Blog post written by Jim Ginley, July 18, 2017
I was invited to share some ideas about innovation and water sector utilities, partly because I’ve been blessed to have spent nearly three decades working with thousands of good folks who get up every morning and go to work at a utility (or an office that supports a utility), and partly because I’ve been paying attention lately to some of the struggles these wholly dedicated and truly committed folks have with changing how they do things – namely, “innovating.”
To start, in a current version of Merriam-Webster online, we find a definition for the “noun” version of the word:
1: the introduction of something new
2: a new idea, method, or device : novelty
There’s also the definition for the “verb” version of the word:
1: to introduce as or as if new
2: to make changes: do something in a new way
When hearing the word “innovation” – especially in the municipally based water and sewer sector – thoughts typically go to some sort of new technology, some new and ground-breaking widget or process that is intended to help utilities do a better job at detecting leaks, at cleaning waste streams, at saving electricity or generating energy from waste, at helping drive demand side management of consumption, etc. Mr. Webster’s definition above would certainly support this notion and reaction, especially the second part, “a new idea, method, or device.”
But having worked with utilities for a long time – I can tell you that it’s not the noun that is the problem – it’s the verb. That is, it’s the action of innovating – the action of making changes and doing something in a new way that is really the challenge.
Don’t get me wrong – the history of utility management and operations in our country is loaded with examples of innovative thinking that translated into amazing displays of engineering, operations, and management. But from experience and observation, it’s still a struggle for our sector’s utilities to take on something new.
Having attended TAP IN: Source & Cycle, which focused on water resources related needs that ranged from botanic gardens and river clean ups to reuse, big data, and managing water loss, it was encouraging to hear the “reverse pitches” from the utilities. But that was Denver and Boulder – of course they are doing something new and different, right? But what about the rest of our utilities here in Colorado, in the arid West, in the other regions of our country and world?
Good news is that despite some challenges and barriers to innovation, some utilities are both innovative and innovating! Here just a few examples:
- Check out and help out the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association (RMWEA) Innovative Wastewater Technologies Committee – which is established here in our region and provides an open forum for anybody interested in discussing, evaluating, and testing new innovated technologies and other approaches to make facilities in the RMWEA more cost-effective and sustainable, while meeting ever tighter discharge regulations.
- Through TAP-IN, you got to meet the outstanding folks at Imagination H2O, Isle Inc., Hydro Venture Partners, and 10.10.10, all of whom are partners with TAP IN and working collaboratively with utilities to do things differently. Check them out and see if you can help sponsor a project, participate in a technology forum, or even be a “validator” or “ninja” for a “wicked problem.”
- Also, check out the research report from the Water Research Foundation and the Water Environment & Reuse Research Foundation that was posted in the TAP-IN Blog in May — it is chock full of ideas and utility examples.
- And last, I encourage you to find and read (which may be innovative for some) a really well done (and award winning) anthology on innovations in our sector called, “Damned if We Don’t!” – Ideas for Accelerating Change around Water,” Edited by Christopher Peacock, Water Anthology Press, 2014. It’s available on Amazon.
To close, if you work at or for a water sector utility, be encouraged – good changes are possible and coming. However, don’t just wait around for change to happen; rather, be part of the change! Get out there and innovate!
Jim Ginley is an independent consultant with nearly 30 years of experience in the municipal water sector, including more than 16 years on the staff of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), more than 13 years as a utility management and regulatory compliance consultant and active volunteer. Jim specializes in strategic planning, performance improvement, organizational assessments, workshop and session facilitation, and training.