Preserving and Caring for our Pale Blue Dot

Thoughts and perspectives on waterwise technologies for a water-prosperous future

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Tad Kuang Si, Laos (image: Guillame Broust)

Water is constantly in an eternal cycle. It’s movement and what it sustains is celebrated in countries across the world. When you think about it, we are in water’s hands and it’s influence, as it shapes not only our lives but all ecologies on Earth. How often do you think about where your water comes from, how it’s treated before it gets to your home, and where it goes once you’re done with it? Nearly half the global population is already living in water-scarce areas for at least one month per year — in other words, at some point over the course of a year 3.9 billion people either struggle to access water or face a shortage of water supply. (1) When it comes to the building blocks of society, water is paramount. While it’s never been more clear the kinds of pressing environmental threats we face, continuing to surface discussions and outlining the actual progress being made towards preventing them is imperative.

This is the first part of a series covering environmental advancements, the challenges we face in urban economies with a growing global population, and opportunities currently looking to be addressed.

Securing an adequate supply of clean water despite the damaging effects of climate change is one of the world’s most urgent challenges. Billions of people are going without safe drinking water and sanitation, and only 60% of households worldwide have both the water and soap necessary for handwashing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The world’s ecosystems are at risk from the degradation and extraction of water. Harmful algal blooms, fuelled by increased amounts of fertilizers, are a growing global menace killing fish, turning away tourists, contaminating drinking water, and depressing property values. (2)

While there have been solutions developed to adapt to these issues, there are broader, more pragmatic, and proactive solutions geared toward climate change mitigation. Some of the points of entry across the water sector, for example, include increasing access to drinkable water, reducing the overall footprint of water infrastructure (think energy to collect, process, distribute), and the combination of IoT sensors/devices and AI being applied to the array of industrial processes with water as a crux. Additionally, I’ve observed solutions in areas that seem to get further down the value chain and closer to consumers — these solutions look to be falling into a few segments right now:

  • Solutions with an ultimate goal of reducing water use — also would include water re-use solutions here as well.
  • Fresh ideas on product design allowing for positive changes in consumer behavior and new standards in transparency (with this, people can have sufficient information to decide what kind of impact on the environment they want to make).
  • Solutions with multiple, transitive effects — essentially, solutions that address water and other pressing environmental matters, simultaneously.

Most of us live in an unsustainable world where large amounts of drinkable water are used in our daily tasks. For example, one single load of laundry consumes 60 liters of freshwater. As the world population is growing, so is our water consumption, resulting in increasingly lower groundwater levels.

Mimbly was born out of a question, “Do we really need drinking water to do our laundry?” Today, the Mimbox is a reality, providing an alternative to unsustainable laundry habits. What once was a student project is now changing the way we use water. By acting as an intermediary, the Mimbox analyzes incoming water quality and saves/disinfects the sufficient water for re-use in the current and future loads. The system reportedly lowers the water consumption of washing processes by up to 90% and energy usage to 30%. The best part — there’s a microplastics filter included in the process, removing them from the water supply.

Raising just under $1M earlier this year, Mimbly is piloting the Mimbox with select hotels and apartment buildings in Sweden. I think this would be a smart move to continue to roll with once commercialized — it would essentially make more bulk impacts on water/energy usage in these settings and, though the Mimbox is not as directed towards consumers right now, would prove out the system’s ability to function “at-scale” and give them solid case study examples of the system’s efficacies. I’d be curious to know the estimated cost of the system for this setting, the expected break-even timeframe for the customer, and how the team is thinking about scaling installations (as that seems arduous at face-value + the (assumed) longer sales cycles could be seen as a risk from future investors).

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A 2019 water footprint study for Unilever PLC found that over 99% of water use related to the company occurs when consumers use their products. In contrast, the water used as a product ingredient accounts for less than 1%. (image: Epic CleanTec)

Water infrastructure can take many different forms — it must be sourced, treated, transported, and be made available to communities with access to water utilities. Our water systems’ shortcomings in the U.S. were brought to the public’s attention by Flint, Michigan’s recent experience, re-emphasizing it as the essential backbone of a modern economy. Intuitive steps must be taken to accelerate and provide continuous design principle innovation geared for reducing consumption at all levels of the value chain — if this does not occur, the UN think-tank on water, UN-INWEH, concludes we will face a 40% water gap between demand and availability by 2030. That being said, based on the current state of urban water infrastructure I believe solutions in this area will generally be more adaptive rather than mitigatory near-term, with the incorporation of more biomimetic design principles becoming more prevalent with time and with an emphasis on applications in urban environments at the onset.

An example of a more adaptive, consumer-focused water solution is Sweden-based Altered. The company develops water-saving nozzles acting as a retro-fit solution for taps and showers, aiming to reduce water consumption along with everyday activities. The key piece of Altered’s nozzles is their atomization technology, which breaks water coming through the faucet up into millions of droplets, thus reducing the total amount necessary to be used yet with the same efficacy of traditional faucets. Where else can this concept be applied along the value chain to further curb water consumption? (crop/lawn irrigation, livestock, industrial applications? — side note: here’s an overview of how and where the U.S. uses water from a U.S. Geological Survey published last year) I imagine the adoption of this product could take longer than desired for the company as well as investors, so outside of starting with B2B installations and working their way down, how else can they rapidly penetrate the market?

I think the philosophy of this company is what potentially stood out to me more than that of their actual products — “We believe that people come before technology. Products need to be used by people to make an impact. That is why we develop our technologies according to people’s lives, needs, and desires first.” — I wholeheartedly agree with this, and it’s a stride such as Altered’s which exemplifies that some of the more immediate and scalable opportunities don’t necessarily require technological breakthroughs to have a snowball effect with consumers. The basis of this argument stems from a cognitive bias, in that consumers don’t care about something (i.e. their environmental footprint, climate change effects on their livelihood) unless it can directly be associated with their everyday lives. With this perspective, Altered’s solution is simple enough to implement as well as fuse into use (thinking in hotels, restaurants, offices) without disrupting any type of user behavior that could be seen as a barrier to adoption at the broader, society level and in individual’s homes once the company becomes more salient.

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Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti at the Hyperion water treatment plant during the announcement that the city will recycle 100 percent of the city’s wastewater by 2035.

Another take on this topic continues along the lines of water infrastructure but from the mitigation lens. What else can we do to adopt circular methodologies and ideals instead of continuing to iterate on prior solutions? “Decentralized water treatment has become a key trend in the places where we focus our work.”, says Kim Baker, Director of Water Innovation at the Elemental Excelerator. “This strong interest in decentralized treatment stems from regulations, partially, but also the recognition that many centralized treatment facilities are at capacity, whether due to expanding population growth or industrial operations that are over capacity.” Perhaps there is potential for solutions to even become net-positive in regards to resource efficiency — that is, the infrastructure can produce more water and energy than they need to function.

A great example of how these methodologies are actually being tested today is with Epic CleanTec. Epic is decentralizing wastewater treatment and reuse into individual buildings or groups of buildings. The Epic micro screen separates out the solids from a building’s wastewater, the water is treated to high-quality standards for on-site reuse, and the solids collected from the water are converted into soil amendments which can be used in and around cities as a natural replacement to chemical fertilizers.

Born out of initial work with the Bill and Melinda Gate’s Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge”, I think this solution is rightly self-titled. By partnering with key figures in the urban world such as real estate developers, architects, engineers, and contractors to deploy the approach, Epic is in a solid position to prove their system with at-scale installations. I’d be interested to see what levels of efficiency the waste amendment process runs at, how that side of the solution scales, and how strong Epic can develop relationships with adjacent industries that could benefit from fertilizer alternatives. Epic is now participating in the highly competitive Imagine H2O accelerator, the world’s top water-focused startup program.

While the few companies and solutions here just scratch the surface on innovations related to water, I think they each have quite unique value propositions and address difficult questions with innate mindsets. Historically, funding, partnerships, and other development support directly from large strategics have shaped sectors such as water. By adopting a climate mitigation mentality from the innovation and consumer perspectives here with water, there might turn out to be additional opportunities that mesh well with other urban sectors like advanced materials for the built environment, energy consumption, and public health and safety. This could also potentially accelerate solutions like these to flourish, increase collaboration among those developing them, and attract more early-stage capital attention to the sector.

Feedback is welcome as solutions in the mentioned sectors evolve, meaningful discussions are cultivated and I maturate my thesis in these areas.

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Consumer Research & Strategy

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