Yesterday, I attended a very interesting panel discussion focusing on Ontario’s water future and the province’s ability to be a hub of innovation in water technology. Here are my impressions and takeaways from the discussion.
The event was hosted by the Ontario Environment Industry Association (ONEIA) and featured speakers from business, government, and a leading water technology expert from Holland. The overarching theme was how to leverage different sectors and capacities to promote innovation in water technology. This is no small goal because water is fast becoming a central topic as a driver of the modern economy.
Ontario has a number of companies that are global leaders in water technologies and it has a growing water sector. To foster this growth there was a push to pass legislation at the provincial level to capture the knowledge and innovate for the future. Two parts of the Water Opportunities Act; creation of WaterTAP (a new non-profit technology accelerator) and the goal of improving sustainable water practices, were discussed. Both of these sections within the legislation have been designed to improve communication and increase adoption of innovative water solutions.
There were three speakers on the panel which was moderated by Brenda Lucas of the Southern Ontario Water Consortium (SOWC). The consortium is a new organization that enables watershed level research and development testing. Lucas oversaw a diverse group of speakers one each from the private sector, government, and academia.
The first speaker was David Henderson a managing partner and founder of XPV Capital which is an equity fund devoted solely to growth companies in the water sector. Henderson discussed the unprecedented opportunity for Ontario in the growing global water industry but stressed that there are still issues that need to be worked out. In his words; “water is local, but technology is global.”
Water is housed in the ministry of environment but touches on everything from health to energy. Consequently, he argued that the status quo approach of vertical knowledge and mandates in the water sector does not work and that a paradigm shift is needed to deal with water from a horizontal perspective. This involves working with universities and government to promote feasible water technology research. To sum up his argument; there needs to be a better dialogue between industry and government to foster adoption of good technologies in order to grow Ontario’s water industry into a global leader.
The second speaker Nick Reid, who is in charge of Strategic Partnerships at the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), spoke on the topic of adopting new technologies. One of his main points was that nobody wants to be the first to try something new (new water technology isn’t like the iPhone where if it doesn’t initially work, you can wait for a software update). He further went on to differentiate between how municipalities price water and make large scale investment decisions.
The issue of municipalities not taking full cost into account and leading to inefficient pricing of water makes for sub-optimal decision making for water infrastructure. From my view his argument gave the impression that this was not a universal problem, more a sporadic issue that needs to be addressed in specific cases. He later went on to say that he doesn’t know of large objections to price increases in water supply when they are explained to the public. This will be a key hurdle to understand and overcome in order to better utilize more efficient technologies.
Professor Rijnaarts, a leading water technology researcher from Wageningen University, discussed several groups working on the topic of water in Holland and some of their new technologies. He spoke about several Dutch organizations including Deltares and wetsus.
Deltares is a global leader in water infrastructure projects. In terms of understanding large scale projects and producing sound results Deltares is at the leading edge of the industry. It is great at developing systemic solutions to issues surrounding water.
Wetsus, is a collaborative group between industry and research institutes comprised of 91 companies, 17 universities, and covers 24 themes. Though based in Holland it has a European scope. It was interesting to learn that some of the companies within westus were Ontario based that are working in Europe. Through this collaborative approach westus is able to focus its resources on developing research that has strong real world applications.
During his presentation Professor Rijnaarts also described small Dutch towns that were willing to adopt new technology. This is a significant because it enables organizations to have a test market for large scale applications of water technology.
The discussion after shifted to the benefits of working together to develop new technologies.
Holland and Canada have a long standing history of strong ties dating back to the second World War. In terms of partnering with Holland, the term used regularly throughout the session was ‘coopetition’ which as you can guess, means cooperation while competing. This joining of forces makes great use of the different levels of water sector focus in each area. Where the Dutch are famed for their large scale systemic water projects, Ontario is gunning to be a silicon valley of water and develop many pieces to the puzzle.
Coopetition comes to the forefront because the two regions have very complimentary water goals. Where Ontario correctly views its direct competitors as Israel and Singapore, Holland is in competition with the likes of Australia and Scotland. To paraphrase Professor Rijnaarts; if Ontario finds a diamond and Holland finds a diamond, you can put them together and make a crown. For economics nerds like me, this sounds a lot like Nash Equilibrium.
Nash equilibrium is best explained in the bar scene in “A Beautiful Mind” when John Nash realizes that if all 5 guys hit on the same blond girl they will all fail. However, if they each pick one of 5 girls and work together they are more likely to succeed. Ontario and Holland look to have started a fruitful relationship with each focusing on their own aspect of water and coopetitioning (yeah, may have taken that word too far, but I like it so it stays) together to create a better water future.
My takeaways from this event are that we need to have better dialogue within the water community. There needs to be better incentives to promote technology adoption. And finally working together with a complimentary group can lead to a much better future for water technology innovation.
This event brought forward a lot of intellectually stimulating issues and ideas on how to approach them. I enjoyed meeting water leaders from industry, government, and our partners in Holland. It is a very interesting time for Ontario’s water sector and I look forward to researching and posting about new developments as my research turns in this direction.