In the U.S. and elsewhere, outdated water infrastructure groans under growing demand, climate change and other pressures. Decades have passed without the implementation of large-scale, pardigm-shifting technology, management approaches or efficiency techniques. The problem isn’t just a matter of innovation, but a failure to fully consider and act on political, cultural, social and economic factors, according to a new paper co-authored by Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow and Co-Director Buzz Thompson.

“To solve current urban water infrastructure challenges, technology-focused researchers need to recognize the intertwined nature of technologies and institutions and the social systems that control change,” Thompson and his coauthors write in the study, published August 14 in Environmental Engineering Science.

Those factors might include water quality regulations designed to protect public health and the environment, career incentives that reward conservative choices within a water utility, and trends toward increasing environmental awareness.

For example, in considering whether to adopt a new filtration technology, a water system operator could not simply evaluate the decreased risk to public health and space efficiency. They would need to weigh the potential costs of retraining employees and developing a new supply chain. Similarly, water organizations have been slow to adopt promising emerging approaches such as leak detection and reduction. This may be due to the technology’s inability to overcome advantages of existing technology, or from institutional contexts such as lack of familiarity, embedded best management practices or risk aversion among decision-makers.

Among the solutions, the paper’s authors suggest:

-          Increase support for water technology entrepreneurs

-          Build networks of knowledge and practice through regional forums

-          Set goals for new functionality through legislation

-          Use and tax policies to help incubate in protected spaces or niche markets new technologies with potential to force paradigm shifts

-          Provide more public information through reporting requirements

-          Provide incentives for innovation through patent laws and targeted research funding

The special issue focuses on urban water systems. Guest editors include Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Richard Luthy, director of Reinventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt), a $20 million National Science Foundation research center focused on ensuring dependable water supplies and designing systems to manage and reuse that water. Thompson and his coauthors, Michael Kiparsky and David Sedlak, both of the University of California at Berkeley, and Bernhard Truffer of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, are members of the center.

The study’s authors were partially supported by a National Science Foundation grant.

Woods has supported research related to this study through its Environmental Venture Projects seed grant program and other initiatives. Learn more about how Woods researchers are finding practical ways to meet growing demand for freshwater.