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The 13th European Forum on Eco-Innovation: water sector eco-innovation in practice

15/01/2013

  • Industry,
  • Resource Efficiency,
  • Technology,
  • Water
  • Portugal

The 13th European Forum on Eco-Innovation, which took place in Lisbon, Portugal on 26-27 November 2012, focused on eco-innovation in the water sector. Eco-innovation is crucial for the water sector because of looming supply problems. Almost half the world population (47%) will be living under severe water stress by 2030 if no new policies are introduced, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In many countries, it is already happening.

The Forum resulted in the production of recommendations that will inform the future development of activities for the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on Water [see article on EIP http://ec.europa.eu/environment/ecoap/about-eco-innovation/policies-matters/eu/20121001_en.htm].The recommendations focus on open innovation, smart regulation and the need for partnerships to gain access to new markets [link to recommendations] and arose from roundtable presentations of 22 eco-innovative initiatives demonstrating that eco-innovation in the water sector is already taking place.

The event was also an opportunity for host Portugal to showcase its eco-innovative companies. The Portuguese Innovation Agency in partnership with some other government bodies, published the Catalogue of Portuguese Eco-Innovation Competencies to coincide with the first day of the Forum. The catalogue includes 53 examples of organisations and companies that are already active in eco-innovation. According to the Portuguese Environment Agency, the catalogue was well received at the Forum, and generated expressions of interest in participation in its second edition. In this respect, the Portuguese Environment Agency considered the Forum a success.

Paulo Lemos, member of the Board of Directors of the Portuguese Environment Agency and member of the Eco-Innovation Action Plan High-level Working Group, said that the Forum would further boost eco-innovation in Portugal. “We are very happy that this happened in Portugal and we are happy with the success we had with so many people coming from so many different countries,” he said. “I think it is also a big stimulus internally to have this initiative in Portugal... we are counting [on] this forum to create more public awareness for eco-innovation”.

Promoting partnerships

The Forum was also an opportunity to explore partnerships, in particular involving SMEs. Anabela Carvalho of the Foundation for Science and Technology, which works for the Portuguese Ministry of Science and promotes research proposals that aim to secure funding from the EU's research programmes, said that a brokerage event on the second day of the Forum was like “speed-dating for [eco-innovation] R&D” – it involved 126 pre-scheduled meetings bringing together eco-innovators from 18 countries.

The Foundation for Science and Technology's objective is “promoting partnerships, getting together academia, industry, SMEs, regulators. We need to go from R&D to innovation; we need to engage many more SMEs in successful partnerships for proposals. Our main goal is to identify what are the main bottlenecks preventing engagement of SMEs,” Carvalho said.

SMEs need to be engaged in eco-innovation because they often have “very good eco-innovative ideas that are just hidden, but that need to be scaled up and need to be supported,” Carvalho said. Scaling-up can be hard, however. Few SMEs have the resources to manage large research projects – thus there is a need for partnerships.

The idea of scaling-up was another key theme of the event. A session on the first day studied how eco-innovative companies, including SMEs, can access global markets. Partnership can be the basis for this. One case study presented to the conference concerned Hidromod, a small Portuguese company that provides a real-time information system for water management, and Bentley Systems, a large American company, which produces software for architects and builders of infrastructure. Such ventures between small and large partners can “push the technologies” to wider markets, Adélio Da Silva, Hidromod manager, said.

Scaling-up was also at the heart of a session on enabling effective action on the second day. The presentations during this session looked at the conditions for the development of new markets for eco-innovation, including support for R&D, provision of people with the right skills, backing for SMEs, finance and coordination and support as a basis for internationalisation of eco-innovation.

Better water management

One example of an SME working in the water sector represented both at the Forum and in the Catalogue of Portuguese Eco-Innovation Competencies is NAVIA, a Porto-based company that provides operational management software for water utilities.

Jorge Tavares, NAVIA managing director, says that the company worked on automation at wastewater plants in the 1990s and from that experience learned the needs of water companies. This experience was fed into the development of the management software. It was “built from the bottom to the top,” Tavares said. “In most cases IT companies build the solutions from the top to the bottom and they don't understand the daily problems [of water utilities]. We understand very well these problems. We are very close to the operation, we talk the same language as the operational team”.

The NAVIA software enables water utilities to manage their day to day operations. “It's a collaborative work platform for the operational team,” Tavares said. It enables managers to schedule tasks and gives agendas to teams working on the ground. As tasks are completed, they are reported back to the management centre, meaning that workflows can be efficiently overseen.

“It is for managing people and data,” Tavares said. “On another level you make connections with other data sources such as laboratory results, and we connect with software that has sensors in pipes,” meaning that water leakages can be identified and dealt with quickly. NAVIA could connect, for example, to water modelling and monitoring modules provided by AQUASAFE, a platform that provides real-time information on water systems for operational management. AQUASAFE, which is offered by Portuguese company HIDROMOD, was also highlighted at the Lisbon Forum.

Tavares said that better operational management for water companies meant savings in terms of operational efficiencies, fewer unnecessary journeys by engineers because automatic monitoring of facilities is introduced, and better cost control of energy and chemicals. For countries suffering declining rainfall because of climate change, optimised water management is essential. Annual financial savings for a medium-sized wastewater treatment plant operated under the NAVIA management software were calculated to be €33,800, with journeys by operational teams reduced by more than 10,000 kilometres per year.

NAVIA is a small company with 15 people, but its software has been implemented in Portuguese utilities, not least in Lisbon, where it serves 1.5 million people, and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Payback time for the software is two years or less.

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