Everything has Changed, but Barriers to Innovation, Progress Remain

As the structures of the past crumble around us, and as the institutions of the past 100 years fall into disarray, we find ourselves standing on the threshold of a new age. As always, the seas of change bring the opportunity for innovation, rebuilding, and reinvention.

It is estimated that the next 10-20 years will require us to meet the challenges head-on – specifically as they relate to water, stormwater, and wastewater. Among them are challenges such as pending water shortages, shrinking footprints, increased energy costs, an aging workforce and, yes, barriers to innovation.

We as the engineers, manufacturers, water technology practitioners, and water industry stakeholders must begin the task of reshaping the industry and the technologies that underpin its reliable operation. The members of the Water & Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) as well as other organizations are already actively working toward the solutions that will better shift the industry into a future that fits our reality.

At the surface, the picture looks rosy. Universities and labs such as the facility at the University of Illinois WaterCAMPWS (Center of Advanced Materials for Purification of Water with Systems) are undertaking groundbreaking technology, developing revolutionary new materials and systems for safe, economic purification of water for human use.

Investors are waiting to jump into what will soon become a lucrative market, with water touted as “clear liquid gold” (ETF Trends, 2007).

Equipment manufacturers are readying their companies to provide equipment to meet the demands of the market, with a focus on decreased life-cycle costs and increased reliability and automation.

In the broader view, 884 million people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water; daily nearly 6,000 people die from water-related illnesses. Several entities, ranging from churches to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are seeking a solution to the diseases caused by lack of sanitation and limited access to clean water.

However, significant barriers to real improvement and progress continue to exist. These include: overcoming both the financial and legal challenges to innovation; rationalizing the real, true cost of water and wastewater treatment; adjusting to leaner, simpler operating models; population expansion; fragmentation of the water industry; and doing all of the above while attracting the next generation of water and wastewater technologists, operators and managers to what some may consider to be an unglamorous business.

Though the need for innovation and real progress has never been greater, the barriers are as imposing as they have ever been.

The question is: How can we, as an industry, best address and take actionable steps to diminish the barriers to water and wastewater innovation and progress?

How can we best unleash private equity?

How do we begin to improve the effectiveness of our patent laws?

How do we broaden understanding of the real, true cost of water?

How do we attract the next generation of water leaders?

How do we make our products better, simpler, and easier in today’s environment?

How do we manage the reduced availability of plant footprint, increasing population and the rising costs of energy to provide these technologies?

How do we improve the way we preserve and purify the water of the world?

And, most importantly, how do we do it all now, not a decade from now when the impacts are predictably more dire?

The answer is deceptively simple, but completely sobering.

If the barriers to innovation and progress are to be removed, it’s going to require the best part of all of us. Unleashing our laboratories’ and universities’ pure science for commercial viability where investment delivers a return. Government legislation, investment, and enforcement aligned to the highest viable standard, while paving the way for new technologies. Education of professionals at every level and stage of the engineering/water process so that the next stewards of public health are proud to carry the banner. Standardization across communities, states, and countries where ALL water is managed as ONE PLATFORM. Each player has a role to fulfill, a strength which, when combined with others, will bring resolution to meet the demands of this century.

We must determine: Are we part of the solution… or will we leave these problems behind for another generation to solve?