BlueTech Research is an intelligence group that analyses the major drivers shaping the water sector, and interprets how they create opportunities for technologies and businesses in water. I would like to share with you some insight into how we think, and how we are approaching and analysing this sector.
There are different kinds of change; I divide it into different levels – system level change, crisis driven innovation and value driven innovation. When we think of systems level change, I am reminded of an old creation myth that describes the world sitting on top of four elephants who in turn are standing on top of a giant tortoise. As we go about our day-to-day lives, we may be unaware that underneath us, those elephants and that giant tortoise are gradually moving in a different direction and we are being carried along.
Shift in messaging towards Circular Economy
Within the water sector, you will have noticed the increasing shift in dialogue to themes such as circular economy, decentralised treatment, zero liquid discharge (ZLD) and water reuse. These are some photographs that I recently took while attending the IFAT show in Munich in May.
As I walked the trade show floor, I was very struck by the shift in messaging that I had seen since I had been there a number of years ago. The prevalence of companies positioning themselves as providing solutions for a circular economy, ZLD and decentralised was very notable.
So what does circular economy really mean?
So what does it actually mean? Life on this planet, which is what we are all concerned about, is a circular economy. It’s more or less a closed loop system, the only input is energy at the base of that economy, it feeds it, and then increasingly we trade energy or acquire energy.
Water is a local issue
As we all know, water is a local issue and increasingly we live in cities. With that in mind, we looked to Singapore as a good analogue for cities of the future. Singapore has become water resilient through its Five Taps program by creating new water, recycled water, recycling stormwater and adopting the latest innovations and technologies to drive that. That is significant because we are going to add 2.5 billion people to urban centres by 2050. Over 90% of that growth is going to be in Asia and Africa. Singapore is a highly organised city, so perhaps our cities of the future will more resemble unplanned development in cities such as Lagos and Jakarta.
So, how do you solve that problem? Albert Einstein said you can’t solve the problems of today with the same thinking that got you there in the first place.
So at BlueTech we wanted to think outside the box, and looked further afield, to the international Space station as a great example of a closed loop system. It costs $100,000 USD to ship a litre of water to the space station. In fact, water takes up 80% of the weight shipped to space to sustain life. We have looked at technologies they are using, including biomimetic membranes and ZLD technologies.
We spoke with scientists such as Michael Flynn of the NASA AMES Laboratory, and he was very quick to point out that this is not a habitat, this is not an eco-system, it is a life support machine and the problem with machines is that they tend to break down and we have to repair them. From a NASA perspective, they are looking at mirroring natural systems that are self-healing, automated and self-sustaining.
The theme of World Water Day in 2018 was that the answer is in nature. That initially feels somewhat counter-intuitive; as scientists and engineers we believe we have to engineer the solutions, but if you think a step further, nature is full of technologies and it is full of closed economic loops. Everyone’s body is made up of many components, systems and sub-systems. We have pumps, circulation systems, aeration systems. We have a biogas generation unit, detoxification & membrane filtration and it is all controlled, using not artificial intelligence, but (we hope) real intelligence. So we look at solutions that can replicate these types of systems but on a smaller level and that is why we need to both think small and think big and think bold at the same time.
Examples of this are sanitation hubs that Nijhuis Water Technologies are partnering with. This technology came from the European Space program and it involves integrated pre-packaged systems that can provide sanitation, nutrient recovery, potable water and grow food within a pre-packaged system. These are being used in Ghana.
In the industrial space, we see some exciting things happening with companies such as L’Oreal. L’Oreal have one of the world’s “dry factories” in Burgos, Spain. Meanwhile in urban settings such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pentair has partnered with a firm called Urban Organics to create Aquaponics where fish are grown and the waste from the fish is taken and used as a fertilizer for the production of food in a closed loop type system.
These are exciting examples and allow us to see how system level change is occurring. If we measure and we monitor the rate of increase of potable water reuse systems, IPR and DPR, the dots in the map are increasing over time and that illustrates that many of the changes that need to happen are changes in our thinking rather than changes in technology. With that in mind we have been working on a documentary project with the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and other partners to tell a more positive and optimistic story about water. The title is Brave Blue World (www. Braveblue.world). The idea is if you tell stories such as examples mentioned above, you can get people engaged, excited and optimistic about change – a change that is possible, and is in fact happening right now.