The answer is frustratingly little, given the situation we find ourselves in. Yes, we walk the walk when it comes to innovation but actually leveraging these technological breakthroughs at scale, especially if they disrupt existing processes or cross proprietary boundaries, is still the stuff of dreams.
The United Nations has recognised this. All eyes at next month’s Water Conference in New York will be on implementation. “What is everyone going to do?” its Water Action Agenda implores.
The single-sector approach to tech adoption isn’t working
Governments, NGOs, scientists, public utilities, the private sector, entrepreneurs are all answering the question with commitments and pledges for the last half of the Water Action Decade. It cannot be just more talking.
It’s clear that for accelerated implementation and rapidly improved outcomes we’ll need to look further than the water sector.
I’m not having a dig at utilities. The responsibility of maintaining a life-sustaining service continuously at a price the poorest in society can reasonably afford using infrastructure designed (and sometimes installed) a century ago for a different climate would make anyone risk-averse.
It’s unlikely any single sector could unilaterally change in the face of a regulatory, working and environmental landscape which has changed little for generations.
The problems of single-sector approaches to big issues came home to me at the World AI festival in Cannes last week. Even there, I found a sector struggling with implementation and timid in addressing misconceptions. Inspiring as it was, the event didn’t furnish me with a shining example of tech adoption success to parade before utilities.
A catalytic way for sectors co-collaborate
So if collaboration or collective action isn’t working, what will?
The author and influencer Will Sarni has spoken recently about the concept of catalytic communities where cross-sector organisations involving private sector corporations and entrepreneurs collaborate strategically and galvanise others.
This goes much further than a simple alignment of individual actions. It involves a fundamental shift in understanding between engaged stakeholders at all levels and collaborative co-creation to deliver improved outcomes for society as a whole.
As Andre Fourie, global VP for sustainability at AB InBev, puts it, “championing shared values grounded in the pursuit of a sustainable future for both the individual and the collective emerges as the best way to find solutions…”
Removing the risk of disruptive practices
Examples are already beginning to emerge with technologies at their heart. Microsoft has pledged to become water positive by 2030. This bold aim extends way beyond the minimum for a status quo. By definition, it means replenishing more water than it uses in its direct operations.
Meta and Google are also making their own water positive pledges. For data centre businesses like these, this is no small feat. Google’s Idaho data centre alone consumed an estimated 1.1bn litres of water in 2021.
This is great news for entrepreneurs who traditionally struggle to make the case for their new technologies in value chains, especially where it disrupts ingrained practices or mindsets which has traditionally been one of the key barriers to tech adoption in the water sector.
For businesses it’s an investment in their long-term business future and relationships with neighbours and communities. They have the resources and change expertise that many small and regulated utilities do not. But their proven successes will be replicable elsewhere, de-risking disruption for those who might otherwise fear to tread.
Victoria Edwards will be at World Water-Tech Innovation Summit in London on February 21 and 22 where she will host a roundtable Leapfrog: Learning from Mistakes to Break Barriers & Build a Stronger Future (Feb 21, 14.35GMT) and join the day 2 opening plenary session Net Zero: The role of technology in a healthy watershed (Feb 22, 9.10GMT).
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