WHAT IF... you created new solutions by using innovative technologies from other sectors?
Some sectors are faster to adapt to progress and innovation than others and unfortunately, we have been observing that in many contexts, the water, sanitation and resources management sectors still rely on conventional approaches which are often outdated. Yet, it has been recognised that many pressing challenges in the sector require innovative solutions (WHEN, U. & MONTALVO, C., 2018). This can easily lead to the assumption that only highly disruptive technologies have the potential to solve the challenges at hand. In consequence, it is often overlooked that innovative technologies from other sectors can provide just that - if transferred correctly. Many technological advancements are already out there and could act as a vehicle for substantial change in the water sector. Several technology transfers have already proven successful: Mobile payment, for instance, is already widely used in the water sector (WALDRON, D. et al., 2019). By adopting innovations from other sectors or industries, you can find new ways to solve some of the most pressing environmental issues and create a strong value proposition and improved operations for your business model.
Turning challenges into opportunities
The water, sanitation and resources sector still relies heavily on conventional approaches in tackling service gaps and efficiency challenges. While conventional solutions have proven successful in many areas, some of the development needs within the water and adjacent sectors might be better met with innovative approaches and modern technologies. Yet, developing new technologies from scratch can be very time- and resource intensive. At the same time, investing in the development of new technologies always bears a risk of failure. Research and development do not always yield successful technological innovations. Start-ups and innovative businesses often lack the resources (financial, time and expertise) to invest in the development of completely new technologies. They need to find other, leaner ways to develop innovative technological solutions to solve the challenges they identified.
Moving towards a strategy
You don’t necessarily have to develop a completely new technology to solve a key challenge or trigger a key improvement to the current status quo. Try to think outside the box instead: in other sectors, numerous technological innovations may have proven successful to solve similar challenges or improve services or business practices (ranging from production to logistics, etc.). This strategy encourages you to look beyond what is happening in your sector, to find and adopt existing innovations to environmental sectors or your own business operations.
Several technologies have already been transferred to the water sector: For instance, blockchain technology, which was first introduced in the finance sector, has increased transparency within water supply chains through data sharing (Jimenez, M., 2018; Aquatech, 2018). Mobile payment and prepaid schemes are now used widely to pay for water services (IKEDA, J., LIFFITON, K., 2019). The Envatechs case example below further demonstrates how virtual reality, which originates from the entertainment/multimedia industry, is being adapted to tackle environmental awareness issues.
These and other examples show that adapting technological advancements from other areas might spark new innovative ways to solve existing water-related challenges or accelerate improvements.
For this strategy to work, it is key that you have a match between challenge and innovation that bears high potential for a better solution than the existing alternatives or the status quo.
To transfer an innovative technology to the water or adjacent sectors, your business needs to develop the required technological capacities. One option is to do this in-house by building a team with the expertise you need and / or by setting up the required production processes. Another option is to develop partnerships that allow you to outsource some of the capacities you need to deliver the innovative technological solution tailored to your challenge or local context.
Adapting technological advancements for your own business model (production, logistics, etc.) is often geared towards reducing your costs. Blockchain technologies, for instance, may be able to minimise risks or reduce leakages or improve water quality monitoring (JIMENEZ, M., 2018). Through a decentralised shared and synchronised digital database, transactions and data can be more efficiently and transparently recorded without human interference (SHIH, J.-S. & PALMER, K., 2019). Innovative technologies can further improve your marketing, distribution or overall value proposition.
While advanced technologies enable you to deliver your value proposition more efficiently and effectively or create a new innovative offer, you need to be aware that your customer may have limited technological knowledge. This means that you may have to invest more time and effort in explaining your solution to customers, as well as developing initial demand. Particularly, public institutions tend to be slower in adopting technological innovations.
Case Study 1
Customer experiencing Envatechs' technology. Source: galtalkstech.com
Envatechs is an educational start-up aimed at raising awareness and knowledge of environmental challenges via immersive learning technologies involving virtual and augmented reality. Its main target groups are environmental companies, development agencies, government bodies and educational entities like schools. With the help of immersive technology, Envatechs aims to positively influence the behaviour of companies and the youth by providing unique visualisations and simulations of environmental issues or projects.
Envatechs built its business model around virtual technology which has already been around for quite some time, mainly in the entertainment and multimedia industry. Even though Envatechs didn’t invent the technology from scratch, it successfully reused and transformed the technology in order to meet the awareness raising needs in the area of water, sanitation and resource management. Envatechs recognised that many environmental topics such as climate change or wastewater management are very abstract. They adapted virtual reality to provide their customers, mostly environmental NGOs and project implementers, with the option to give their target groups and communities tangible experiences to explore these abstract topics. By transferring the technology e.g. to the community engagement efforts of wastewater management projects in Jordan, Envatechs made it possible for members of the local community to explore the treatment technology and its benefits prior to the construction of the plant. This was an important contribution towards developing the communities’ approval of the project, despite the cultural sensitivities around wastewater management. The technology was also used for more engaging awareness campaigns on environmental issues that target students.
To maintain a lean business structure, Envatechs works with a network of external programmers to develop the VR experiences.
For many low-income households in the developing world, incomes are highly variable and uncertain. High up-front costs combined with irregular incomes result in unequal access to water, sanitation, and irrigation. Households typically can, and should, cover the costs of accessing water resources, but they cannot do this without help. Financial inclusion can help households access water resources. Financial inclusion focuses on ensuring everyone has access to useful and affordable financial products and services, including transactions, payments, savings, credit, and insurance. The emerging field of financial technology (fintech) can help address barriers to financial inclusion in the water sector while potentially reducing or eliminating the need for subsidy. Fintech solutions already address some of the needs of developing-nation households—applications include payments and mobile money, pay-as-you-go (PAYG) models, insurance technology (insurtech), and virtual banks. This paper explores how fintech can support expansion of market-based solutions for water, sanitation, and irrigation, identifying several use cases where fintech is already being used to address financial inclusion and access to water. In addition to ways that fintech can help households access water supply and sanitation services, the paper also examines how fintech can help water utilities serve low-income customers more effectively and assist small-scale service providers in growing their businesses.IKEDA, J. and LIFFITON, K. (2019): Fintech for the water sector – advancing financial inclusion for more equitable access to water. In: Water Papers: PDF
The Plastic Bank offers a secure and transparent way to monetise ocean-bound plastic with a dual mission of protecting the environment, and banking the unbanked in some of the world’s poorest regions.MINH, T.C. (2018): https://www.eco-business.com/news/can-blockchain-turn-plastic-waste-into-currency-for-the-poorand-save-our-oceans/ [Accessed: 09.07.2020]