Water scarcity affects every continent and was listed in 2019 by the World Economic Forum as one of the largest global risks in terms of potential impact over the next decade. Since February 2019 I am working in an EU funded project, addressing water supply, where engineering, environmental, geography and management researchers from many countries work together with a network of industry and water authorities. The engineers, geographers and environmental scientists develop and progress the field trials of new technology. As a management and action researcher, I am helping to bring the right people together, to disseminate the new technology and help to ensure adoption becomes reality. I support the learning in action by the network through questioning, critical reflection, understanding the motivations and overcoming the barriers facing water authorities, users and industry.
An example is the launch event in Blackstairs, Co Wexford, Ireland, in May 2019.
Over the last year, researchers in Trinity College Dublin had developed a low-cost hydro-power turbine, reducing energy consumption from water treatment and distribution works by 20-25%. (Read more at https://www.tcd.ie/news_events/)
A prototype of this turbine was installed in the Blackstairs Group Water Scheme site, Co. Wexford, Ireland. The opening event was primarily designed to officially launch and demonstrate the installation to national water treatment site managers and industry representatives and government officials, so they could see the benefits.
Beside the celebrations, this was a learning opportunity also for all of us, for practitioners and researchers alike. Not only did we learn about new hydro-power technology, we learned to innovate also.
Innovation has many different definitions. In the context of this innovation project, the one I think fits best is developing solutions to existing problems.
Learning to innovate means acquiring the capabilities to find solutions to existing problems, in this case finding, solutions to address the problem of the high energy costs for water treatment.
So, what exactly did we learn during the event?
Setting the Scene
First of all the organisers of the event learned how best to create an environment that facilitates learning to innovate, to put in place the logistics such as the support staff transport, catering, the timing of events, so that the learners could just focus on the learning and did not have to worry about anything else.
Facilitate Discussions and Questioning
About 40 water industry representatives and 10 researchers attended the event. We had to ensure that all were comfortable to ask plenty of questions, both formally and informally.
After the initial welcome, presentations where held by both researchers and site managers, facilitating initial questions.
Then the visit to the turbine demonstration site visit followed. After the official unveiling of the plaque, the attendees formed smaller groups, so they could discuss the installation, ask the researchers about the installation and how it worked, and assess how the technology could work on their site.
Back at the event location, a formal question and answer session took place. Initially a facilitator asked panel members a number of general questions, where all could listen and then participate in the conversation. We agreed to have a follow on session in one of the other water treatment sites. During the lunch afterwards more questions arose.
Throughout the event we emphasised that both researchers and practitioners are learners and teachers.
Learning about Barriers and Enablers to Innovation
Deriving from all the questions asked the participants learned about the barriers and enablers to innovate. The barriers were for example the volume of data required to assess the feasibility to install the turbine, and the variation in the local environments. However, there were many enablers also, for example the belief among all that this was the right thing to do and the availability of research funding.
Overall, site managers, water industry representative and other practitioners learned about energy recovery possibilities in their own operation facilities. The researchers learned how to diffuse their new inventions.
Above all, however, both practitioners and researcher learned what it takes to innovate, and promote continuous innovation, an essential capability for addressing sustainability issues and global water scarcity in the 21st century.