Godwin about fostering innovation in the water industry.

A wise professor once told me that the solution to most complex problems can be found by looking to a different field for a simple answer. For example, James Dyson reinvented the vacuum by reframing the performance problems caused by filters. The electric industry addressed capacity limits by applying behavioral economics to drive demand-side management. There are many examples of how looking outside of your industry leads to the creation of new ideas, methods and devices. For the water industry, this means we need to identify and bring together people from outside of the industry to imagine new possibilities.

Innovation experts have found that bringing together people in analogous fields will result in more innovative solutions because those people are not constrained by historic thinking and approaches and can draw on different domains of knowledge.2 Even within the water industry, we tend to silo our expertise: operations and maintenance, capital planning and technology, water, wastewater and stormwater, public utilities, private utilities, innovators and academics. There are some forums where there are opportunities to engage in conversations that cross these areas, but they are rare and seldom is the conversation sustained long enough to identify solutions.

What it will take to foster innovation in the water industry are open, engaging conversations that continually draw in perspectives from across different aspects of the water industry as well as those from analogous industries such as the power industry or supply chain management. Our conferences should always have a track dedicated to sharing perspectives outside of our industry with the purpose of defining innovative experiments to try. Ideally, subsequent meetings would involve reporting on what was learned so others could build upon and apply them. It would result in crowdsourcing solutions using both face-to-face and online collaboration approaches. The result of an effort like this would be to create a cohesive force, and through these connections would ignite the creativity needed to resolve our challenges. That really encapsulates the essence of innovation! WW

About the Author: Marianne Langridge MacDonald is an experienced executive with over 25 years of experience in the water industry, leading diverse teams to design and implement solutions to complex challenges. She served as vice-chair of the New England Water Environment Association’s (NEWEA) Innovation Task Force and is director of enterprise programs for CDM Smith, where she defines and leads programs to meet the firm’s strategic priorities. She oversees the firm’s R&D program and leads change initiatives by building connections across organizational boundaries.

References

1. American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, March 2017.

2. M. Poetz, N. Franke, and M. Schreier. “Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from Outside Your Industry,” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 21, 2014.

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