Innovation platforms to speed up pace of tech transfer in water sector

Water utilities nowadays are in an impossible situation. They must accomplish more with less due to the effects of climate change, the demands of a bigger and more urbanised population, and the realities of the worst economic crisis in more than a century.

More people than ever before are relying on utilities to offer more reliable, effective, and sustainable water supply and sanitation (WSS) services while still operating in a financially limited climate that has hindered investments in the water industry globally.

While this is going on, utilities have access to a wide range of technological solutions that can assist them in addressing these pressing issues.

These solutions range from trenchless automated leak repair technologies, which can locate and repair buried pipe leaks without the need for invasive or costly excavation work, to artificial intelligence, which can forecast the likelihood of failures and leaks in water distribution networks, to an autonomous microbiology analyzer for in-situ water quality monitoring. Why then are these solutions not being used more frequently?

According to a review of the water industry’s innovation ecosystem, it regularly fails to connect innovators’ expertise with potential end users. Therefore, despite the Fourth Industrial Revolution-like pace of technical advancement we are currently experiencing and the abundance of new technologies in the water sector, WSS utilities have been slow to adopt these technologies.

Globally, and particularly in emerging nations, utilities are missing out on chances to use technological solutions that may greatly enhance safety, water efficiency, utility operations, monitoring, and treatment. In the end, they are losing out on the chance to use emerging technologies to get more done with fewer resources. This mismatch between supply and demand can be partially explained by a lack of knowledge about current technologies and the potential advantages those technologies may have.

In order to address this, the World Bank has established Water Innovation Platforms (WIPs) to facilitate the adoption of new technologies by bringing together WSS service providers and technology innovators working in the water sector based on the main difficulties faced by utilities. Two WIPs have been released so far in the Caribbean and Latin America.

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Technology needs assessment was conducted after the initial selection of WIP participants for each region to determine both the utility problems that could be solved by technology and the larger ecosystem issues associated with gaining access to and scaling new technologies within regional WSS markets.

Energy demand reduction and the decrease of non-revenue water (NRW), or water that is lost somewhere in the water distribution system and either never reaches its destination or is not invoiced, are utilities’ top two concerns in Africa. Utilities in Latin America and the Caribbean said their top objectives were finding and fixing leaks as well as implementing internet of things (IoT) technologies for real-time system monitoring.

These conclusions assisted in choosing a variety of technological solution suppliers. The utilities decided which businesses were allowed to directly propose their technologies to WIP members through a participatory approach.

Selecting utility-technology matches in each region that will receive more specialised help for technology adoption is the next and currently most difficult stage. Lessons from earlier attempts in this field showed that while connecting utilities and technology companies is frequently effective, turning this desire into a technological pilot is quite difficult.

The initial matchmaking is quite targeted, focusing on three utility-technology couples in each location to avoid this. The World Bank can offer more specialised assistance and make sure utilities’ capacities can accommodate their aspirations by keeping the initial cohort small.

WIP’s ultimate objective is to assist WSS utilities in utilising technical innovation to overcome the difficulties present in the current operational environment. No matter how tough the rock, water always manages to find a way, gradually edging a smooth path forward.