OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. In this article, Will Sarni, Founder and CEO of Water Foundry, emphasizes the importance of applying modern technology and engaging all stakeholders in the effort to address global water issues.
I have increasingly focused on water technology innovation over the past several years in addition to working with multi-nationals on water strategy (not limited to water stewardship). Working with water technology startups and investors has broadened my view of what needs to change to actually solve global water challenges.
A few of the many lessons I have learned through working with and investing in technology startups and working with innovative ecosystem programs are summarized below.
First, I am convinced (along with others) that digital technologies are and will continue to transform not just the water sector but our relationship with water. The World Economic Forum (WEF Harnessing 4IR Water) and the International Water Association (IWA Digital Water Programme) are among several organizations mapping out the digital transformation opportunity and roadmap. For WEF it is part of their Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) initiative which focuses on the power of digital technologies (e.g., IoT, AI, machine learning, etc.) to transform sectors such as water, manufacturing, energy and agriculture. For IWA the value proposition and power of digital technologies is focused on how digital technologies can improve asset management, customer engagement, watershed management, etc. for water and wastewater utilities. The adoption of digital water tech is a significant trend that provides the opportunity to ensure universal access to safe drinking water, water for economic development, business growth and ecosystem health.
Second, Solutions to water quantity and quality challenges are not possible without the active participation of all stakeholders; public sector, NGOs, private sector, civil society, investors and entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, these stakeholders don’t often connect to solve wicked problems (Water as a Wicked Problem) such as water. However, there are now exciting platforms to build ecosystems of stakeholders to solve water such as 101010 which is “10 wicked problems, 10 entrepreneurs for 10 days (101010). This platform includes a focus on bringing in non-water practitioners with a fresh view of what is broken and what is possible without the potential bias of having lived in the water sector.
There are also innovative partnerships between multinationals and investors and NGOs and technology accelerators. Two to watch are the collaboration between techstars and the Nature Conservancy and the lab created by ABInBev’s innovation arm, ZX Ventures. These two partnerships are important because they illustrate innovative partnerships between the tech startup community and an NGO (in the case of the former), and a global beverage company and an investment fund (the latter model.) Both strive to bring in entrepreneurs from outside the sustainability and water stakeholder groups. Both of these partnerships are in their second year and have had an impact on identifying and supporting innovative business start ups.
Lastly, technology innovation alone will not solve our 21st century water challenges. Innovative business models and quality teams will scale technology solutions (e.g., off-grid, decentralized, distributed, etc.). Investing in water tech entrepreneurs along with public and private sector enterprises that will ultimately adopt innovative technologies is critical.
We will then be able to abandon business as usual and move towards achieving SDG6 and related sustainable development goals.
If you enjoyed this OOSKAnews Voices article, Will Sarni can also be viewed here delivering the Opening Keynote at the 2019 Colorado Water Congress.