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Streamlining Innovation in the North American Water Sector

  |   Smart Cities San Diego, Water

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Smart Water: Tapping Technologies for Water Utilities, a joint-workshop hosted by the SWAN North American Alliance and Cleantech San Diego at the Qualcomm Technologies headquarters in San Diego. The Workshop attracted nearly 200 attendees, several of whom were water utilities interested in learning about the vast opportunities in the smart water sector. The cross-industry panels sparked engaging discussions, particularly about the innovation processes of North American water utilities. Utility speakers highlighted the need for a “reverse pitch,” the challenges stemming from rigid RFP processes, and the idea of an “innovation lounge.”


Gary Eaton, Chief Innovation Officer at the San Diego County Water Authority, cited the importance of three “Cs.” First, creating a culture receptive to innovation in a risk-averse environment. Second, becoming agile, or building the right capabilities for staff to be innovative. Thirdly, creativity is necessary to take staff ideas from conception to implementation. Gary also stressed the idea of a “reverse pitch,” or gathering internal organizational feedback to develop a “wish list” of desired solutions. However, he stated that a significant challenge to enabling innovation is the long and arduous RFP cycle where desired technologies can become out of date or companies can even go out of business. To effectively manage the procurement process, adopting an open architecture format for other public agencies to utilize would be beneficial.


The need to be cutting-edge, not “bleeding-edge,” was emphasized by Joey Randall, Assistant General Manager at Olivenhain Municipal Water District. He mentioned that his utility needs to change the way they think about water to work smarter, not harder. In the end, it’s about how they do business and they must decide how their water service will change. Meanwhile, the concept of an “innovation lounge” was advocated by John Arena, Business Outreach Section Manager at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Such a lounge would be an open platform for utility staff members to collaborate and suggest different projects and improvements.


Paul Gagliardo, Innovation Director at American Water further spoke in depth about their evaluation process to work with outside vendors and how they decide where to invest their resources. Below, is American Water’s 7 step innovation process, which can also be applied to other utilities.


Source: Presentation by Paul Gagliardo, Innovation Manager at American Water during Smart Water Workshop, Jan. 25, 2017 in San Diego.


As the leading global hub for the smart water sector, the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN) brings together key players in the water industry to collaborate and share knowledge in order to accelerate the development of data-driven technologies in water and wastewater networks worldwide. For example, the SWAN North American Alliance is now free to join offering free workshops such as the recent one in San Diego, specialized webinars, as well as a soon to be centralized source for smart water resources. By joining SWAN or participating in the Alliance, utilities can leverage best practices from other global utilities and access a global innovation lounge.


View the recent Smart Water Workshop presentations: https://www.swan-forum.com/smart-water-workshop-2017/


By Amir Cahn, Executive Director, SWAN Forum


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