10 water sector habits to kick in 2010, Pt 2: Plateaus/diminishing returns

Today I received a notice about the Future Water 2010 conference being held on 13th July. A quick look at the photos from last year’s similar event (Water 09) was enough to convince me that I don’t want to attend. Nevertheless some of you may wish to pop along – although like most water sector events, please note that it’s not exactly a snip at 200 to 400 GBP (and those are the early bird rates!).

All the same, browsing last year’s event reminded me that I’m well behind on our new ‘water sector bad habits’ theme. In the meantime others have joined us in ringing in on various ’10 things for 2010′ notes, e.g. the European Environment Agency’s 10 messages for 2010 on biodiversity. Still a lot remains to be said about the UK water sector’s bad habits so the ideas has not gone stale by any means. Besides, kicking the ‘bad habits’ we are going to outline will be key to gaining any traction in facing up to the sector’s various challenges – and so is very much in tune with the ‘new decade/new approach’ tagline of the above mentioned Future Water event, in fact!

So, on with our round-up of UK water sector bad habits. Our first ‘bad habit’ was so-called monument syndrome, i.e. an over-reliance on big building projects, essentially depending solely upon installing ever-more capital assets to fix problems that have far deeper root causes than just a lack of installed infrastructure.

Our second bad habit is a common insistence by UK water sector members that the industry’s performance levels – in any particular area you may wish to choose – have reached some ‘plateau’ or else are always at the point of running up against ‘diminishing returns’.

So what exactly do we mean by a ‘plateaus/diminishing returns’ bad habit?

Well, say you felt that a 20 percent leakage rate from the clean water network was unacceptable. Say you decided to require the water sector to reduce that rate by preventing, detecting and/or fixing more leaks. What response would you hear from many in the sector? Most likely it’ll be along the lines of something like this: ‘But we’ve done all we can and now we’re coming up against diminishing returns.’

Whilst there is some truth that trying to get to the 99th percentile/Holy Grail/gold-plated standard on any particular issue is probably going to be an uneconomic, cost-ineffective line of action, at the same time the UK water sector has been long acknowledged as not exactly a hotbed of innovation. We’ve stressed this point so many times, I’ll not belabour it here (suffice to say, you can read our submission to the Cave Review on our Resources page for a quick recap on our overall stance).

This means that for any particular area of action there may well be many, many more effective ways of tackling a problem – or of tackling an issue by solving a problem of an entirely different nature altogether – already under development by various suppliers, university spin-offs, consultants and others in the UK and worldwide. Unless the water companies are engaging with these innovators however, they will continue to believe that there’s a ‘natural’ cap on performance possibilities for any particular activity and that to go beyond that level would be economically non-viable (it may still be environmentally viable to do so mind you, but that’s another issue altogether!).

The concrete example – with no pun intended on the UK water sector’s predisposition for ‘pouring concrete’ – of all this that we’ve used before is about audio technology, namely records, tapes, CDs and digital storage media. Each particular technology regime or paradigm (e.g. audio tapes), at its launch, is capable of a particular performance level. Over time this performance level (e.g. sound quality or available recording length) is incrementally tweaked and improved until it reaches a threshold somewhat intrinsic to the technology (or suite of technologies) involved.

Often this performance improvement profile over time resembles a ‘S’ shape angled to one side. A graphical illustration of this is shown below – with credit to the excellent book by Rycroft and Kash from where it is taken (it’s on page 84):

Rycroft and Kash 1999's plot of audio technology improvements over time

In the water industry, activities can be made up of many, many systems and sub-systems, involving dozens, hundreds or thousands of technologies (and of course we include social innovations like training, operations and management activities under our broad umbrella definition of ‘technology’ here too).

Inventors and innovators out there are tweaking, pushing or replacing entirely individual parts, whole sets of parts – or even whole technology systems – all the time. In isolation then or in systems overall to talk of ‘plateaus’ is often nonsensical. All that you’re referring to is reaching the limits of a particular technology. Radical, transitional or ‘breakthrough’ innovation to a new trajectory or paradigm of activity is commonly possible – and may bring with it performance and sustainability benefits. Of course there are costs involved – and appropriate support is needed for the innovation processes involved.

At the same time, as shown in other plots by Rycroft and Kash (and others) sometimes new technologies start out at a lower level of performance than their equivalent systems that are already in use. However they can have the potential to reach far higher levels of performance, if given the appropriate attention, resources and incremental development over time. An example of this is shown below (once again from Rycroft and Kash, this time from page 29):

Rycroft and Kash 1999's overlapped audio technology improvements

This state of affairs is absolutely crucial to stress, we feel. It’s this exact moment in time where momentarily – and without any foresight about the performance enhancements accruing from future incremental innovation – new technologies appear ‘equal’ to existing systems, is where the UK water sector most commonly trips up on the whole innovation issue, we suspect. A lack of immediate benefits from innovations – or even the potential for temporary performance setbacks while they are bedded-in – is used as a justification for inaction.

A general lack of understanding about the nature of the evolution of technology also commonly crops up around this issue – i.e. an illusory belief that appears to be widely held in the sector: New technologies are always just waiting ‘out there’ at a sufficiently mature stage of development to be ready to outperform existing systems as soon as they are bought ‘off-the-shelf’ and installed.

Of course Roger and I have met people – at all levels – throughout the UK water sector that do fully understand these and related issues. Nevertheless we’ve found that talk of ‘plateaus’ and ‘diminishing returns’ typically re-surfaces during any calls for improved actions from the water sector – e.g. on energy usage, climate change or water conservation – say, by policy-makers, regulators, suppliers or other groups.

Overall we think it’s high time for the sector to kick this particular ‘bad habit’. It’s time to move on to face the challenges of regulated water utilities in the 21st century – and to adopt the same informed, realistic and yet proactive stance to technology and innovation that has already been vital in driving the commercial success of so many other industries in the UK and worldwide for decades.

Duncan Thomas


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