Creating The Space To Innovate


A policy perspective

By: Amy Kathman

In August 2017, a 2-day experts’ workshop, titled Creating the Space to Innovate, culminated a year’s worth of progress in advancing innovation. Leadership, culture, procurement practices, regulatory programs and policies, and permit conditions all contribute to putting innovation into practice as much as does the development of new technologies. The Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) hosted the workshop in its role as a supporter of the Leader’s Innovation Forum for Technology (LIFT) program.

LIFT is a joint effort of WEF and the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (WE&RF; Alexandria, Va.). The program seeks opportunities to promote the adoption of innovative technologies and practices. LIFT includes a focus on the people and policies of innovation to identify and implement measures to manage or share risk. One example of this is LIFT’s goal to provide a “space” for innovation through permit flexibility in compliance schedules or different kinds of permits.

Building on previous work

Previous efforts have laid the groundwork for the Creating the Space workshop. For example, prior workshop participants developed specific implementation scenarios around technologies most likely to be affected by barriers, flexibility needs, and regulatory incentives. Developing the scenarios relied, in part, on interviewing key innovators and early adopters who have pursued groundbreaking approaches and technologies to solve water issues. These interviews sought to gain an initial understanding of the requirements, motivators, accelerators, and challenges to these initiatives. For each scenario a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis helped to refine further the articulation of constraints and opportunities for each scenario.

At the Creating the Space workshop in August, experts identified options — at a very specific and detailed level —, to eliminate constraints and take advantage of opportunities. The participants of the workshop considered ways in which its regulatory activities can reduce barriers to, or encourage incentives for, technology and innovation. The experts focused on high-interest technology implementation scenarios, their regulatory barriers, and where there is space to streamline between technology implementation and the regulatory/policy framework.

The workshop focused on five technology areas. These themes are high-priority areas for implementation and have encountered policy and people challenges to the uptake of the innovation. The first theme, Improved Risk Sharing and Institutional Barriers, related to general business practices while the other four were related to specific technologies or management practices. They include

  • Digestion Enhancements,
  • Water Capture and Reuse for Potable Uses (indirect and direct potable reuse and unplanned use all were included in discussion, but direct potable reuse was the focus),
  • Reclaimed Nutrients, and
  • Nutrient Optimization Strategy.

The experts concluded that while progress is being made to promote innovation in this sector, an overall challenging context for innovation remains. This situation signals a need to step back and discuss the ingredients of both a near-term and longer-term strategy to create an “innovation safe space” for the sector, as well as an “innovation culture” in the longer term.

Addressing policy and regulation

Policy and regulation also can substantially control how and when innovative technologies and practices are adopted. The primary federal regulations have not changed materially in more than 20 years. To enable innovation, the water sector must explore the landscape at the implementing mechanism level and devise specific approach(s) that will

  • fully meet legal and regulatory requirements,
  • provide certainty and defensibility for the operator, and
  • reasonable assurance for regulatory bodies that compliance can be discerned, verified, and enforced if not met.

Examining the broader regulatory context to explore such areas as state-to-state reciprocity, technology acceptance, and technology procurement can help ensure the sector is prepared to embrace new technologies efficiently and without undue uncertainty or delay.

Finally, the experts also provided input into the policy components that form the basis of the WEF Government Affairs Committee’s action plan. For more information on Creating the Space to Innovate, the action plans, WEF public policy efforts, or learn how you can get involved, visit

Amy Kathman is a Government Affairs specialist at the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.).