Innovation begins with engagement at the local level

This year during WEFTEC, water technology cluster leaders from across the United States and around the world gathered together to discuss the important role water utilities play in fostering innovation in the water industry.

This year during WEFTEC, water technology cluster leaders from across the United States and around the world gathered together to discuss the important role water utilities play in fostering innovation in the water industry. It was a fascinating discussion that showcased inspiring examples of leadership and collaboration that are driving fundamental change.

A water cluster, at its simplest level, is a regional network of entities - businesses, governmental agencies, research organizations, and utilities - that work together to solve problems. Over the past few years, water clusters have sprung up all over the country - from Puget Sound to New England and the Great Lakes down to Texas. Chances are, there is a water cluster in your region and if you’re a water or wastewater utility with a challenge to solve, it’s a resource worth tapping into.

One of the consistent themes of the meeting was engagement. Bob Miller, chief financial officer for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, shared his city’s journey. Like many American cities, New Orleans has seen significant demographic change over the past thirty years or so, which has resulted in a major population shift - from 660,000 in the early eighties to 440,000 today. “That population decline drove funding shortages,” said Miller. “Those funding shortages drove us being out of compliance with the Clean Water Act. Being out of compliance with the Clean Water Act drove a federal consent decree.” The domino effect continued, he explained, with a privatization battle that resulted in staff cuts. “Then you throw into that the devastating flooding following Hurricane Katrina when 80% of our city was damaged or destroyed and you have the makings for a full scale utility disaster.”

With assistance from FEMA, New Orleans was able “to stagger back up on our feet - but we were on a crash trajectory,” he said.

“The community came to understand that the can had been kicked down the road for about thirty years and, at that point, we were a little over a half a billion cumulatively in underfunding.” A turning point came when the utility was able to secure a program of water and sewer rate increases - ten percent a year over eight years. But such an aggressive program comes at a price, Miller said: change. Governance changes, board changes, and a fundamental shift in strategy ensued. “Because we had imposed this financial burden on the city, there was this expectation that we would open ourselves up to engagement with the city, which meant we had to engage stakeholders.”

But how? The Sewerage and Water Board, like many utilities, “had always considered itself to be this self-enclosed monolith: We took care of our own business,” said Miller. “And that myth was shattered.”

It was through the local water cluster - the Louisiana Water Economy Network - that Miller was introduced to right the people and learned a crucial lesson: “It’s not what organizations do you need to know,” he said, “it’s what people do you need to engage because engagement can only take place at the local level.”

Positioning your utility to “systematize” collaboration is key, said Miller. “And frankly it takes a fairly bold step.” Innovation requires fundamental change, he said, and the freedom to act - and often that cannot be led by “the old guard.”

In conclusion, Miller offered a parting challenge for utilities (including his own) to consider: “Work to make fundamental changes in the DNA of your organization by looking outwards, redefining your mission, and going big.”

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