Paul Brown says three things are necessary to spur technological innovation: avoiding the optimization trap, removing standardization as a barrier, and reengaging individual citizens with technology
At the Water Smart Innovations conference held earlier this month, the opening keynote speaker was Paul Brown, professional water resource planner with international experience in planning, development, and management for public utilities. In his speech, Mr. Brown lamented the slow pace of innovation in the water industry, and gave three things that need to occur to speed the pace of innovation and adaptation within the industry.
Paul Brown began by noting that he is speaking as the owner of his own firm, which is currently providing program management for a 150 million gallon-per-day regional recycled water project that is being evaluated by the Metropolitan Water District and the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts that would provide purified water for recharging Southern California’s groundwater basins.
“It’s a great assignment, and it shows how challenging it can be to repurpose our urban water infrastructure on a very big scale.
Of course you know, everything doesn’t happen at a big scale. In fact, some of the most important changes we’ve experienced in Southern California over the last several years have happened at the individual, neighborhood and community scale where conservation measures, evolving societal norms like ‘turf isn’t stylish’, and changes in personal behavior have saved us from the worst of the current drought.
While I’ve been working for Metropolitan and the Sanitation Districts, I’ve also had a chance to volunteer with groups like the Council for Watershed Health and Water LA, both of which are actively pursuing fundamental bottom up change, the microtechnologies that if deployed on a city-wide scale, could dramatically change the fabric of urban water infrastructure and the role of individual citizens in its quality and maintenance.
[pullquote]”We have been witnessing the rapid development of technological inventions in water for some time, and the availability of new technologies is not the central problem confronting us; rather, it’s the slow adoption of these technologies that stands as our biggest challenge.”[/pullquote]
This personal experience reflects innovation happening at two very different scales: The essential repurposing of large scale, centralized infrastructure on the one hand, and the micro-scale reinvention of urban landscape, stormwater management, and the built environment one tiny change at a time on the other.
Frankly, it reminds me of the dilemma posed by Dr. Suess in the children’s book Horton Hears a Who, where a sensitive elephant struggles to save the community of Whoville which is located on a small speck of dust balanced precariously on clover held at the end of his trunk.
So my question to you this morning is the following: Can we span this apparent divide between the large-scale top-down, and the micro-scale bottom up worlds of innovation to arrive at a more unified vision of adaptation and change, and can we speed up the adoption of both, the top-down and the bottom-up simultaneously?
‘Most thinking about innovation is dominated by invention. To many, it seems that most innovations begin with a clever invention. It seems that to strengthen our ability to innovate, we need to strengthen our inventiveness by fostering climates in which creative, imaginative thinking can flourish.
What if the supposition that invention causes innovation is wrong? What if our low innovation success rate is tied to our lack of clear distinction between invention and innovation? Since the acid test of innovation is adoption, we have defined innovation as new practice adopted by a community.’
Now that definition resonates with me because I feel that we have been witnessing the rapid development of technological inventions in water for some time, and the availability of new technologies is not the central problem confronting us; rather, it’s the slow adoption of these technologies that stands as our biggest challenge. So I want to focus on the adoption of new practices and what we can do to accelerate that process.
Going back to my two questions, yes I believe we can develop a unified vision of top-down, bottom-up activities that currently coexist in our urban water management world, and I also believe that we can speed up the adoption of new practices at both scales, but it will require at least three significant changes in how we view water management and the processes that generate and regenerate urban infrastructure:
The first relates to competition, and what I call the optimization trap. It involves relaxing an expectation that everything we do must fit neatly into a top-down structure of cost-effective prioritized capital planning, resulting in a series of perfectly synchronized investments.
The second relates to standardization, regulations, and other institutional barriers to change. They all derive from important public health and environmental protection goals, but they can present really impediments to innovation in our industry.
Thirdly, I want to close on a less obvious requirement. The reengagement of individual citizens to the process: the reconnecting of people, including ourselves as water users, to the technologies we have been kept apart from for decades.
Competition and the optimization trap
Now, let me talk about each one of these separately, and let me start with competition and the optimization trap. Now when I use the words ‘optimization trap’, I’m defining it as follows: One, the belief that every solution to a problem can be optimized, and two, no action should be taken until it has been tested.
As we know, our industry is comprised of many communities advocating for solutions that function within overlapping but largely discrete market sectors that may appear at times to compete with one another. And certainly within the context of large utility and governmental budgetary processes, they do compete for policy priority and public funding. There are obvious constraints on top-down funding that force us to make choices, and the need to make choices forces us to compete with one another, often forcing decisions and debates on choices as disparate as an elephant versus a speck of dust, where you recall, the entire community of Whoville resides.
Some level of competition is no doubt a catalyst for innovation and change, but when it appears to be a zero-sum game, that sense of competition and win-lose outcomes may exhaust our capacity to collaborate at a higher level and achieve more rapid adoption of the innovations we are all attempting to promote.
How did we get to this point? As a nation, we have been on a long, often reactive path towards top-down, large-scale infrastructure since the 19th century and before. In his often quoted speech at the Sorbonne in 1910 where he lauded the individual citizen as the foundation of a successful republic, President Theodore Roosevelt specifically singled out water supply and drainage as examples of societal problems best solved by government. And I’ll quote from his speech: “Individual initiative, so far from being discouraged, should be stimulated, and yet we should remember, that as a society develops and grows more complex, we continually find the things that once it was desirable to leave to individual initiative, can and under changed conditions, be performed with better results by common effort. For instance, when people live on isolated farms or in little hamlets, each house can be left to tend to its own drainage and water supply, but the mere multiplication of families in a given area produces new problems, which because they differ in size, are found to differ not only in degree, but in kind from the old, and the questions of drainage and water supply have to be considered from the common standpoint.”
Addressing issues like water supply and drainage from the common standpoint resulted in the formation of top-down functional bureaucracies that remain the primary approach taken by municipal utilities both large and small to this day. And with it came a long tradition of what could be described as utility invisibility. We’ll take care of you, don’t worry about it; just pay your water bill. And for many of us living in urban settings, no individual initiative was called for at all.
We were separated from the technology and the natural systems that had for centuries been a daily worry, and for most of the world’s population, still is. We could easily assert that today’s conditions justify an equally compelling argument that the future of water supply and drainage demands that we invite individuals back into the process, empower them to employ technology, and drive changes in values and behavior to reduce the burden on large-scale centralized infrastructure, and at the same time, enlist their help as we repurpose, replumb, and restore the integrity of those large investments we have already made wherever possible.
I don’t think that enforcing the false choices that competition creates will results in rapid progress on either front.
So as I was thinking about our top-down versus bottom-up innovation question, my search took me to a recently published book by two researchers at the MIT Sensible City Laboratory named Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, entitled ‘The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life’, and they took up this question head on: “A merger of top-down and bottom-up systems can invite widespread engagement and meet effective implementation of solutions ideally resulting in liveable urban spaces. Pure optimization quickly becomes obsolete. But a hybrid model with a measure of chaos may be a more sustainable form of efficiency.”
Pure optimization quickly becomes obsolete and invites a measure of chaos as a means of achieving sustainability more efficiently? They go on to say, ‘allowing citizen participation requires vulnerability, slackened control, and possibility of failure, but the packing catches on, the productive integration of productive top-down bottom-up urban paradigms may yet realize tomorrow’s city.”
Is this an optimal expenditure of public funds? Well, there is no optimal, and frankly if that question seems sensible to you, you may already be caught in that optimization trap. Realizing tomorrow’s city presents so-called wicked problems – that is problems that ‘defy complete definition, since the resolution generates further issues and where solutions are not true or false or good or bad, but the best that can be done at the time.’ And there is no such thing as optimal solutions to wicked problems. Local engagement should be encouraged and understood to be intrinsically chaotic but fundamental to shaping sustainable urban environments.
Optimization, which is enormously useful in the design of mechanical systems, requires a finite number of known variables, with sufficient stationarity to allow for reasonable forecasts of their future behavior. Of course, in the water management arena, stationarity, at least as it applies to expected future weather conditions, has been pronounced dead, and consequently, we should be a little suspect when it comes to relying on the long-term forecasts that generally support our decision making and optimization analyses.
Picking winners and losers is much harder to do these days, so why do we keep doing it? Well, often we experience the effects of a binary rigged looped world, because most of what we do in the world of water – nearly everything in fact – functions within a highly standardized structure of laws, regulations, rules, ordinances, and licensing requirements, and this brings me to my second topic.
Standardization as a barrier to innovation
Of course we’re part of an industry that is already conservative and deliberately skeptical in its adoption of institutional, technological, and regulatory innovations. Our codes and standards provide strict templates of how things should be done for the protections of public and environmental health and safety. It’s a triumph of progressive era and mid-twentieth century reforms and responses to the destructive aspects of the industrial revolution. It has produced amazing benefits for those within its purview and for most of the world, it stands as an aspirational vision of what the future should, could look like, and while it has within it processes for amendments and revisions, those processes are purposefully designed to work slowly and deliberately.
Now in that context, since its likely we cannot and probably should not speed that process up too much, we must consider embarking on more new innovation initiatives simultaneously, encouraging apparently redundant efforts to accelerate adoption in the hopes of producing sufficient numbers of acknowledged successes to meet our needs, and investing in many real options to deal with a deeply uncertain future. It’s not the optimal solution. It’s the optimist’s solution. Someone who believes that the transformation power of disruptive innovations can make great change when they are allowed to exist. To do that, we need a bottom-up revolution that would generate countless examples of successes and failures, hopefully at a rate that keeps pace with the unfolding challenges ahead of us.
So let me close this topic with a quote from the global risk report 2016, published by the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitveness and Risks Team: ‘The increasing volatility, complexity, and ambiguity of the world, not only heightens uncertainty around the which, when, where, and who of addressing global risks, but it also clouds the solutions space. We need clear thinking about new levers that will enable a wide range of stakeholders to jointly address global risks which cannot be dealt with in a centralized way.’ And that brings me to my final topic.
Reengagement of individual citizens
We cannot afford to be spectators. We must be in the arena. We must care about what we’re doing.
This subtle concept that tries to bridge the separation between the technology and the individual has been expressed in many different ways. Marshall McCuen, referring to Buckminster Fuller’s 1963 book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, stated it this way. “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
In his brilliant book devoted entirely to this topic, entitled, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig has documented an extraordinary personal and philosophical journey exploring a relationship with technology.
This story starts on cross country road trip with Pirsig and his son Chris on one motorcycle, and two friends, John and Sylvia Southerland on another one. The narrative quickly focuses in on the differences that Pirsig sees between John’s relationship with his motorcycle and his own. Pirsig and his motorcycle are essentially self-sufficient, except for the occasional parts, and some of those, Pirsig has learned to build himself. John on the other hand, won’t touch a motorcycle except as its rider. John relies entirely on paid mechanics. Every one of Pirsig’s experiences with so-called mechanics seems to make things worse. And after seeing his motorcycle inadvertently damaged in the shop, Pirsig reflected on the failings of those mechanics. ‘At 5 pm, or whenever their 8 hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work on the job. In their own way, they were achieving the same thing John and Sylvia were, living with technology without having anything to do with it, or rather they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it. Detached, removed. They were involved in it, but not in such a way as to care.’
These ideas of quality, being crew, of caring, and of having an engaged relationship with technology and natural systems are sometimes harder to find among the users of our water products and services. It may be easier to spot in smart phones and even solar panels which are ubiquitous, sown into the fabric of our lives in new and obvious ways. Our water management solutions are designed to be invisible, taken for granted. Underground and behind walls.
I saw a cartoon recently that depicted this point very succinctly. Below a hand drawn heading that read ‘How we get water in our homes’, it presented a sketchy illustration of a cloud with rain streaming down on the far left side and a tap with water running from it on the right side. And in the middle, drawn with a crude dashed line was a large empty box, with a note attached, stating, ‘I don’t have any information on this bit’. I would argue most people don’t want any information on that bit, between falling rain and the tap, and for decades, we’ve worked hard to keep it that way.
[pullquote]The solutions that have the greatest potential of making us the sustainable are the ones that reconnect people, all people, with the natural and technological systems that sustain everyone, not just as spectators, free riders on this spaceship, but caring engaged participants in the real business on living on a blue planet.[/pullquote]
The solutions that have the greatest potential of making us the sustainable are the ones that reconnect people, all people, with the natural and technological systems that sustain everyone, not just as spectators, free riders on this spaceship, but caring engaged participants in the real business on living on a blue planet.
That means better apps, more sensors, greater dependence on crowd sourced solutions, smaller more intimate infrastructure that is outside your backdoor and beside your porch. Knowingly using water that might have passed through your plumbing once before that you understand the source of, the value of, and the personal importance of every single day. We are among the few people on earth that have the luxury of living with this totally detached relationship to water. And we have accepted the notion that everybody deserves to be detached like us.
That is wrong. We’re all crew. We all need to care about the resources we employ, because as Buckminster Fuller noted in his operating manual for Spaceship Earth, no instruction book came with it.
Now as you all know, it goes well beyond seeing things in terms of demand management, which is an expression that reflects the perspective of a large utility manager. When I am removing my lawn and adding solar panels to my home, my purpose is to provide for my own well-being, not eliminate my demands on the power grid or various water utilities. I am doing something affirmative. I am engaging with technologies, not withdrawing my demands. I am making change happen, not making something go away.
And finally, think of your own role, and how you make change happen. Do you spend too much time on advocacy related to your invention, your new idea, your specialized technology, your better solution? Can we all spend more time working with each other? Yes, we are competitors, focused on adoption of the enabling changes that could open doors to many new ideas, better solutions, and broad community transformations. That means all of us, supporting each other. It’s not an either-or proposition. We’ve seen it happen during and in the aftermath of disasters. The coming together around recovery and restoration of broken communities and failed infrastructure. What we put back is generally different from what proceeded it and in emergencies we are often at our best.
We’re in an emergency now. Draw energy and renewed commitment from your colleagues, and go home with increased confidence in and passion for the imperative to get things done, even if those things don’t appear to fit neatly into the master plans and capital budgets of your respective organizations and employers.
Be catalysts for change and the limitless possibilities that can derive from creative collaboration. Don’t be content to wait in the wings. Be center stage, even if you must erect that platform yourself. Remember it’s not just the scale of the fix that matters, it’s the number of times it’s repeated.
When every single citizen of Whoville spoke up, even the skeptical beast in the jungle listened and paid attention.
Thank you all very much.
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