Innovative solutions to water crises were on offer in abundance at World Water Week.
By David Wilcox
The theme for World Water Week 2012, Water and Food Security, was a great step forward in cross sector cooperation. And as hurricane Isaac descended on New Orleans seven years after Katrina’s devastation, the importance of collaboration was highlighted in the new “Dutch treated” levee system that was ready for any onslaught.
Creeping Challenges & Incremental Responses
While hurricanes are concentrated disasters, the food and water/access and conservation issues are more of the creeping variety. Even when droughts lead to shortages and starvation, symptoms get treated while the long-term trends are ignored -- such as climate change -- that will exacerbate symptoms slowly and inevitably.
Cross sector solutions are underutilized -- and that creates other challenges.
An example in food security is two adjacent problems. Creeping obesity in the U.S. can be juxtaposed with the fact that 20 to 30 percent of food grown, produced and transported is not actually consumed. Incremental solutions will not address synergies between those distinct but related problems.
Congratulations are in order to World Water Week organizers for first time invitations to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). But it does beg the question of how 20 years of World Water Week conferences were unable to break through those silos before now.
In fact, the deadening combination of silos and incrementalism is a serious challenge throughout global development, corporate responsibility and the overall global resource crunch and World Water Week’s Food Security collaboration sets a good example that will lead to the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation in 2013.
Disrupting Silos & Incrementalism
While it may be too early to predict which disruptive innovations will surface from this water and food security collaboration, two questions might help clarify how to proceed with the 2013 Year of Water Cooperation and beyond:
- Are there any large untapped sources of disruptive innovation?
- In order to leverage these sources, how can existing leaders seek out and open up to collaboration and disruption?
While there are many potential sources, let me highlight just one.
One of the most underutilized sources is social enterprise. A few social enterprise leaders were present in Stockholm including Water for People and Water.org. Many more should be—because they bring ideas and innovations that are being tested in the real world with know-how and money that comes from outside the government and corporate economic engines.
Social Entrepreneurs: Innovation & Solutions
No matter what country or industry you are focused on, there is much to learn from social entrepreneurs and their early adopter scaling partners. As the water, food and energy sectors seek disruptive innovations, here are five examples of social enterprises that can enhance partnerships.
1. Cross Sector Visionaries: Healthpoint Services
Billions have been spent on water and billions on health care. For the first time in 2009, an organization built a for-profit model for rural villages, which creatively combined both of these donor-dominant approaches. When the government of Punjab, India, was shown four cash flow positive water and health care clinics in early 2011, they committed to build the structures to house over 100 life-giving water points.
2. Vertical Value Creators: GADCO
In 2009, a London investment banker and a Ghanian agriculture innovator combined forces to build a for-profit, small holder Ag social enterprise. Two years later GADCO is the largest domestic rice provider in Ghana.
By expanding the scope of the project to build an organization that can provide branded consumer products, GADCO captures additional margins and passes that back to the small holder farmers. This innovation captured the attention of development finance organizations like USAID as well as GADCO’s first significant investor, Seattle-based Summit Partners, a traditional venture capital firm.
3. Engagement & Finance Innovations: Water for People and Water.org
The mantra “Everyone Forever” and innovative solutions like Flow have drawn the Skoll Foundation and other supporters to Water for People. Water.org is the leading innovator in merging microfinance and water and sanitation innovation. Pepsi-cola’s work scaling Water.org was one reason cited at World Water Week for their receipt of the Stockholm industry Water Award.
4. Leader Driven Cross Continent Collaboration: Blue Planet Network
Starting with water and sanitation projects from developing regions of India or Africa, Blue Planet members improve the projects through voluntary advisory and vetting services resulting in a quality rating and likely success. The Network matches these quality projects with donors who want to fund testing for new solutions and scaling of proven solutions.
5. Building Social Enterprise into Global Government Innovation: Akvo and Aqua for All Foundation
The Netherlands is a prime example of social enterprise adoption by an entire country’s water and sanitation leadership. From the innovative partnership between Netherland’s water innovator Akvo (developing the open version of Flow from Water for People) to the government funded Aqua for All Foundation that predominantly funds programs with social enterprise scaling models, we have a great example of thoughtful integration to enhance cooperation.
And let us not forget to thank the Netherlands for the “Dutch-treated” levees in New Orleans.
The collaborations listed above, including Healthpoint and the Punjab state, GADCO and Summit Partners, Water.org and Pepsi, are just a few examples of partnerships that grew out of the search for more scalable, sustainable models. And to open up more of these opportunities, leaders will need to do three things:
- Seek innovation and scale as part of every partnership design -- an exclusively donor driven model is not scalable,
- Learn by doing: Adopt the key innovation and scale levers that social enterprises offer, and
- Concentrate resources and leadership around the disruptive, scalable innovations.
The 2013 Year of Water Cooperation presents opportunities galore to follow these leadership examples. Every partnership can start immediately by declaring today the first day of your Year of Cooperation. Because disruptive innovations come when coalitions engage to scale the best ideas.