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The innovation buzz from Stockholm World Water Week

It’s not just about technology, it’s about laws, public policy and social engagement.

In my view, this year’s Stockholm World Water Week (SWWW) in late August was a bit of a turning point. The community there moved measurably closer to fully embracing innovation and entrepreneurs as critical to contributing to solving water challenges. I was energized by the weeklong program and plans for the coming year.

During the week, I mostly focused on the meetings and sessions that were about innovation. It was clear that innovation is not just focused on technology. There were discussions on innovation in water stewardship and quantifying the business value of water, as well as a small working group session convened by WWF and the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN). All of these efforts were focused on accelerating and scaling solutions to water scarcity and quality.

First, the interesting discussions on corporate water stewardship and strategy.

WWF convened a breakfast working session to discuss its progress in water stewardship and solicit input on the state of stewardship. Part of the discussion was about how water stewardship — or water strategy, as I frame it — can create greater value for corporations, society and other stakeholders. A similar conversation was part of the separate IUCN working session: an assessment of the current state of water stewardship and how to accelerate engagement of the private sector in scaling solutions.

This question of "why has water stewardship stalled?" was a key part of my conversations at the event. I was clearly not the only person asking the question and challenging stakeholders to take stock of what is working and what is not working. I believe the coming year will see this question take hold and move corporations to be more creative in defining a more expansive view of their role and opportunity in solving water challenges.

The question of 'why has water stewardship stalled?' was a key part of my conversations at the event.
Turning to a couple of the innovation-themed events worth noting. "Innovation: Business as Unusual" was a full-day seminar focused on a broad view of innovation. The day consisted of three sessions: "What is Innovation"; "21st Century: Grey, Green or In-Between"; and "The Pitch: Accelerating Innovation." (Slides and overviews of the sessions are available at Session 1 [PDF], Session 2 [PDF] and Session 3 [PDF]). We were fortunate to not only have impactful presenters but attendees who were engaged on what is possible and truly moving beyond business as usual.

A few speakers that had an impact on my view of innovation (worth reading their abstracts and presentations):

  • Maisie Devine, global director at ABInBev, on "What innovation is and not";
  • Shubhangi Sharma, water activist, St Edmund College in Shillong, India, on "Leaving None Behind: Innovative Approaches for Drinking-water, Sanitation and Hygiene";  
  • Cristina Knorich Zuffo, director of technology and innovation for Sabesp, on innovation at the water and waste management company owned by São Paulo state; and
  • Polly Alakija, founder of The Five Cowires Arts Education Initiative in Lagos, Nigeria.

All of the presenters were impressive, and I only flag these presenters as they had a personal impact on my view: Innovation is much more than technology.

Also, the last session of the seminar consisted on pitches by entrepreneurs to judges. Everyone was a winner in my view as they were creative, passionate and committed to moving beyond business as usual.

The companies pitching were (and worth taking a closer look at):

  • Jochen Raimann, a board member of Easy Water for Everyone: "Decentralized water purification using membrane filtration to improve community health"
  • Yolwin Jed Perales, operations supervisor at Mindanao Minerals Processing and Refining: "Innovation in Low-Cost Water Treatment using Conventional and Nanotechnologies"
  • Michael White, urban water specialist with Asian Development Bank: "Providing Sanitation to Off-grid Areas: a Successful Story from Cambodia"
  • Leah Page Jean, business development manager with Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods: "Building consumer-focused household sanitation solutions in Haiti"
  • Joseph D'Alba, president of Sun Fresh Water: "The Implications of a Sustainable Source of Potable Water"
  • James Peterson, product manager with Klaran: "UVC LED disinfection demonstrates effectiveness against POU water pathogens"
  • Odwa Ntsika Mtembu, with the Department of Water and Sanitation and World Merit, South Africa: "Water Wide Web 3.1: Circulating Urban Water System for Renewable"
  • Mary Roach, head of global partnerships for waterless toilet company Loowatt: "VeriSan: Accelerating sanitation scaling through mobile IT" 

A few of my takeaways from the seminar:

  • Technology innovation alone will not deliver Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 6, which calls for business action on water. While technology innovation significantly can contribute to improved access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, it is innovation in public policy, laws and social engagement that has the ability to scale solutions;
  • Inclusion and diversity are essential for scaling innovation; and
  • Innovation requires an exciting vision, a way to personally connect to it and benefits to individuals and organizations for engaging in innovative projects or processes (from a colleague who participated in the session).

Finally, second annual Imagine H2O Urban Water Challenge, sponsored by 11th Hour Racing and Bluewater, showcased these finalists: 

  • UPEPO — Provides tailored solutions for smart water metering to meet the needs of mobile network operators, water utilities, community water projects, landlords and borehole owners
  • Storm Sensor — Provides clients with the information they need to detect and understand conditions in their stormwater and wastewater systems
  • Indra Water — Provides economical, modular and smart water treatment systems for recycling domestic and industrial wastewater
  • Zilper Trenchless — Developed a proprietary trenchless technology that significantly reduces the cost and disruption of underground piping projects
  • WatchTower — Developed a proprietary robot technology which scouts pipes to find leaks before they become a problem 

The cohort and winners — WatchTower, Indra and Zilper — were very impressive, and I suspect we will see more of them.

My key takeaway from the week is that we are moving away from "business as usual" and starting to understand how to scale innovation.

Technology will not be the game-changer in water. It will come down to a community of diverse people from both within and outside the water community that will get us to achieving SDG 6. I remain optimistic after this year’s gathering. 

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