Empowering Water Utility Innovation

Sustainable cities can adapt to and recover from the acute shocks and chronic stresses of climate change, aging infrastructure, fluctuating populations and unstable political conditions and financial markets. A productive relationship with water is an essential characteristic of cities with strong social, environmental and economic structures that can provide stability in times of tension and promote growth in competitive markets. Cultivating this relationship in North America largely falls on the shoulders of water utilities that are responsible for evolving the customer experience, engaging a diverse and dynamic workforce and justifying to numerous stakeholders that they are making the right investments with the right resources at the right time.

As North American water utilities imagine the future of providing on-demand, high-quality, affordable water and sanitation services to the hundreds of millions of customers who depend on them, the question isn’t, whether the water sector needs to innovate, but, rather, what happens if it doesn’t?

Together with the Water Research Foundation (WRF) and the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (WE&RF), based on a series of collaborative workshops with utility leaders and water professionals from around the world, Arcadis sees a clear path forward for utility-led innovation that can transform their organizational cultures and enhance their ability to meet future challenges.

The Arcadis report, Empowering Water Utility Innovation, highlights the WRF/WE&RF research and innovation framework, which empowers utilities to build and foster environments of creativity, experimentation and incubation to discover new approaches for serving customers, managing assets, financing investments and realizing superior utility performance with the added dividend of enhancing sustainability.

Download Empowering Water Utility Innovation

Closing the Innovation Gap

The WRF/WE&RF research team, led by Jason Carter of Arcadis as the Principal Investigator, conducted a water and wastewater utility survey and face-to-face workshops with utility leaders. The research unveiled that of the 423 utility professionals surveyed, more than 90 percent of respondents believe that innovation is critical to the future of their organization. However, only 40 percent believe that they have seen measurable change through innovation.

Key Discoveries

  • Utilities at the forefront of innovation have moved from being a consumer of innovative products to becoming the primary driver of innovation.
  • Utilities are active in identifying the key challenges faced by their organization, as well as leveraging both internal and external resources to help develop solutions.
  • Utilities are seeking wider and more tech-savvy stakeholder groups, such as digital and business advisory consultants, to facilitate innovation.
  • Utilities are reimagining supply chain relationships as collaborative partnerships that enable idea development.
  • Utility innovation programs are beginning to branch out to consider expanded services, processes and financial and business models.
  • Utilities are articulating new values, investing in new processes and seeking broad stakeholder engagement to create new norms for utility management and operation.

Building an Innovation Engine

Overcoming barriers and aligning organizational goals with innovation goals begins by engaging eight key disciplines: visualize, focus, develop, evaluate, engage, reach, communicate and evolve. These eight disciplines can be distilled into three primary elements: Impact, Capability and Engagement (i.e., ICE Utility Innovation Framework). This framework is intended to be a simple and manageable tool that can be used by a wide range of water utilities.

“Utilities that build an engine of innovation can ultimately realize game-changing sustainability dividends such as, greater revenue capture, waste reduction and optimal network continuity.”
—Jason Carter, Innovation & Delivery Lead, Arcadis North America

Tangible and intangible improvement aligned with leadership and organizational philosophy.


Ideators, mentors, adopters leading initiation and application of innovation.


Environment encouraging growth and maturation of ideas.

Launching Utility Innovation

Successfully implementing an innovation program can be broken down into three phases. Expand each phase to discover a helpful tip for launching your program.


Use a customizable and scalable cross-departmental survey to assess your current innovation environment and identify organizational and cultural gaps.


Tailor your innovation program to the expectations, environment and resources of your utility. The ICE Utility Innovation Framework provides you with the flexibility to use industry metrics and user defined discipline maturity levels to develop “fit for purpose” program elements: building impact, capability and engagement, and developing organizational readiness.


Apply early phase launch activities to enhance your success, such as: establishing urgency, starting small, aiming for slow-growing metrics and revisiting funding resources after six to 12 months.

Innovation as a Pathway to Sustainability

Utilities that build an Innovation Engine and incorporate innovation into their services, processes, technologies and financial and business models, are more likely to realize sustainability dividends in the areas of water resiliency, efficiency and quality. Explore the three pillars of sustainability to discover examples of sustainability dividends.


Challenge: Green space

Innovation Response:
• Encourage policy for Green Infrastructure investment
• Credit banking
• Retrofit existing infrastructure

Sustainability Dividends:
• Maximized economic benefits
• Water quality improvements to receiving waters
• Reduced flood potential


Challenge: Service continuity

Innovation Response:
• Investment in monitoring technology
• Integrated asset management
• Retrofit existing infrastructure
• Information communication portals

Sustainability Dividends:
• Real-time information
• Minimal network disruptions
• Asset longevity


Challenge: Treated wastewater

Innovation Response:
• Alternative storm surge management capacity
• Local partnerships to manage unpermitted discharges

Sustainability Dividends:
• Decreased overflows of untreated wastewater
• Higher quality and quantity of water capture

About the Research

All graphs, figures and references to the Water Research Project #4642 were used with consent of the Water Research Foundation. To learn more about WRF and Project #4642, Fostering Innovation Within Water Utilities, please visit www.waterRF.org/FosteringInnovation.

To learn about the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation and LIFT, visit www.werf.org.

Speak to our experts

Jason Carter

Water Strategy & Innovation Lead Ask me a question

Esteban Azagra

Water Business Advisory Lead Ask me a question

Ifetayo Venner

National Discipline Leader | Wastewater Treatment Service Line Leader Ask me a question

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