The Future is Calling
The Megatrend? Innovation.
By Tammy Bernier
In the 1980s, John Naisbitt, author of the bestselling book Megatrends, defined a megatrend as a gathering wave of change that is slow to form, nearly impossible to reverse, significantly influences the future, has an aura of inevitability and has a far- and wide-reaching impact on society. Megatrends result from the confluence of underlying trends.
One of the indicators of a trend is the volume of content in daily communications. You can hear the call and need for innovation in the topics, discussions, and presentations that are occurring in our associations, universities, boardrooms, and at WWEMA events, such as the Washington Forum and WWEMA annual meetings. These topics span the full range of megatrends that are sweeping the water and wastewater industry, which include:
- Dramatic changes in our workforce over the next several years;
- Profound changes in funding;
- A shift toward integrated, modular, and mobile structures;
- Innovations in both technology and operational practices;
- New resource recovery concepts;
- New constructs around collaboration, consolidation and clusters;
- Major shifts in the way we think about water and approach problem solving in general.
The call for sustainability and for solutions for drought, water reuse, and resource recovery is, in turn, generating a call for new language that properly characterizes the resource that water and wastewater is. Words like smart water, new water, and the Internet of Things have entered our conversations.
Organizations like the Water Environment Federation (WEF) have launched important new initiatives, such as the Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology (LIFT), with the intention of accelerating innovation into practice.
The opening address at WEFTEC for the past two years dealt first with disruptive change and then, this year, sustainability. Major corporations have sustainability goals, social responsibility directors, and scorecards for how well they are addressing the resources of water, energy, and waste. This scorecard has hit the annual report as investors recognize the importance of an organization’s ability to manage through changing climate, resource availability, and other environmental dynamics.
Cities such as Grand Rapids, Mich., have incentivized innovation: trading investment in technology for a reduction in annual expenses to the tune of 12 percent annually.
Utilities have joined together to fund Technology Approval Groups (TAGs) to reduce CAPEX and OPEX through the rapid deployment of new, innovative technologies. There are currently over 100 subscribing members and eight active TAGs in the U.S.
The U.S. EPA has established the Environmental Technology Innovation Clusters Program based on the creation of clusters of researchers, business partners and end-users to fast-track the application of innovations at the community level.
In this atmosphere of looking beyond the status quo to what is next, challenges may be transformed into opportunity. For example, during the next 10 years, approximately 40 percent of our current workforce will leave the industry for retirement - a definite challenge. According to the Water Research Foundation, 37 percent of water and wastewater utility employees are eligible for full retirement benefits today. This means that new faces with new ideas will be joining our industry. These “newcomers” will be individuals who have grown up on the Internet and with a developed appetite for instant information (Generation X’ers - born 1960-1980, and Millennials - born 1980-mid-2000s). They will bring new approaches to problem-solving that may focus more on network ideation than more traditional linear approaches. This will likely result in solutions that would be considered out of the box today but may, in fact, open up new vistas of what is possible - creating new forms of opportunity.
Just as we have seen the transformation of the entire delivery system and financial structure of the music and movie business with the advent of the smartphone in the last few years, we can expect to see the same scope of transformation for the water and wastewater industry in the years to come. Some of the change will be orchestrated from within the industry and certainly some will come from interests well beyond the water and wastewater sector. Either way, the future is calling all leaders and it is calling today.
The mission of WWEMA is to advocate, inform and connect. Trends such as the call for innovation are quite simply the voice of the customer. The technology leaders of the industry are there to answer that call.
Tammy Bernier is President and CEO of Duperon Corporation. She is Chairman and a member of the Board of Directors of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association.