Infrastructure and Entrepreneurism

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Professor Mark Van Loosdrecht of Delft University of Technology. The title of his talk, “Innovations in Wastewater Treatment,” immediately caught my attention when I first heard it, as I am always on the lookout for radical changes in infrastructure systems and processes. According to my professors, Professor Van Loosdrecht is one of the most prominent minds in the environmental engineering field, and continually pioneers new designs and processes for wastewater treatment. He also specializes in the scaling up of designs from laboratory prototypes to pilot-scale plants and beyond. Just by this background alone I knew that I would be very interested in what Professor Van Loosdrecht would have to say, and I was not let down in the slightest.

I won’t go through everything Professor Van Loosdrecht presented, but I’ll mention some things that really caught my attention. The first was his framework of converting Invention into Innovation. For Professor Van Loosdrecht, Invention is just an idea, the real work comes with turning that idea into practice, which is the hard part. Traditional methods consist of starting with an idea, then going into the Research and Development Stage, and then taking the product to market. Van Loosdrecht’s new approach is most cyclical in nature, constantly switching from research, development and product creation in multiple feedback loops to ensure that whatever you do works well with the other stages. This way, you can speed up innovation by really getting to the essential movers and shakers of the industry and problem at hand.

The idea of getting to the essentials of the problem underlies Van Loosdrecht’s philosophy. Innovation in wastewater treatment, he claims, doesn’t come from fancy words like “resource recovery,” “renewable energy” or “sustainability,” but from the essentials of the industry. The bare-bones objective of wastewater treatment is to clean water, it isn’t to make energy or recover resources. Yes, those objectives are noble and certainly beneficial pursuits, but the point is to clean water as economically and efficiently as possible.

Maintaining this perspective is essential to drive innovation. That isn’t to say that one should be closed off to new ideas, indeed, Van Loosdrecht encourages engineers to maintain an open mind, and to pursue some knowledge simply for curiosity’s sake. For instance, one example of one of Van Loosdrecht’s projects was a wastewater treatment plant inspired by the biogeochemical cycles of certain lakes. Using a unique lake with an uncharacteristically high pH as a model, Van Loosdrecht realized that by combining silica rocks with wastewater, dissolved calcium ions would form Calcium Carbonate and precipitate out of the water, thereby producing a more pure Syngas (a mixture of H2, CO and CO2 used for fuel production) and producing a byproduct which could be used in traditional cement manufacturing. This example fascinated me, as it was a great example of looking towards nature’s systems as a basis for the design of our processes. It also reminded me of all the bizarre natural phenomena out there that could provide valuable information and design inspiration. This example seems to be in conflict with Van Loosdrecht’s philosophy, but it underlies the importance of keeping an open mind and looking for inspiration in all parts of life. Sometimes solutions come up when we aren’t actively looking for one. Being efficient doesn’t mean ignoring opportunity. But when approaching a certain problem, it’s important to define a clear and simply states objective.

In the end Professor Van Loosdrecht mentioned that we should not expect any radical changes within the field of wastewater treatment. The field, like many infrastructure fields, is driven by practicality (i.e. money) and therefore, maintains a strong “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mentality. The key is to improve the basics like money and time in order to get something into practice. While I agree with this point, it also saddens me that we shouldn’t be expecting and paradigm shifting innovations in the coming years. I, for one, think there is plenty of opportunity to radically improve our infrastructure systems and processes. In this modern world, we still distribute and transport our water the way the Ancient Romans did. It certainly works for the most part, but is there another way we could approach these systems that could be more beneficial to both humanity and the environment? Are there other ways we can look at these problems by, as Van Loosdrecht mentions, examining the absolute essentials?

I’ve written a short paper on this topic, which you can find here. I find the topic of innovation in infrastructure interesting, and the topic has led me to an interest in applying entrepreneurship to the infrastructure field. Entrepreneur’s take risks by putting a lot of time, money and other resources behind an idea that has great industry disrupting potential. Why does Entrepreneurship have to only involve electronics, programming and business? Yes, it seems almost paradoxical to combine Entrepreneurial goals with the Infrastructure Industry. One takes risks, the other emphasizes reliability and safety. One often works on the small scale, the other works on huge public works projects. But slowly entrepreneurial spirits are emerging in Infrastructure. The most obvious example being the numerous renewable energy start-ups. Even in our current environmental predicament, the renewable energy industry is still considered risky and not the standard for energy generation. But start-ups are taking the risk and have the drive and know-how to get investors behind their ideas which could potentially change the energy landscape (of course, as mentioned before, getting the idea into an innovation is a difficult step). Entrepreneurship also shows up in development non-profit organizations that design/build services such as water treatment or bridges for developing countries. These organizations employ non-traditional funding strategies and resources in order to bring reliable and safe infrastructure services to those who need it. Yet what about the processes themselves? How can we radically change the infrastructure paradigm? The values of Entrepreneurship don’t only apply to the latest tech start-up or iPhone application. Diligence, Passion, work under stress, communication, curiosity, intelligent risk, a pioneering attitude – these are all skills that can be applied to any field of study, including Infrastructure Design. Entrepreneurism and Infrastructure share similarities in that they both are multifaceted fields that incorporate social, economic, political and environmental issues. They both require a certain amount of reliability, a base from which to work. How can we embody the entrepreneurial spirit within Infrastructure Design to drive innovation? How can we marry the two objectives of Entrepreneurism and Infrastructure while still staying true to the essentials? Is it possible? What needs to change? How can we take a radical idea and turn it into an industry standard?  I’m not sure yet, but it’s a relationship in which I’m willing to dive further.

5 thoughts on “Infrastructure and Entrepreneurism

  1. Agreed. Infrastructure, by nature, is very difficult to update due to the large capital investment required. Maintenance is often easier to invest in than a complete infrastructure overhaul. It is therefore no wonder the ASCE gave the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+ in the 2013 report card.

    Crowd funding is becoming an evermore popular method of financing small businesses, projects, and causes. Many startups are doing great work in the environmental sector, and I too am curious as to the role they will play in shaping the future.

  2. Ethan, are you aware of the Reimagining Infrastructure series from Orion Magazine?

    They don’t have a wastewater feature up yet, but they do have one looking at water works.

    Your comment about the field is driven by the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality is really interesting, because in many aspects the old ways of doing things isn’t working anymore. We need not only innovation, but the imagination and vision to see what is possible and potentially very different.

    1. No, I wasn’t aware of Orion Magazine, thank you for pointing it out to me, I will definitely check it out! I’m pleasantly surprised that the phrase “reimagining infrastructure” is used not just by myself, there’s a sense of youthful and visionary creativity by using the word “imagine.”

      You bring up a good point about how infrastructure really is broken at the moment. The issue being that the general public does not realize how broken the system is. The interesting thing about infrastructure is if it’s working smoothly, no one will think about it, but if it’s going horribly, then everyone will be up in arms. At the moment, we have so many people working tirelessly to keep our infrastructure systems working and from breaking down that it’s functioning just well enough for people not to notice.

      1. I think your last sentence is the crux of the problem. Spending money and resources to function just well enough hinders the feedback loops necessary to get people engaged and involved in infrastructure design again. How do we get people to value investment in infrastructure when they take it for granted?

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