The Anatomy of Innovation – Case of Wastewater Treatment

I have been a jury in many competitions in India and overseas on topics such as water, wastewater, sanitation, air pollution etc. With a growing interest to promote entrepreneurship, number of such competitions as well as their scale is increasing. In these competitions, hundreds of applications pour in with innovative ideas. Shortlisted applicants then present their business plans to the investors.

Terms like hackathons and bootcamps that were originally used in the software development industry are now commonly used. Since promoting innovations through incubators and accelerators has been the idea, substantial funds are now allocated to the universities not just by the Governments but also by Private and Public sector organizations through the CSRs.

But what is innovation? Isn’t innovation something to do with making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products? Some say that great innovations are those that make you slap your forehead and say, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”. But is there a definition?

I asked my Professor Friend.

“Well Dr Modak, there are numerous definitions, and none is accepted as universal. Very simply put, innovation is about staying relevant.

I thought that this simple definition was rather profound.  I got two messages from this simple definition

Innovations should be driven by problems and opportunities –
but not just of today but as anticipated in the future

Professor asked me about my experience as a jury in the competitions that I was recently involved related to water, wastewater and sanitation.

“Well Professor, the experience was not very exciting. I found that so called innovations that were presented in the competitions were generally of the category “old wine in new bottle” and in many cases even “superficial”. Pity was that most jury members and investors were not from the “domain” and were focusing more on the “impact” and “internal rate of returns” rather than the substance in the innovations”

Professor smiled. So, I continued.

“Another thing I noticed that most of the “innovators” were of the MBA kind, but unfortunately there wasn’t much innovation in their proposed business models. They were dabbling on the technology front presenting minor modifications and add-ons claiming as major innovations. This was rather worrisome to me”

Professor lit his cigar.

“Dr Modak let us understand the anatomy of innovations and take wastewater treatment as an example. The technology of wastewater treatment has evolved over the years to address the problem of pollution of our water bodies and reduce risks to our health and ecosystems. So, innovations in wastewater treatment are most welcome as the problem is still relevant and will continue to be as it is on a scale and complexity that we could never imagine”

“Take the case of the celebrated activated sludge process (ASP) in wastewater treatment. In the last 100 years, ASP has underdone several “innovations” keeping up to continue addressing of the problems, and essentially to stay relevant”

Professor elaborated and sketched on a white board the evolution of ASP technologies illustrating some of the major and minor innovations. That was a treat to me!

If you haven’t yet, then do read the publication of International Water Association (IWA). Activated Sludge – 100 Years and Counting.  The book comprises invited papers delivered at the conference “Activated Sludge…100 Years and Counting!” that was held in Essen, Germany, June 12th to 14th, 2014

This great publication covers the then status of all aspects of the activated sludge process and looks forward to its further development in the future. Essentially, the book sets an agenda for innovations!

I thought that all the innovators who proposed “novel” technologies in wastewater treatment in the competitions had read this publication.

Professor saw me lost in thoughts.

“Now Dr Modak, let us now get into the anatomy so that we come up with some logic towards innovation”

First, to stay relevant, innovator should understand, dissect and diagnose the problem (and/or the opportunity) to come up with priority areas of interventions and potential alternatives.

The process therefore should start with literature review, field visits and stakeholder consultations. This step is extremely important. This gives the innovator a maturity. You cannot be an innovator overnight!

Next, various representations such as Ichikawa and Cause-Effect diagrams, methodologies like Failure Mode Effect Analyses and tools like Mind-mapping could help. 4Ms of Ichikawa like Man (and Management), Machine, Materials and Method are particularly useful. Brainstorming will be the key. Presence of economists, policy researchers and regulators and marketing wizards will be equally important other than the “techies”.  These sessions help to identify and address risks/opportunities, speculate on  costs/benefits (both direct/indirect and short and long term).

In wastewater treatment, if the idea is to improve process efficiency, then you may investigate hydraulics and mixing, consider addition and changes/substitutions of chemicals, use of special purpose microorganisms etc.  Blends like (suspended growth and attached growth) with use of innovative media could open several alternatives. If you want more process flexibility to address input variability, then you may look at combinations of technologies and configurations with process control.  Sometimes focus could well be on separation and a superior separation process like membranes may fit as an add on or alternative.

If the emphasis is on treatment for recovery, then accelerated composting, enhanced biogas and nutrient recovery become focus of innovation. And finally, use of renewable energy to the extent possible and use of low material intensity materials help in reducing the ecological footprint of the wastewater treatment operations.

We continued our discussions and drew some more diagrams that attempted to capture the above “anatomy” of innovations.  We added innovation triggers like how to handle wastewater treatment during pilgrims, disasters and such emergencies and operating solutions on different scales like micro (household), neighbourhood and communities and on urban scales. Some out of box thinking was also required to address water shortage, recovering contaminated waters and addressing threats due to climate change. Approaches to invent technologies that can meet requirements of the anticipated treatment standards especially for reuse were listed out. Innovations must be future ready.

All looked neat on the white board.

In kind of summing up, Professor cautioned that innovation is not limited to technological or material innovations alone, but includes social and business innovations. So while there may be no or minor innovation in technology, there could be a major financial or social innovation.

The last point he made was very important. He said that innovation should cross the “boundaries” that may require “teaming”. So to meet the effluent standards on Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) for a textile wet processing industry, a team of innovators will need to work on both end of pipe (e.g. Reverse Osmosis process) and low salt dying process simultaneously to come with an innovative, competitive and sustainable solution.

I suggested that Professor should conduct a special school for innovators and investors interested in the subject of wastewater treatment. Won’t it help in improving the quality of innovations that we see in the competitions?

Professor smiled and said “Not a bad idea. But Dr Modak, I wish that all successful innovations followed a structured process. There are several examples where we see “accidental” innovations that have in fact changed our lifestyles. Percy Spencer was fiddling with a microwave-emitting magnetron when he felt a strange sensation in his pants. Spencer paused and found that a chocolate bar in his pocket had started to melt. Figuring that the microwave radiation of the magnetron was to blame, Spencer came up with an idea of a microwave oven. See a compilation of such 30 accidental innovations here

“Wow Professor, this is a different thought, but is there a collection of accidental innovations in wastewater treatment?” I couldn’t resist to ask.

Professor extinguished his cigar signalling that our brainstorming session on innovations was over.

If you like this post, then follow me or circulate to your colleagues

Over image sourced from






  1. Defining Innovation is a tough job. Innovation characterized in this discussion seems to be either “disruptive” on Schumpeter’s line of thought emphasizing on market concerns and from conventional Techno-Scientist PoV looking at breakthroughs. However should we focus on being Innovative or or being social problem solvers, given larger goal is to address a societal problem? Both approaches have equal chances of cracking the problem but second one can be relatively a comprehensive approach wrt consequences.

    1. Indeed. Its not “or” but “and” i.e. we need to be both innovative and social problem solvers. I have said this in my post explicitly. Many thanks for emphasizing.

Leave a Reply