Water Innovation Clusters as Solution Stewards


Clean Clear Cold Drink

What does it take to provide clean water for our communities?  Tens of thousands of people dedicating their careers to managing our water systems.  This is a job that requires understanding the dynamic nature of our environment and adjusting operating and treatment protocols based on a variety of conditions.  It takes a network of people with diverse backgrounds to continually treat water to the standards expected by the public.  And, the conditions are continually changing due to new weather patterns, aging infrastructure and the introduction of new substances into our environment and waterways.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of new solutions being imagined by entrepreneurs and academic researchers across the globe.

The question facing us now is what it will take to get appropriate solutions implemented?  The water industry is conservative by nature due to the importance of protecting public health, regulatory restrictions, and financial constraints.  Given the large number of utilities in the country it is not economically efficient for each to develop their own solutions.  Therein lies the dilemma.  If it is risky to adopt a new entrepreneurial solution developed outside your organization, and the organization does not have the time or resources to develop their own innovations, how will solutions be brought to market?

It was with this context that in 2012 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed a Technology Innovation Roadmap[1] and began to initiate the coordination of Water Innovation Clusters in 2012.  This model was based on the work of Michael Porter on “Clusters of Innovation”[2] which demonstrates the economic development benefits to a region that has a rich network of industry partners from business and academia such as technology in Silicon Valley and the pharmaceutical industry in Boston.  The intent of the program was to foster collaboration between cluster organizations and support creation of partnerships between business, government, academic and non-profit organizations to develop and bring to market innovative water technologies that are both good for water policy and good for the economy.   Nearly 20 water innovation clusters have been formed in the US, each created with the support of government, business and academic partners in their region, and with their own focus, staff, funding and governance models.

 

Top & Bottom: NEWEA Innovation Pavilion January 2020. Credit: NEWEA.

Another partner of the water innovation clusters has been the Water Environment Federation (WEF).  This 92 year old not for profit organization has a membership base of 35,000 people and with 75 regional Member Associations sharing a passion for protecting public health and the environment.  WEF’s mission is “to connect water professionals; enrich the expertise of water professionals; increase the awareness of the impact and value of water; and provide a platform for water sector innovation.”[3]  Since their inception WEF has supported and included the water innovation clusters in innovation activities including the Innovation Pavilion at their annual conference, WEFTEC.  In 2018 WEF took over the stewardship of the clusters from EPA, and the collaboration continues to expand as new clusters and innovation organizations such as water technology incubators are created across the globe.

In January of 2020 one of the original clusters, the Northeast Water Innovation Network (NEWIN) merged with the WEF Member Association the New England Water and Environment Association (NEWEA).  This merger is an opportunity to bring together stakeholders with a common interest in preserving and protecting water and quality of life by fostering connections to put innovative solutions into practice.  One of the primary goals of the newly formed Innovation Council of NEWEA is to plan and lead activities and communications that foster innovation in the industry.  In particular, to build connections between utilities, regulators, academics and innovators to facilitate experimentation and adoption of new technologies, methods and policies that will improve the industry.

With all of these partnerships to foster understanding and collaboration we are at an exciting point in the evolution of the water industry.  Some of the key metrics often used to measure the success of an innovation cluster are the number of jobs created and the amount of revenue generated by the newly formed companies.  However, this is only a fraction of the benefits.  The water industry has a reputation for being too slow to adopt innovations.  Continually following older methods can result in problems persisting longer, costing rate payers more, putting our infrastructure at greater risk and impacting public trust.  These costs are difficult to quantify and can have a much greater impact on our communities than job creation and revenue.  Water innovation clusters with stewardship from WEF and its vast network, are poised to have a significant impact in ensuring innovation efforts are focused on the areas of most need and with greatest potential impact, and also in facilitating faster acceptance and adoption of new technologies, methods and processes.  If you are an innovator or a water professional not aware of these collaboration opportunities with the clusters or with WEF, you are encouraged to contact Marianne Langridge or Bri Nakamura for more information.

References:

  1. [1] https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/envirofinance/innovation_.html
  2. [2] Porter, Michael J, “Clusters of Innovation: Regional Foundations of U.S. Competitiveness”, October, 2001, Council on Competitiveness
  3. [3] https://www.wef.org/about/about-wef/