Water, Energy and the Zero Waste Society Conference
23 Feb 2015, Istanbul
Technology is not the Challenge …It’s Leadership
This speech was delivered as a keynote address at the 2015 WEX Conference given by Dr. Abdullah Al Al-Shaikh, CEO of Advanced Water Technology (AWT) and President of the International Desalination Association (IDA).
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are fortunate. We are the masters of destiny, God willing. We have significant opportunity in front of us. The opportunity that comes only once in the span of several generations.
We have the opportunity to help shape and influence a new world …a world quite different than the one in which we know. This is a world of abundance, a world of accessibility and a world of affordability where water and energy is concerned.
We live in momentous times, times of great change. We are at the beginnings of what is quickly becoming known as the third industrial revolution, as the economist Jeremy Rifkin labels it. As profound an impact on the world as steam power, machine tools, manufacturing, electrification, carbon fuels and internal combustion had in the 19th and 20th century, the third industrial revolution will have even greater impact.
Renewable energy, Big Data, smart grids, 3D printing manufacturing, materials design, robotics, nanotechnologies, energy storage, communications, the Internet of Things …these are driving massive change, innovation and realignment in all industries, across the board, and of course, including water and energy.
And what is the driving force? A commitment to Sustainability.
When we speak of “Zero Waste Society,” “Cradle-to-Cradle” industrial systems and processes that develop closed-loop cycles to minimize waste, conserve energy and recycle, we are committing to sustainability.
When we speak of discarding a linear approach of “Take-Make-and Dispose” …and we begin to think in terms of a circular economy, we are embracing sustainability.
Understanding true costs, the costs of externalities produced by industry, the cost of upstream subsidies and downstream impact is an essential part of this, a coming to terms. It is a systems-thinking approach and understanding.
But sustainability is not only about providing a sustainable planet on which to live …equally, it is about providing sustainable economic solutions to the problems we face. Sustainability is the driver of innovation, as C.K. Prahalad stated, innovation that in turn provides economic growth and opportunity.
But as they say, opportunity is a window. And if “If a window of opportunity presents itself, don’t pull down the shade” (Tom Peters).
We do have a choice we need to make. The opportunity of sustainability …an opportunity of transformative change, of innovation, economic growth and environmental stewardship, lies before us, awaiting. The consequences of pulling down the shade are severe.
So what stands in the way? The challenge is not technology. Technology is here, is in the pipeline, or is soon to be developed. In the water industry we are seeing a number of advancements in the past two years alone that we are very proud of, and that together are creating disruptive innovation and change in the industry. It’s impressive to see.
These include well-known advancements in membrane filtration design and use of nanotechnology, increases in the rate of water recovery and the move toward zero desalination discharge; automation, smart systems in operations, transmission and supply chain; materials design, graphene, in the manufacturing parts and components. And of course, what I find most important and most innovative is the introduction of renewable energy supplies to large-scale desalination operation, 10K m3 or above, or in the case of Al Khafji, 60K m3 of water production per day, powered by solar.
Renewable energy in large-scale desalination is a game-changer. It not only slashes costs of running and operating a plant, it frees our industry from complete dependence on subsidies that distort market economics and have economic downstream impact for national and regional economies. It sets the industry on a course for fast and rapid growth by reducing one of our major challenges, the cost of energy. Through renewables, we will be able to build more plants and increase desalination capacity both regionally and globally.
The challenge is not technology. The challenge we face is in execution, the execution of sustainability …in the strategic planning, the financial underwriting, the aversion to perceived risk, and in the policy-making that incentivizes and supports sustainable enterprise in our industry.
Our challenge is one of leadership, of failing to create a shared vision of what can be achieved, and of having a true taste and appreciation of the opportunity before us. Combine that with a natural instinct to resist change and a reluctance to act, and there lies our real challenge.
But understanding our challenge and joining together is our first step. Now, is the time for our industry to push for change, to push collectively and to lead the way for all others.