Adaptability by Design: A New Industry Paradigm for an Age of Change

Today, a collection of structural changes in water, energy, public awareness, health issues from residual pharmaceuticals, funding, personnel, and digital communications are creating waves of change that will transform the water industry repeatedly over the next couple of decades.

By Tammy L. Bernier

For more than 100 years, the water and wastewater industry has evolved slowly, predictably and incrementally. In fact, there are parts of some municipal systems that date from the 1800s and are still in use. For much of this time, funding and financing has been provided by federal, state or local governmental sources. Over recent decades, the rules associated with discharge limits and the cost of energy have evolved at a predictable and easily manageable pace.

It is often said of investments that "past performance does not indicate future results." Going forward into the world of 2020 and beyond, the same thought will likely apply to the water and wastewater industry. This less predictable scenario is likely to transpire due to the rapid convergence of at least eight key factors:

  • A growing scarcity of water in many areas of the United States and the world
  • Dramatic increases in the cost of carbon-based energy
  • Increased public awareness and interest in the condition of water resources
  • A sharp decline in public funding at all levels, with a shift to private funding
  • Dramatic increases in labor costs due to factors such as health insurance increases and generational changes (e.g., the retirement of baby-boomers and the work interests of entry-level applicants)
  • The need to manage endocrine disruptors, pharmaceuticals and other trace contaminants
  • The recognition of wastewater as a resource, which - when effectively separated - yields energy, minerals, potable water, etc.
  • The rapid integration of smart digital technology into the process of water and wastewater treatment

Any one of these factors could easily be a driver of change, but the convergence of all eight of them can be expected to make a profound difference in water and wastewater funding structures, organizational structures, processes, technology requirements, operational procedures, and the price the end-user pays for water and wastewater treatment.

This acceleration in change places a special responsibility on the inventors, planners and leaders who are building today with the needs of tomorrow in mind. It means that equipment and systems designed today will have a life-cycle that traverses what is certain to be one of the most dynamic periods of change in the history of the water and wastewater industry.

One strategy that could support this anticipated "pace of change" is the development of technologies that are adaptive by design. This could mean equipment that can be adjusted to changes in the nature of influent (e.g., more solids, less liquids) or new requirements on quality of the effluent (e.g., increased nutrient limits, expanded reuse capabilities, resource recovery operations) and changes in process types as well as process steps. It also could mean rethinking the modularity of current systems, which may become a requirement for entire treatment plants.

Adaptability by design could come from the addition or removal of steps or components or from changes in configuration. It could come from the mere anticipation of change, which could generate new ideas for processes that are combined for simplicity or unitized for easy repurposing. Adaptability could come from a systems approach that looks backward at "what is" and forward at "what could be" and builds a bridging-technology between the two. At its foundation, adaptability is a way of thinking that expects change rather than designing in the single dimension of "current needs."

In the specification, bid and focus-on-initial-price world of today's municipal procurement environment, the need to consider adaptability presents a challenge of significant proportion. Perhaps the first thing that will need to adapt, out of necessity, will be procurement practices that disregard the full cost of ownership and future value considerations.

A little more than 100 years ago, the industrial revolution changed everything, including the water and wastewater industry. Today, a collection of structural changes in water, energy, public awareness, health issues from residual pharmaceuticals, funding, personnel, and digital communications are creating waves of change that will transform the industry repeatedly over the next couple of decades. When certainty becomes elusive, adaptability by design is one of the possible ways to address what's next.

About the Author: Tammy L. Bernier is a member of the WWEMA Board of Directors and President and CEO of Duperon Corporation, a leader in preliminary liquids/solids separation technologies for wastewater, flood control, open channel, and industrial applications.

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