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Innovative technology in the water sector: It’s time to focus on needs over preferences

August 14, 2021

By Arthur Umble

“Clever” innovation doesn’t matter if it doesn’t focus on the needs of people

Aging and decaying water infrastructure. Climate change. Population growth. Add them together and the uncertainty of an adequate and sustainable freshwater supply intensifies—a crisis of poor water stewardship is exposed.

Can we reverse this cycle? And can we combat things that might not seem combatable?

So far, scientists and engineers have developed a wide variety of applications for supplementing water supplies via reuse schemes. Some examples include more economic desalination, higher-efficiency agricultural irrigation, and advanced wastewater treatment technologies. These solutions focus on meeting immediate demands stemming from customers’ preferences and behaviors around water consumption. But can these technologies deliver what customers need?

Let’s take a quick step back. Water use preference relates to making choices about how one uses water that is available and accessible with reasonable certainty. If the choice turns out poor, the user experiences little, if any, consequence.

Need, on the other hand, relates to having rigorous restrictions placed on uses because availability and accessibility are limited and uncertain. The consequences for misuse can be devastating. We are seeing municipalities issuing need-based restrictions all too often, especially in the western US.

The question: Is innovative technology necessary for addressing consumer preference, or should it be reserved for addressing consumer need? Or both? If addressing need is more critical for a sustainable future, is innovative technology the complete answer? Can factors outside the technology arena be equally or more important?

Nowhere is this more important than when we are talking about water. Water affects all aspects of life. As a result, technological innovation must go beyond time-saving widgets, or advanced and convenient communication devices, or cutting-edge synthetic fibers.

All these are clever. But they are intended to boost immediate economic growth and satisfy consumer-preference demands. Innovation in the water sector cannot be simply clever technology just for the sake of being clever. Rather, it must encompass the human elements of physical and sociological equity, plus keep pace with a rapidly changing world. It’s a hefty ask. 

Thinking differently about how disruptive technologies sustain the fundamental need of the future and will be crucial to combating the serious challenges facing the water industry.

Placing emphasis—today versus tomorrow

When a company sees itself as technology-driven, it must ask a critical question of its vision. Is it focused on today’s proven demand of preferences or on tomorrow’s needs for sustainable viability?

Consider this example. In the early 1900s, the Eastman Kodak Company’s focus was selling a technology—cameras— that the average consumer could use with ease and convenience (preferences). However, though the focus was on the end-user, the company was in fact technology driven. Its miscalculation was in believing it had achieved a level of technology exceeding its customers’ current and future preference expectations. They overlooked the needs of the industry.

The photography landscape was evolving. It was no longer simply a hobby. It would play a huge role in changing the way society documents information. Kodak was so focused on the “here and now” preferences of its customers, it fell steps behind their more forward-thinking competitors who invested time and resources into digital solutions. The needs of the society eclipsed immediate preferences of the end-user. Those who recognized meeting society’s needs was more important than satisfying immediate preferences won out. 

Technological innovation must go beyond time-saving widgets, or advanced and convenient communication devices, or cutting-edge synthetic fibers.

An opposite example is Apple Corporation. Apple focused on what societal needs are and will always be—the need for people to feel connected, to belong, and to do so with high efficiency and fluidity. Apple built its iPhone platform around these needs, and the world of human interaction was transformed. In so doing, end-users developed their preferences in response to the transformation, not the other way around.

There is an invaluable lesson here. If we choose to be myopic to the preferences of today with our technology, and not embrace fundamental needs that promote a viable, sustainable tomorrow, we risk losing the opportunity that can take us there. For businesses, this may not only undermine growth but can also be a lost opportunity to be branded as the business that transformed an entire industry. 

Technologies embracing human need are transformational, remove socio-economic barriers, and open equitable access to water for all. When we look out at the water’s horizon, that is where our focus MUST be.

Transforming customer relationships with technology

So, how do Apple and Kodak lessons apply to the water arena? To ensure we are addressing needs over preferences we must incorporate the human, or social, factor into the technology. These technologies have a more long-lasting, positive impact on society and result in greater equitability for all.

Let’s elaborate on the human factor. We can define the adoption of disruptive technologies as “the extent to which there exists not only a willingness (or disposition) but also an ability (or capability) to absorb, accept, and utilize innovation options” to address the challenge of meeting human need instead of preference.

A Dutch survey in 2011 on perceptions on innovations in the urban water sector said four attributes are required to successfully implement disruptive technological options and have them become mainstream. The “4As” must be developed along with the technology itself:

  • Awareness: Being alert that a problem exists or will be dominant in the future, and what alternative options are or will be available to develop and implement.
  • Association: Connect the options with the stakeholders’ agenda and objectives. This includes educating stakeholders on different aspects of the technology development paradigm.
  • Acquisition: Being able to acquire, implement, operate, and maintain the alternative options. This has to do with improving and strengthening a company’s technical expertise and capabilities, and most importantly, constructing a vision to lead toward a sustainable future.
  • Application: Having sufficient legal and financial incentives to apply the alternative options. Know the limits and invest for the hidden gems.

It's not always easy to do what's unpopular, but that's where differences are made. Servicing preferences is popular. Servicing needs is bold.

Innovation in the water sector cannot be simply clever technology just for the sake of being clever. Rather, it must encompass the human elements of physical and sociological equity, plus keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

Laser focus on fundamental need

At first glance, having vision for technology-driven, innovative approaches in our day-to-day consultative water practice seems to be a good opportunity to achieve business growth goals in the global space. The risk, however, is that the business can get caught up in clever innovation because it sees business growth as the beneficiary of cleverness. Such a view is short-sighted. It misses the opportunity the be the organization, and more importantly, the responsibility to leverage technology’s influence to gain the upper hand in driving a sustainable water future.

Legitimate questions arise. Are we simply beating the same drum of pushing innovation and adoption of new technologies merely to gain short-termed competitive advantage in business? Does that outcome only burden our water environment with the debts of that advantage?

Truly innovative engineering design services (and products, such as engineering software) are “technology-driven,” meaning they stem from a management philosophy that pushes for development/adoption/implementation of new goods or services based on a firm’s technical capabilities, instead of proven demand. The push for innovation comes from outside the organization.

This is relevant to our consultative water sector business in three tactical ways:

  • First, we identify the current proven demand for innovation—the most pressing issues our clients face today. These issues range from meeting regulatory obligations (such as an NPDES permit) to accommodating customer preferences (such as a softened water supply).
  • Second, in collaboration with our clients, we develop plausible scenarios of demand for innovation in the future by considering the influence that today’s proven demand may have on future demand.
  • Third, we focus on a needs-based, not preference-based, solution orientation that is implementable today, yet transferrable and adaptable into future years and decades.

This approach may be seen by some as risky. But at the core, it is investment in technology and innovation that takes the long-range view. It resists short-sighted pressures surrounding customer preferences and it uses the 4As as guiding principles.

Besides, how can one ensure that a solution applied today can still apply years into the future? Furthermore, technology is constantly changing. Surely the technology of the future will look much different. The answer is that the fundamental need human beings have for water never changes. Anything less is arguably simply to address preferences of the here and now. Water is not a commodity, marketed and branded by personal preference, or something that is here today and gone tomorrow.

No. Water is life itself.

As a result, when the solution is oriented to needs, it automatically becomes transferable across time. It meets the needs of future demand in just the same way it meets the needs of today. Truly innovative technologies in the water sector that address human need are analogous to first making the key and then looking for the lock that it fits. This is what opens the door to a sustainable, equitable water future. 

  • Arthur Umble

    As the lead for Stantec's Institute for Applied Science, Technology & Policy, Arthur’s position involves developing strategies and providing solutions for complex wastewater treatment challenges.

    Contact Arthur
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