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3 ways ICE is helping to drive innovation in the water sector

08 March 2021

The water sector has been accused of failing to embrace innovation. Director of Engineering Knowledge Mark Hansford explains how ICE is seeking to help.

3 ways ICE is helping to drive innovation in the water sector
The award-winning Project Gilghi, a solar-powered water treatment plant in Australia. Image credit: Aurecon

When it comes to innovating in the infrastructure sector, the scale of the challenge is clear. It's not even anecdotal.

In a 2018 survey by global consultant Aecom of over 500 industry decisionmakers globally running $1bn-plus projects, only 16% believed the infrastructure sector was evolving fast enough to keep up with the efficiencies it's being targeted with delivering.

Seventy one percent said tried and tested approaches failed to meet the requirements of today’s increasingly complex civil and infrastructure programmes; and 81% said the next 10 years will be pivotal for civil infrastructure, driven by huge trends in disruptive technology.

The water sector is behind

The water sector, many experts believe, is further behind than most.

As a privatised industry, it's not had to comply with the government’s mandate that all public projects be procured and delivered using BIM Level 2 as a common data environment.

And as a regulated industry, there's a firm belief that there's culture of working to the standards and targets set, rather than being prepared to step beyond that and actually design its own horizon.

1. ICE's role in Ofwat's Water Innovation Fund

But this year, regulator Ofwat is proactively seeking to drive change with the launch of a £200m, Water Innovation Fund.

The fund will seek to invest in ideas from water companies and their supply chains that address the big challenges facing the sector – with responding and adapting to climate change, including how to meet the sector’s ambition of net-zero emissions by 2030 top of the pile.

The first round opened for entries in January and ICE is pleased to be playing a crucial role with President Rachel Skinner chairing the judging panel. It’s a perfect alignment with the president’s theme of Shaping Zero, and puts ICE at the heart of driving innovation in a key industry sector.

ICE’s engagement with Ofwat and the innovation fund is further bolstered with the news that this year’s Dugald Clerk lecture will be delivered by Ofwat principal engineer PR24 and associate director Alison Fergusson.

2. Sharing best practice at the Dugald Clerk lecture

The Dugald Clerk lecture has become the ICE’s prestige lecture for the water sector, alternating each year with the Gerald Lacey Lecture, so it's fantastic to have such a relevant and prestigious speaker.

The lecture will clearly cover the importance of innovation in the water sector, and emphasise that innovation is not just about the development of new technologies – it can mean setting up new processes or systems to support activities; or collaborating in new ways.

Alison’s lecture will also explore large investment projects in the UK water sector, including Ofwat’s ‘Direct Procurement for Customers’ (DPC) approach. This is a new method for structuring the delivery of large projects in the water sector, and therefore highly relevant for today’s practising civil engineers.

Beyond that, the lecture will look deeper at the purpose of water infrastructure for society. What are we really trying to do, in the face of population growth, climate change, our need for resilience, the public’s changing expectations, and last but by no means least, affordability for people during and after the Covid-19 pandemic? The water sector needs to think afresh about its solutions.

3. Highlighting innovation with the Chris Binnie Award

And on this latter point it's worth remembering the ICE’s global role in advancing technical solutions – big and small – for the good of society. And there's no better example of that then through the ICE’s own Chris Binnie Award, which seeks to specially recognise work that's benefitted society through improving the sustainability of water.

Last year’s winner was an outstanding example of this. Why?

Because an Indigenous community in the Northern Territory now has access to affordable and continuous potable water thanks to an innovative off-grid, modular water treatment plant.

Project Gilghi is a self-contained, self-sufficient (off-grid), reverse osmosis water treatment plant housed within a shipping container. Image credit: Aurecon
Project Gilghi is a self-contained, self-sufficient (off-grid), reverse osmosis water treatment plant housed within a shipping container. Image credit: Aurecon

Project Gilghi was developed by consultant Aurecon and is a breakthrough solar-powered water treatment plant that aims to provide safe drinking water to Indigenous and remote communities across Australia.

Gilghi was deployed in the community of Gillen Bore, which until 2019 relied on the continued transport (150km round trip from Alice Springs) of potable water due to the high salinity, hardness and low pH levels found in their existing bore water.

It's a genuine example of civil engineers innovating to benefit society. ICE will be showcasing this project through an online event later this spring. But we want to hear about more projects like it.

  • Mark Hansford, director of engineering knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers