Water innovator and author Will Sarni is well known as an expert on corporate water strategy and innovation, making him the ideal person to lead the session for corporate end-users at BlueTech Forum 2018. Here he shares his thoughts on water stewardship, digital innovation and the circular economy with Paul O’Callaghan, chief executive of BlueTech Research.
Will Sarni is chief executive of water strategy consultancy the Water Foundry. He is also
a prolific author and blogger on water risk and innovation and his latest book, Water Stewardship and Business Value: Creating Abundance from Scarcity is due out in March 2018.
Speaking ahead of BlueTech Forum, which takes place in Vancouver this June, he says that while there are some valuable water stewardship initiatives being undertaken by large organisations, there is a lot more companies and the public sector can do.
“There are some really exciting initiatives, with the Alliance for Water Stewardship, for example, and companies are moving towards verification of their water strategies. However, “The whole movement around water stewardship has stalled a bit,” says Sarni.
“More and more stakeholders want companies to prove and quantify what they’re doing, so I see that as a very positive trend, but unfortunately, to a very large degree, water has become part of corporate social responsibility initiatives and treated in a similar fashion as climate change, carbon and energy efficiency.”
Beyond Water Stewardship
Sarni says companies that are looking at their water footprint across the value chain have taken on watershed initiatives and collective action programmes and are driving efficiency, reuse and recycling, but they can go much further and actually solve the “wicked problems” of water scarcity and quality.
“There’s a bigger opportunity and we need to frame it in terms of creating abundance, and finally addressing economic, environmental and social issues relating to water scarcity and water quality challenges. I’m going to push hard on the idea of a water strategy that is beyond water stewardship in terms of creating value for companies and the public sector.”
As part of the internet of water and digital water technology adoption, Will Sarni believes there will be a trend towards providing real-time data and actionable information to all stakeholders.
“Water scarcity means we are compelled to better-manage that gallon or litre of water and you can’t do that without adequate data and information. There are multiple ways that we’re collecting better data and actionable information – satellite imagery, aerial drones, on-the-ground sensors.
“In particular, we’re seeing great strides in the application of digital technologies to reduce resource inputs, including water, while increasing productivity. In the utility and industrial sectors we’re seeing everything from predictive analytics, to customer engagement, to better management of assets, so this whole opportunity around collecting water, actionable information, predictive analytics and even artificial intelligence is really just beginning to get attention and gain traction in the marketplace.”
Sarni says the sector is still plagued by the usual challenges associated with adoption and scaling of water technologies, but believes you get the biggest “bang for your buck” out of digital applications.
“Doing more with less or doing without is what it really comes down to. It’s the tyranny of the simple payback in applying technologies. The cost of water is zero, or close to it, so you potentially have a long payback period.”
Sarni is a great believer in taking water quality and quantity data and putting it to better use to make better public policy decisions and business decisions. He gives the example of California, where the 2016 Open and Transparent Water Data Act combines with the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act so that multiple state agencies can share water data.
“You’re starting to see this push for better data,” he explains, “not necessarily more data, but better use of current data and information to inform public policy. California has recognised that multiple state agencies have water data that historically have not been shared, so how do you aggregate that data and put it to better use to drive more sustainable and resilient water use?
“You require groundwater basins to develop sustainable use plans over the next five to ten years and what you see is the state recognising that water is a strategic resource that drives economic development.”
Sarni says companies are now engaging with the public sector on water issues: “Again, in California we are seeing food and beverage companies actively engaging with their agricultural supply chains at the watershed level. This coupled with California initiatives is a strategic move to ensure the state is a leading producer of agricultural products.”
Managing water risk in a circular economy is the theme of BlueTech Forum in June and Sarni recently placed circular economy thinking in his top five trends for 2018.
“A lot of companies are starting to move in that direction,” he says, “but we need education and better financial incentives. Heineken in Mexico is an interesting case study; they’ve actually embraced a circular water strategy because they’re operating in a water-scarce, water-stressed part of the world.
“They’ve started designing and constructing a brewery from scratch, really focussed on driving efficiency and recycling. They’ve asked themselves the question, ‘If we had to create a brewery that did the best they could with a litre of water, what would it look like?’
“I’m really impressed with what they’re doing and how they’re thinking about water and more importantly the investments they’re making.”
Sarni is vocal about the frustrations of traditional conferencing models, favouring smaller scale, more collaborative events.
“What I believe is very appealing and very unique about BlueTech Forum is that intersection of technology innovation, investors, and multinationals. You can go to a water technology event and just find water tech folks talking to themselves; maybe some investors, but I really do believe there is much greater value in bringing together all of those stakeholders including NGOs into the conversation.
“To me this is why BlueTech Forum is of value and not just worth going to, but actually engaging with and contributing to.”
BlueTech Forum takes place on 6-7 June 2018 in Vancouver, Canada. Will Sarni leads the session on End-User Innovation Needs at 14.30 on 7 June. For more information, visit www.bluetechforum.com