This article is by Dr. Marianne Langridge (SEAS MS 1993, PhD 1994), and was originally published on the Water Center at Penn’s blog.
As a professional in the water and environment industry for the past 25 years, I have always been impressed by the dedication and ingenuity of the people who work to provide clean drinking water and wastewater. For many it is a calling and a career of purpose that makes coming to work each day worthwhile. It is however, an industry full of challenges. Aging infrastructure, unpredictable weather patterns, emerging contaminants, cyber-security and significant changes in the workforce are all important issues that have been building for years. The rapid pace of change and uncertainty, aversion to risk and the high cost of transforming the business of water has made resolving them difficult. Increasingly at conferences, in publications and in day to day conversations about these challenges you hear references to innovation as the solution.
To address these challenges new ideas are certainly needed. However, to get to impactful outcomes it is necessary to more specifically define what innovation means in the water industry so we can identify the areas that need to be improved to make more rapid progress. Innovation is a process. The process begins with idea generation and should end with a solution that is valued by those impacted by the problem. From my experience I believe that we as an industry are very good at idea generation. Industry conferences such as WEFTEC and ACE are full of papers, presentations workshops and vendor demonstrations sharing proposed solutions. There are also tools available such as the Water Environment Foundation’s (WEF) LIFT Link to provide a database of solutions and solution providers. Why then do the problems persist?
I believe there are two factors that are impeding the innovation process, psychology and economics. Most water professionals are scientists and engineers. They take their responsibility to provide clean water seriously. This can result in risk aversion when it comes to changing established practices. Water systems are complex, so end to end testing of new methods and technologies can be challenging, if not impossible. Couple that with regulatory pressures and the result is inaction because psychologically it feels too risky to implement a change that could have unknown side effects, even with the best of intentions. There are potential capabilities on the horizon such as advanced modeling methods powered by data analytics to create a digital twin system to more completely simulate operations and support better informed decision making. As you can imagine, this can be quite costly.
This brings us to the economic factor. The public notoriously undervalues water. There are few things that humans cannot live without, and water is at the top of that list. However, most individuals in the United States pay more for their cell phone every month than they do for water. There is limited understanding of the costs of providing clean water and for decades one of the top priorities of most utilities has been to keep their rates low. Limited revenue results in limited resources for innovation. Some of the larger urban utilities in the U.S. are beginning to create innovation positions, however, most utilities do not have the revenue necessary to fund innovation efforts. Unfortunately, this will continue to result in instability in some systems, and at its worst, loss of faith of the public in our water systems.
The economics and psychology of the situation are very much intertwined. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to interview a number of utility leaders across the country to better understand their most pressing challenges and resistance to change was high on the list for many. If the industry expects innovation to bring solutions, it is imperative that we address these psychological and economic factors.
What will it take to overcome these challenges? Interdisciplinary collaboration built on trust. This is why the creation of the Water Center at Penn is so exciting to me, and the potential for the Center to impact the water industry is unlimited. Water professionals have tended to keep these discussions to themselves. As all true innovators know, its diversity of thought that leads to the most impactful inventions. By bringing together people who work in the water industry with those in other disciplines that have different perspectives and interests related to water, we can build on many of the great ideas that are being generated and work together through a process that leads to action and impact.
Marianne Langridge is the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Synthesis Limited, a Public Benefit Corporation focused on connecting professionals across sectors to create positive impacts on the sustainability of our communities. She received her M.S. and PhD in Systems Engineering and has been working to teach and problem solve in areas of water and the environment ever since.