By Swati Hegde, Senior Academic Research Coordinator

The Water Center

January 28, 2020


On January 13, 2020 REACT at Penn held a symposium on Global Pathways to enable Innovative Materials Solutions for Urban Challenges. REACT at Penn is a research consortium primarily funded by the National Science Foundation for Research and Education in Active Coatings Technologies for the Human Habitat, with Prof. Russel Composto as the Director. The focus of the symposium was to explore how science and technology can help cities solve their problems and understand the common urban air, water and energy challenges science needs to tackle. This article is a highlight of the afternoon panel discussion titled “Facilitating New Technology Based Solutions to Urban Water Challenges”.

Session participants included Angela Pachon, Research Director of the Kleinman Center for Energy policy at Penn, Kyung-Hwan Kim, Sogang University Professor of Economics; Former Vice Minister of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Christopher M. Puchalsky, Director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives at the City of Philadelphia Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability and Transport of the Republic of Korea, and Howard Neukrug, Executive Director of the Water Center at Penn and former CEO and Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department.


The Essential role of leadership in technology innovation:

Factors such as increasing population density, air pollution and challenges related to clean and safe water (especially in mega cities) are increasing the need for fast, flexible and agile technological innovations. While the lack of suitable infrastructure is one of the bottlenecks to innovation of new technology and implementation of an invented technology, it also takes effective leadership for the success of such efforts. Employees are often obliged to prioritize their daily operational pressures and hence they find innovation time consuming and risky. When it comes to implementing innovation in water or any other industry, it is essential to gather a team of leaders whose collective efforts will have broad and long-term impact. For example, the Water Center at Penn is involved in establishing a Global Water Leaders Network by bringing together the 100 most innovative water utilities in the world. This team of leaders comes together to learn from each other as well as serve as inspiration for other water utilities. Often, innovation happens as a result of crisis. Howard Neukrug mentioned that when industries innovate routinely, they will be better prepared to respond when crisis happens. It is crucial for leaders to share their vision that innovation is an essential part of effective leadership.  That vision will also help attract young people to want to work for utilities with effective leadership. Effective leadership is absolutely essential for making the best decisions related to technology innovation.


The impact of regulations, standards and incentives on innovation:

While innovations are available; regulations, standards and incentives play a major role in whether or not those technology innovations are implemented in urban systems. Puchalsky emphasized the need for local control of regulations vs. federal and state regulations. It is important to appreciate that projects often fail several times until there is a complete understanding of how regulatory systems work. Smart technologies are definitely available, but there is a need for smart policies and policy development is a long process.

Some examples of innovations in Philadelphia’s water infrastructure despite state and federal regulations include how Philadelphia Water Department turned rainwater into a commodity and revamped the rate structure for water and wastewater. Water rates in the United States are mostly fixed, irrespective of the budget that a utility has to deal with. There is no link between water rates and revenue, particularly since many utilities are not allowed to increase their water tariffs. This is one of the many reasons why there is a mismatch between policy and technology.

A policy component that is complementary to technology is important for an innovation to work. Often, new technologies struggle by not having a code, regulation or standard in place, so it is important to address these issues up front. The panel also discussed that while certain aspects such as scaling appear to be a technology issue, they are in fact a policy issue. Scaling is an important practical factor for innovations. For example, an innovation to build a wastewater treatment plant is a multimillion-dollar investment while innovation in piping systems such as sensors for leak detection can be large scale and still be cost effective. In the wastewater sector, innovation is needed for effective ways to reuse treated wastewater. Scaling is more of a policy issue than a technology issue because technology that worked in pilot testing is most likely to work on a large scale, however, it will not work if there is no appropriate policy in place. According to Kim, a qualitatively good idea may not be a quantitatively good idea. An idea that makes people feel good may not be an economically good idea. Therefore, policy makers need to understand how practical the technology is before designing appropriate standards and regulations.


The need for open communication for successful technology implementation:

Technology implementation is analogous to getting a drug approved where one needs to make sure everything works with little or no side effects. It is a natural tendency for politicians to be skeptical about a new technology since they are held responsible for all impacts that technology might have on the society and the environment. If a new technology fails, civil servants will take the blame.

Research and development stakeholders need to keep communication open for successful innovation. Moving from research to implementation is a multi-stage process that involves multiple stakeholders, from academic researchers to policy makers. In the “business as usual” scenario, the three big elements- i) practitioners (ii) academic researchers and (iii) technology companies do not communicate with each other effectively, which is a major drawback for the implementation of technology. There is a need for open communication to evaluate how people react to technology and how technology fits into an ecosystem. Ideally, practitioners should first suggest research challenges to academics, then industries use that research to create innovation and pilot it with practitioners.

Kim emphasized the importance of political will and the ability of decision makers to convince consumers of the benefits of new technology because technologies are not always automatically accepted by consumers. Putting the right message out (for example, how a technology is good for the environment) and ensuring economic efficiency must go hand in hand. Experts such as scientists, engineers, economists and policy analysts should guide politicians to make better informed decisions about what technology to adopt and help them communicate effectively with the public about the benefits of the technology through media or direct communication.


The need for goal setting for successful technology implementation:

Goals such as ‘zero waste’ are essential to drive innovation since they create pressure to be ambitious. An innovative approach such as incentivizing consumers for their choices is theoretically effective, however, it requires clear goals, a clear vision on how to achieve those goals and perseverance. As Neukrug said, it takes “one person at a time”. Also, for industry leaders, it is highly efficient to set a few ambitious targets instead of trying to change the system all at once. Being a successful example to the world is proof that “brave people” are rewarded by the system. There is going to be a constant need for innovation irrespective of a specific current technological advance.

Throughout the session examples were thrown in to spark young research minds on what innovations in material science are needed. A paint that lasts as long as the asphalt does, heat exchangers in the sewer system that do not grow biofilm, harvesting heat from wastewater treatment to be used in public places such as airports and self-healing leaky pipes, to mention a few. There is plenty of opportunity for technology-based innovation to address urban challenges for those who seek to create it.