By Brooke K. Mayer, PhD, PE

An increasingly acute wave of global stressors—including increas­ing population, urbanization and land-use changes, climate change, interconnected resources (e.g., food, energy and water), emerging contaminants and aging infrastructure—continues to threaten once reliable water systems. Unfortunately, continuous investment in water-related infrastructure is lagging.[1] In the US alone, US EPA estimates the needs for water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure at well over $700 billion in the next 20 years (Figure 1).Figure 1. Summary of US EPA’s Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment[2] and Clean Watersheds Needs Survey[3]. The data points reflect the total needs in each category, reported in billions of dollars (unadjusted). The pie charts show the relative breakdown of needs within the water and clean watershed (wastewater and stormwater) categories.

The sheer magnitude of these needs underscores the urgency for water sector innovation (defined as the development, application, diffusion and utilization of new knowledge and technology). Such innovation can include developing and implementing technol­ogies that drive physical transformation and greater efficiencies, as well as systems-level management (e.g., political, cultural, social and economic frameworks). Importantly, technology is necessary, but not sufficient, to overcome water challenges, necessitating the integration of technological design with the institutional and social systems that control change.[4]

Despite this exigent need, the evolution of water management (or perhaps more aptly, diffusion of innovation therein) tends to be sluggish in the absence of external crisis’ points.[4,5] For example, in response to paradigm-altering improvements in understanding health-related environmental microbiology, relatively rapid waves of technology adoption swept the US following the introduction of disinfection in the early 1900s, with 90 percent of all public water supplies adopting chlorination within 10 years of its initial use.6 Figure 2 shows examples of other water technology adoption rates. Some technologies rise to maturity more rapidly than others, e.g., ultrafiltration, UV, sequencing batch reactor, high-purity oxygen activated sludge and flocculator/clarifier.

Figure 2. Time incurred for full-scale adoption of select water and wastewater treatment technologies (derived from records for finite time periods). The full dataset is shown in panel a), whereas b) shows an inset. Data for ultrafiltration (UF; North America, 1993-2004), ultraviolet (UV; US, 1982-1992), sequencing batch reactor (SBR; US, 1985-1992), biological phosphorus removal (BPR; South Africa, 1972-1982), Tiopaq (Europe, 1990-2009) and sludge hydrolysis (SH; global, 1996-2017) were summarized by O’Callaghan et al. (2018)7. Data for high-purity oxygen activated sludge (HPOAS; North America, 1970-2000), flocculator clarifier (FC; North America, 1991-2009), trickling filter/solids contact process (TF/SC; North America, 1979-2000), moving bed biofilm reactor/integrated fixed film activated sludge (MMBR, IFAS; North America, 1996-2009) and membrane bioreactor (MBR, North America, 1979-2009) were estimated from Parker (2011).[8]

The drivers for some of these technologies included new comprehensive water and wastewater regulations. Specifically, rapid technological innovation followed closely on the heels of the Clean Water Act (1972), the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) and subsequent amendments (particularly those related to enhanced surface water treatment following the 1993 cryptosporidiosis outbreak).[4] For example, high-purity oxygen activated sludge was fortuitously introduced into the marketplace at roughly the same time as the Clean Water Act was established. This regulatory pressure dramatically increased demand for secondary wastewater treatment. Additionally, the technology developer launched a comprehensive marketing campaign that helped catapult the process directly from pilot study to full-scale. Interestingly, the developer also licensed the technology to a competitor to facilitate market penetration and avoid sole-sourcing complications.[8]

Installations of UV and ultrafiltration were similarly buoyed by urgent concerns for environmental quality and human health. The rapid rise of UV installations stemmed from its efficacy in addressing shellfish toxicity, while ultrafiltration (and UV) was adopted in response to outbreaks caused by Cryptosporidium contamination and subsequent regulation. For such crisis/needs- driven innovations, the innovation diffusion time (moving through the innovator to early/late majority phases, as shown in Figure 3) is approximately half that required for value-driven innovations (those with no external driver, but featuring inherent advantages over incumbent technologies, e.g., cost savings, smaller footprint or longer lifespan). Although value-driven technologies take longer to adopt (roughly 14 years on average), they are less dependent on external factors and the timing of regulations or public health/ environmental crises, making them lower risk.[5]Figure 3. Illustration of the Water Technology Adoption model[7] showing the average time spent in the different phases of water technology adoption (gray boxes), validated against 488 water technologies.[7] The model is shown overlaying Roger’s innovation diffusion model (blue)[9], a classical innovation/marketing analysis S-curve illustrating technology maturity (orange)[8,9] and the technology expectations/life cycle curve (green).[10]

The water sector has traditionally operated reactively to external drivers, lending itself to slower innovation diffusion and greater reliance on more established solutions.[11] In the absence of crisis, the slow pace of innovation derives from multiple factors, all of which are sharpened by the sector’s inertia.[4] With good reason, the strictly regulated water industry is highly risk averse due to the critical focus on mitigating contaminants to reduce risks to human and environmental health.1 Thus, water managers can be punished for failure, but not rewarded for success, making even small risks of catastrophic failure daunting.[4,8] Thus, perhaps more than any other sector, the water industry is reticent to adopt new technologies that have not been carefully vetted at multiple scales and found to introduce essentially no risk to public health.[11] This often mean that utilities prefer to wait for others to be the first adopters.[8]

These innovation diffusion challenges can manifest as ‘the valley of death’ (Figure 3). In the life cycle of a technology, the valley of death (also described as the chasm or ‘trough of disillusionment’) is a scenario in which a new innovation does not advance from demonstration to commercialization.[1,10,12] Innovators, inventors and the like are far too familiar with the near-paralyzing fear wrought by this chasm between early and majority adopters. Yet, onward they march on a path made more palatable by sharing the load. In other words, although individual risk-taking may not be prudent, collective risk taking by the water industry has the potential to spur innovation and traverse the valley of death.[4] Several innovation throttle points that heighten individual risks of technology adoption and suggestions for sharing the load are outlined below.

For environmental technologies such as water, lack of financing for scale-up is a significant contributor to the valley of death. The trend in low investment in the water sector compared to other areas has persisted for decades, as evidenced by 1.1 percent of US venture capital investments in environmental services and equipment (compared to 2.8 percent of US GDP).[1] Although venture capital represents a large share of water investment, the level of financial support pales in comparison to sectors such as renewable energy, with an order of magnitude less funding for water compared to clean energy (Figure 4).[4,11] Beyond venture capital, federal support for basic or applied research played an important role in developing many of the technologies featured in Figure 2, illustrating that federal research support offers one means of mitigating risk for innovators and early adopters.[8] Notably, approximately $28 million in US public investment supported the water sector over a 13-year period compared to $8 billion for the clean energy sector.[11] Notwithstanding the importance of clean energy, this discrepancy is somewhat surprising given increasing recognition of water’s importance to energy, industry and national security.[4] Accordingly, increased sustained levels of public funding could help accelerate sluggish technological development and adoption in the water sector.[11]Figure 4. Distribution of investment sources in the US water sector (total of $1.5 billion) and clean energy sector ($69 billion). Data reported by Ajami et al. (2014).[11]

The path to technology adoption also depends on thorough testing and validation, which is time-consuming and costly.1 Mi­helcic et al. (2017)[1] proposed that the inherent risks of innovation could be reduced by establishing a national test bed network to connect physical testing facilities with researchers, investors, technology providers, utilities, regulators and other stake­holders. One example is the LIFT (Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology) network, established by the Water Environment Federation and the Water Research Foundation. In spite of vari­able missions amongst stakeholders, many have shared inter­ests and can benefit from a test bed network by sharing the risks of innovation, accelerating market entry, establishing con­nections building from fundamental research to full-scale adop­tion, raising external funding, meeting regulatory requirements, reducing costs, increasing reliability and resiliency, training a fu­ture workforce and improving community wellbeing.[1]

The test bed network offers an opportunity for independent technology evaluations as well as transparent sharing of information. Building such partnerships early in the technology life cycle can help align nascent technology with relevant applications.[4] Another striking opportunity for promoting innovation is through healthy competition. O’Callaghan et al. (2021)[13] found that two to three companies is ideal for actively introducing a new technology at a given time in order to share the burden of innovation and accelerate the innovation and adoption cycles while driving down price.

Fragmented responsibilities, e.g., across jurisdictional bound­aries or at different levels (local, state, federal) or subsectors (ar­tificial separation of water and wastewater), can also challenge adoption of new technology.[4] In particular, technical, regulatory and institutional frameworks and policies are diverse and highly localized, e.g., most water policy debates occur at the local or state level (with the exception of nationally-regulated water quality).[11] In contrast, power availability and supply depend on regional, national and international markets, causing them to be prioritized by national and international policy agendas.[11]

Additional examples of the fragmented global water market include broad variability in size of operations, fine-tuning systems to highly site-specific parameters and differences in stakeholder priorities. Photocatalytic water treatment and nutrient removal/recovery from wastewater offer examples of differences in focus between academic research communities and practical application. In the case of photocatalysis, despite decades of research and thousands of published research articles, application has been very limited compared to conventional advanced oxidation processes.[16] This illustrates deflated expectations (Figure 3) as academic advocation meets industrial application.[16] Embedded in practical expectations is transparent communication about technology potential and mechanisms (e.g., avoiding black box pitches).8 Accordingly, Kogler et al. (2021)[17] recommended that research agendas for nutrient removal and recovery technologies better address underlying process mechanisms, scale-up, systems-level impacts and product-market fit.

Given the clear drivers for technological innovation, it is imperative that we continue to break down the barriers to innovation diffusion.[4] Since incumbent technologies have inertial dominance that new technologies must overcome (e.g., existing user knowledge, available skills and large sunk costs given decades-long design lives), mechanisms for sharing the risks and consequences of failure beyond just the early adopters is needed.[4,8,15] The energy sector may provide informative lessons to accelerate innovation diffusion and truly tap the water sector’s potential to innovate and deploy new technologies.[11]

1. Mihelcic JR, Ren ZJ, Cornejo PK, et al. Accelerating Innovation that Enhances Resource Recovery in the Wastewater Sector: Advancing a National Testbed Network. Environ Sci Technol. 2017;51(14):7749-7758. doi:10.1021/acs.est.6b05917
2. US EPA. Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: Sixth Report to Congress.; 2018.
3. US EPA. Clean Watersheds Needs Survey 2012: Report to Congress.; 2016.
4. Kiparsky M, Sedlak DL, Thompson BH, Truffer B. The innovation deficit in urban water: The need for an integrated perspective on institutions, organizations, and technology. Environ Eng Sci. 2013;30(8):395-408. doi:10.1089/ees.2012.0427
5. O’Callaghan P, Adapa LM, Buisman C. Analysis of adoption rates for Needs Driven versus Value Driven innovation water technologies. Water Environ Res. 2019;91(2):144-156. doi:10.1002/wer.1013
6. Siegel SM. Troubled Water. St. Martin’s Press; 2019.
7. O’Callaghan P, Daigger G, Adapa L, Buisman C. Development and Application of a Model to Study Water Technology Adoption. Water Environ Res. 2018;90(6):563-574. doi:10.2175/106143017×15054988926479
8. Parker DS. Introduction of New Process Technology into the Wastewater Treatment Sector. Water Environ Res. 2011;83(6):483-497. doi:10.2175/106143009×12465435983015
9. Rogers EM. Diffusion of Innovations. 5th ed. Simon and Schuster/The Free Press; 2003.
10. Frank C, Sink C, Mynatt L, Rogers R, Rappazzo A. Surviving the “Valley of Death”: A comparative analysis. Technol Transf. 1996;21:61-69.
11. Ajami NK, Thomspon BHJ, Victor DG. The Path to Water Innovation. Stanford Woods Inst Environ. 2014;Discussion
12. Moore G. Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers. Harper-Collins Publishers; 1991.
13. O’Callaghan P, Adapa LM, Buisman C. Assessing and anticipating the real world impact of innovative water technologies. J Clean Prod. 2021;315(September 2020):128056. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.128056
14. O’Callaghan P, Adapa LM, Buisman C. How can innovation theories be applied to water technology innovation? J Clean Prod. 2020;276:122910. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.122910
15. Garrone P, Grilli L, Groppi A, Marzano R. Barriers and drivers in the adoption of advanced wastewater treatment technologies: a comparative analysis of Italian utilities. J Clean Prod. 2018;171:S69-S78. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.02.018
16. Loeb SK, Alvarez PJJ, Brame JA, et al. The Technology Horizon for Photocatalytic Water Treatment: Sunrise or Sunset? Environ Sci Technol. 2019;53(6):2937-2947. doi:10.1021/acs.est.8b05041
17. Kogler A, Farmer M, Simon JA, Tilmans S, Wells GF, Tarpeh WA. Systematic Evaluation of Emerging Wastewater Nutrient Removal and Recovery Technologies to Inform Practice and Advance Resource Efficiency. ACS ES&T Eng. 2021;1(4):662-684. doi:10.1021/acsestengg.0c00253

Dr. Brooke K. Mayer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering as part of the Opus College of Engineering at Marquette University. She holds Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees in civil engineering with an emphasis in environmental engineering from Arizona State University. She is a registered Professional Engineer in the state of Arizona.


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