No doubt you’ve met someone who rolls their eyes at the word “innovation”; perhaps you have as well. You may have had good reason.
“Innovation”, like other buzzwords, can lose its impact as it tends to be thrown around without describing why innovation is important, what it actually looks like in our day-to-day work and practically how can it help us achieve the sustainable water future we envision. The World Water Congress in Brisbane put these questions on the agenda when it opened the congress with a keynote from Gunter Pauli, author and initiator of the Blue Economy, who presented a number of innovative case studies from around the world.
Innovation is described in many different ways, and in the water industry we often talk about innovation as doing something differently to get a better outcome. The “something” we do differently could be an idea, a process or a product, and the desired outcome could be improving quality of a service or reducing cost or impact on the environment. With the breadth of what innovation could be, it’s easy to see how the word can lose meaning. However, at the core, innovation requires us to change the way we work.
Why do we want to change the way we work? Well, because the environmental and social challenges we face are unprecedented and complex, and so the solutions need to be creative and clever. Gunter Pauli presented case studies of creative and clever solutions to complex problems, which included using seawater to grow tomatoes and rice, improving the sustainability of the fishing industry and double-sided solar panels. It left us with the question, what does innovation look like for utilities?
What if we could reuse water endlessly and close the water loop in cities? What if we could use sewage to power our cars? And if we sold people's "calorific contribution" to our sewage treatment plants back to them as electricity for their houses? What if we could make new toilet paper out of used toilet paper? And if we used the waste sludge from treatment plants to make bricks and beds for cows to lie on?
These were some of the innovative ideas and projects that were showcased at WSAA’s Utility Leaders Forum at the World Water Congress. These projects and various conversations at the World Water Congress reminded me that doing things differently is exciting, it’s challenging, it requires us to think outside the box, but importantly it reminded me that innovation isn’t necessarily just a buzzword, it can mean something in the real world. The next challenge for us will be to think about how we can scale these innovative projects and ideas so that changing the way we work doesn’t simply solve one problem, but solves many problems, has impact across different sectors and results in regenerative solutions.