Sustaining disruptive innovations in water

Sustaining disruptive innovations in water

In the water industry, do not underestimate the role of sustaining innovations while keeping an eye out for disruptive innovations.

Organisations dream about the development of the next "blockbuster" product that not only creates a high value but more importantly has the potential to make obsolete or disrupt the current product that is providing value to consumers. The video compact disc player, for example, disrupted the video cassette recorder technology, which was subsequently disrupted and displaced by digital video recorder technology. Disruptive innovations can happen in any industry and have also taken place in the water industry although not with as much intensity, speed and frequency as in some other industries such as the Information Technology industry.

Membrane technology is generally considered disruptive in the water industry. Developed in the first half of the last century, it provided slower filtration, was more expensive and often leaked - compromising water quality, compared with the existing technologies of the day such as particle filtration.

However, it took another 30 years or more before the technology even started to penetrate the market let alone displace the current technology. During this period, and even up to now, several innovations continue to take place. These multiple strings of innovations, which are each incremental improvements of the original disruption, can be referred to as sustaining innovations. Examples of such innovations for membranes include new material development and membrane housing improvements to achieve faster filtration, smaller footprint and better quality product water; streamlining processes and implementing strategies to lower production costs; adopting methods and best practices from other technologies to improve performance or add new attributes such as strength, durability, product integration and regeneration.

Other innovations that further sustain the disruption include adopting and tweaking the technology for other applications within the industry such as the membrane bioreactor for wastewater treatment.

Other sustaining innovation strategies could include applications of the technology to other industries, such as extending the use of membrane technology for separation and purification in the food and beverage, oil and gas, and pharmaceutical industries as examples.

When an innovation from one industry is brought to another industry for the first time there is usually a high chance that it could be disruptive to the receiving industry. Ironically, sustaining innovations also provide an avenue for competitors to enter the market, who may have missed out on the disruption, although the incumbent has a head start.

Over the last century, the pace of innovation in the water industry has been faster in the last 30 years than it has been in the first 70 years. Thus the best bet for enterprises in the water industry is to continue investing in sustaining innovations.

However, enterprises should also keep an eye out for potential disruptions that could be game changing. To be more proactive they might consider partnering research institutes such as the Environmental & Water Technology Centre of Innovation in Singapore to co-develop the next disruption and work on sustaining these innovations.

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