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Deploying for Impact — Someone who’s been there, done that

We all want “works better and costs less”. Not only is this hard to find, but often our organizations are structured to be distinctly unfriendly to new ways of doing things. We need to find a better way for customers to collaborate with technologists to develop lasting solutions to crucial water challenges. Utility leaders, water specialists, and industry experts need to engage with the entrepreneurs building these solutions, and foster a culture of innovation in their organizations. This engagement allows problems to be solved faster, allows more value to be created, and encourages more talent in to the market.

This element of the puzzle is vital yet all too often overlooked. That’s why Imagine H2O and Water Environment Federation are holding their second annual Water Innovation Forum ’18 at Google.org in San Francisco on March 15th. The Forum is designed to build rapport between utilities, water experts, mature technology providers and startups around how we as an industry can be better deployers of technology. The Forum is structured to empower attendees to bridge the gap between water entrepreneurs and water leaders, dealing with key issues of organizational design, capacity development, and simple, step-by-step approaches that organizations of any kind can learn from.

IH2O sat down with George Hawkins (CEO of Moonshot, and ex-GM of DC Water), who will be co-hosting the Forum, to get an idea of where his priorities lie on this complex but critical issue for long-term sustainability in water management.

IH2O: What did you learn about innovation at DC Water that stuck with you the most?

GH: Three lessons for me. First, having a safe place to pilot test and evaluate a new idea is critical, and can overcome the natural caution that comes from delivering a service that must work and be safe the first time and every time. Second, despite the natural caution, our team is naturally creative. Keeping a system going that is cobbled together from over a century of varied parts and procedures requires constant creativity and innovation. Once the innovation gates are open, the creativity starts to flow. Third, innovation applies to everything — not just software, IT or sophisticated technology, although it certainly includes those areas — but also to ordering copy paper, processing payments and onboarding new employees. Innovation must apply to everything, everywhere, all the time. Oh, and there is a fourth — innovation is a great recruiter. Young talent wants to join a place that is willing to innovate.

IH2O: What’s the hardest thing about becoming a good deployer of cutting edge technology?

GH: Creativity and discipline — often characteristics at odds. On one had, we need to be able to imagine how everything might be different. We challenge our practices and procedures, challenge our accepted wisdom, challenge ourselves and others. Yet we also need discipline. After ideas are identified, we have to be systematic in selecting those most likely to succeed, thoughtful in how we research and field test them, and exceptionally careful in ensuring our evaluation process is rigorous and fair. Many times that means a good idea may not make it to implementation. That is OK, because some will, and we then move on to the next.

IH2O: How does communication factor in to this whole picture? Why is it important?

GH: Communication is vital to every stage of innovation. Our employees need to know that these changes are being done with them, not to them, and that we seek to make their jobs better and safer. Savings in time and money will be reinvested in more good work. Our customers need to know that we will never put them at risk with a new idea. Each will be tested and evaluated thoroughly before implementation. Our Board and other stakeholders need to understand both, and the financial benefit from investing in the evaluation and adoption of innovative practices. The financial and operational return on investment must be made clear. Finally, innovation must be fun — fun in word and deed. We need to tell the story from the mountaintops.

IH2O: Where do you see the biggest opportunity for both utilities and startups in the coming years?

GH: I believe we face the rare moment when our customers’ expectations are below what we are capable of delivering. That is a wonderful opportunity to improve the customer experience and deliver a better service at lower cost. Of course, any savings needs to be reinvested in the core infrastructure — but the potential to WOW our customers creates the opportunity and financial capacity to help reinvest in this critical infrastructure. We will only realize this historic outcome if there is close collaboration among the utilities that deliver this service and the extraordinary entrepreneurs and innovators. I am tremendously hopeful for the days to come.

IH2O: What advice do you have for Utility leaders who want to overhaul their approach to innovation, even with tight budgets?

GH: I would suggest starting small with a project that engages an innovation that applies to costs that are already in the operating budget. Reducing leaks or overflows using sensor technology, for example, can reduce costs for a utility and improve service. Right sizing pumps or carefully managing chemical dosage can reduce existing costs that are already in the budget. Starting with a project that provides some financial flexibility will create positive momentum for the many projects that can follow.

IH2O: What do you think is most important for attendees of Water Innovation Forum ’18 to know before they walk into the room?

GH: My sense is that an attendee knows that with planning and purposeful creativity, we can create our own luck in the marketplace. Having a good idea for that next process or gadget is almost the easiest part. This Forum is going to provide a priceless window on so many of the other aspects of innovation and start-ups that if followed, will increase the likelihood of successes many times over.

IH2O: What do you hope to get out of the Forum?

GH: Inspiration. I love the water sector and love doing my part. But I rely on the energy and enthusiasm of the great people determined to help us do this sacred work better, faster and cheaper — because there is so much to do. I love to hear how we can do well by doing good, and the other way around — by sharing ideas, experience and inspiration! I can hardly wait!

This is going to be a water event with a difference. All attendees will attend the Water Party Of The Year on March 14th, and then get to work on the 15th at Google’s Community Space. There are only 9 places left so reserve your place and book now.