The water sector in the UK (and in many other developed countries) is all-too-often taken for granted. Keeping up requires serving more customers, with a better service, and doing more to keep expensive assets maintained and efficient. The future adds huge challenges such as climate change driving increased asset and domestic sewage flooding, less raw water to abstract, how to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, how to increase resource recovery, and how to remove new and difficult chemicals.
All these must demands be met under the pressure of limited affordability. As economies have slowed and inequality increased, customers can no longer afford to pay for water companies to build their way out of trouble. So water organisations' journey to sustainability – continuing to deliver an effective and reliable water and wastewater service despite all these disruptive challenges – is hard, but vital. It requires continuous and dramatic innovation.
 What kind of innovation?
Although new technology is a key part of this, the innovation needed involves much more, for instance:
- New modelling and simulation, for complex urban problems.
- New collaborations between people who have not worked together before, such as farmers, landowners and water utilities.
- New procurement and supply chain business models and behaviour.
- A changed mindset – solving a problem without building anything is equally ‘good engineering’.
The water sector is seen as bad at innovation – slow, because of long-lived assets, and risk averse because of public health responsibilities and exposure to public scrutiny. However, some developments are helping innovation, such as outcomes-based regulation and partnered programme supply chain procurement. Although some brave project teams have translated new ideas into full scale projects – this is usually an exception, done outside the ‘system’.
 The first follower concept
The real innovation failure is in the next step – being much too slow at spreading successful new experience, starting with a ‘first follower’ project. This validates it into something that is then applied much more widely, and becomes embedded in the system, as universal standard practice.
As an example, in 2006, Helsinki implemented a first large scale extraction of heat recovery from sewage effluent; it was publicised in a 2008 article. The authors picked this up and immediately included it in conference presentations. In 2011-12, they got the idea tested as a ‘what-if’ study for the UK situation, in a Masters dissertation; and published. Finally, in early 2016, they read of the first extraction of heat from sewage in the UK.
Must it take 10 years? Can't it be done faster? Engineers look for ‘evidence’, so early, authoritative reporting of first-use ‘demonstrators’ are vital to faster the spreading of new practice. But unlike academics, practitioners have little time and no incentive to publish such accounts. So, much academic material is written about sustainability in many aspects of water, but much less that approaches it from the time-limited, output-driven perspective of the practical engineer/practitioner.
 Crossing the gap
Published in April 2016, Sustainable Water aims to help cross that ‘knowledge gap’. It applies a common set of sustainability principles to water sector practice, and combines this with practical experience and a practical style. Several chapters have been written by authors who are specialists in their respective fields, with a wide range of innovative examples.
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