Friday, April 17, 2015

Leading Edge or Bleeding Edge? (Reflecting on Innovation)

Over the next few weeks I'll be working on an article focused on innovation in wastewater treatment. It really is an exciting time to be a poop engineer as there are several potentially game-changing processes and technologies emerging on the scene: anammox, granular activated sludge, primary DAF, thermal hydrolysis, struvite recovery, to name but a few. Add to this initiatives like LIFT and Isle Utilities TAGs that are pushing these new ideas to the fore. Finally there is Envision that enables us to evaluate the sustainability of these new ideas. As I said, it is an exciting time to be a poop engineer, indeed!

But that's not the focus of this blog; well not exactly. A few years ago I was involved in evaluating, piloting and designing what was then a pretty innovative process called the "integrated fixed-film activated sludge" or IFAS. At that time one of my colleagues said something that has stuck with me ever since:

"we want to be leading edge, but not bleeding edge" (I wish I could remember who said it first so I can give them credit, but I've heard several of my colleagues use it since and I overuse it!).

What is meant by that expression is reasonably self-event. We want to be using new ideas and pushing the envelope of improvement, but not just for the sake of doing new stuff. We want to be innovating but not just for the sake of innovation. Some ideas are ready for implementation but some need the kinks working out still and yet others may be cool but really don't offer tangible benefits over established technologies.

Another thought I want to bring to the discussion in this blog (hoping to make it a conversation!) is the "S-curve of technology implementation." This curve has been discussed widely of late amongst wastewater professionals and indeed I'll probably include it in my journal article. The discussion has mostly been focused on how can we accelerate technology adoption up the curve and/or help folks to jump across the "chasm of risk" between the pilot and full-scale. Getting the first installation of a technology or process idea is key in this. That's the main focus of LIFT and a noble one too. Let's go for it! Woo-hoo!

But... wait a minute. Take a breath. In our exhuberance for new technology I want to discuss another curve for just a moment. The technology hype cycle. I think it's a relatively new concept and is applicable to the drive to push new technologies to sell to consumers - think Video2000, think Bluetooth, think 3D TV, think the internet of everything (oooh, risky) - there are all sorts of technolgical ideas that are pushed out and hyped up that in the end don't amount to what was originally promised.


In our enthusiasm to advance innovation, are we in danger of just innovating for the sake of innovating? Are we pushing for bleeding edge and shifting from the S-curve to a hype curve? What do you think? I'm purposely putting this in a blog for open discussion so I can be accused of being a luddite or worse in the relatively quiet and safe setting of blogger (really, does anyone actually read my blogs?!). If we can discuss it here, then I'm hoping to bring some of those thoughts to the journal article in a less provocative way!

The last thing I want to do is stifle enthusiam for innovation, but equally I've seen a couple of ideas in wastewater treatment "oversold" in the past few years and then die on the vine. There was a sludge reduction technology called "Cannibal" that seemed promising and almost too good to be true. Turns out it was too good to be true for many applications, but still it's a good fit if the wastewater characteristics are right and the plant constraints dictate. Unfortunately the hype killed the idea for a lot of people... but, look at the hype curve, after the hype bump there's a drop and then a steady improvement in technology. I see a similar thing as a result of Cannibal. It certainly didn't live up to the hype, but now people are looking more closely at the cellulose material in wastewater and thinking about how we handle it (think toilet paper!). Some good came out of the hype as it drove further investigations and discussion. That's great for the industry, but maybe not so good for those bleeding out because of the hype.

My concern is that we may be doing similar things with other great ideas. Mainstream deammonification is a great concept, but in many instances it doesn't make sense. Granular AS is very cool, but again it probably won't fit all situations. I'm an advocate for struvite recovery, but it doesn't fit all faciities. Let's not hype these ideas, but let's evaluate where they fit best to play to their strengths...

Alternatively, maybe we do push on to the hype curve, bleed a little and then learn something for the next technological advancement?

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Seems odd to be posting on my own blog, but here's an interesting presentation on innovation using the analogs of fruit flies vs elephants from Sudhir Murthy: