Innovation can transform the way we solve the world’s water challenges

water challenges 2018This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Will SarniFounder and CEO, Water Foundry & Callie StinsonProject Lead, Water Initiative, World Economic Forum

From an environmental and social impact perspective, this year has given the world much to worry about. On track to be the fourth hottest year on record, many countries have grappled with debilitating heat waves, including Japan, where an estimated 80 people died as a result of soaring temperatures.

These abnormally high temperatures combined with a lack of rainfall have contributed to unprecedented wildfires, which have ravaged much of Europe, the western states of the US and even the Arctic. Earlier in the year, unusually severe monsoons in South Asia crippled parts of Bangladesh and jeopardized the lives of thousands of refugees; while rare tropical storms descended upon much of East Africa.

These extreme weather events underscore the findings of the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risks Report, which identified global risks with the highest likelihood and impact over the coming decade. Of these identified risks all but one can be linked to water.

For the past seven years, while other risks have, for the time being, emerged and disappeared – including the financial crisis, and chronic diseases – water has stubbornly remained. The question is why? Are stakeholders trying to solve water quantity and quality risks with the same old toolkit? The challenges to “solving water” are well known and progress has been made. However, enduring solutions continue to elude the best and brightest decision-makers in the world.

We maintain that technical advancements and new capabilities emerging from the Fourth Industrial Revolution will fundamentally disrupt the status quo and spark new ways of solving global water challenges. Findings from other sectors are encouraging.

In the electricity sector, technology-enabled smart buildings and grids, micro-grids and renewables have transformed the provision of cost-effective electricity in emerging and developed economies. In urban planning, almost four dozen cities are piloting self-driving cars, shaping the way future cities are designed. “Virtual hearts” can now be created for individual patients enabling physicians to better understand and tailor treatments for ailments.

The water sector is only now in the early stages of understanding the possibilities brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution to create smart and resilient businesses, communities, cities and nations. What we have learned from these other domains is that advanced technologies alone will not solve the challenge.

Technologies can support and help inform decision-makers from businesses, governments and non-governmental organizations but only if these solutions are designed with the engagement and commitment of diverse stakeholders from other sectors. These stakeholders can be mobilized by entrepreneurial programmes, such as prize competitions and crowdsourcing solutions.

Other sectors have learned that innovation in Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies must be coupled with and enabled by innovation in partnerships, business models and financing. Technology innovation alone is not enough.

Through the World Economic Forum’s Water Security Rewired platform, these stakeholder groups are converging to explore how advanced technology can address the world’s water and sanitation challenges with the aim of expediting the adoption and rapid expansion of new solutions. A range of exciting new initiatives are underway within the community, including:

The Urban Water Resilience Initiative is exploring how to harness advanced technology, from artificial intelligence and machine learning, to blockchain and remote sensing, to help decision-makers at city level evaluate and solve long-standing water management challenges

Another initiative, drawing upon the expertise of the World Bank’s Water Global Practice and the far-reaching network of SAP’s Next-gen programme, is crowdsourcing ideas from start-ups to help scale groundwater assessment solutions involving Fourth Industrial Revolution tech in emerging economies.

Exciting new ideas and initiatives are emerging from each of the Water Security Rewired members as well. For example:

  • The Toilet Board Coalition, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is currently soliciting applications from technology providers to improve remote data collection, transmission and synthesis to inform the development of next generation sanitation products and services.
  • Multinational telecommunication company Ericsson has led a myriad of water-related projects across the world ranging from the US to Kenya. Ericsson is once again leading in the water space by crafting an entire smart water network around the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT enables inter-operable data acquisition resulting in real-time water monitoring with intel from the source of the water, its distribution throughout the network, and its final discharge into a receiving water body. By utilizing this technology, water data that has always evaded water managers will now be at their fingertips 24/7, 365 days a year.
  • Microsoft has created an AI and cloud-based platform (AI for Earth) that is being expanded thanks to an investment of $50 million over the next five years to environmental causes perpetuated by climate change. The new environmental platform is disrupting current data analysis and management practices by utilizing data on the cloud-based platform with machine learning algorithms to fill in data gaps and provide a truly holistic understanding of water resources within a watershed. AI capabilities can forecast events, provide precision irrigation, identify water main leaks, and, most importantly, provide water managers with affordable solutions that can be built into existing infrastructure.

These are just a few examples of novel approaches that draw on best-in-class technology and innovative business strategies to hasten solutions to the global water crisis. For that reason, 2018 has given us much about which to be excited as we move from business as usual to truly transformative solutions to water challenges.

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