At first glance, it might not seem that Flint, Michigan and Delhi, India have much in common – one a shrinking, former manufacturing stronghold in the American Midwest, and the other India’s pulsing and growing mega-capital. Despite different histories, demographics, and political landscapes, one thing that unites them is a serious struggle to deliver clean, safe water to their inhabitants. But there is good news in the pipeline: business leaders surveyed in the 2017 edition of the Global Opportunity Report view smart water technology to be the most actionable and impactful opportunity for the business world to pursue.
Produced by Sustainia, DNV GL, and United Nations Global Compact, the Global Opportunity Report maps future sustainable markets by translating five leading global risks into 15 opportunities that benefit business and society. And 2017 isn’t the only year in which water emerged as the winner. Over the past three years, an opportunity related to water has consistently topped the list in terms of those in which business leaders see the most promise. This signals that the private sector could lend a crucial hand in developing the solutions needed to get urban water infrastructure back on track.
New technologies mend old pipes
Flint’s water crisis has exposed tens of thousands of residents to lead from aging pipes, while also exposing the United States’ serious water infrastructure problem. Not an isolated case, Flint’s struggles are mirrored by other cities throughout the country, including Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, which struggle with outdated and dangerous water infrastructure. This results in lead leaching into drinking water and nearly a quarter of a million water main breaks country-wide each year.
While solving this problem will require a comprehensive overhaul of urban water infrastructure, immediate-term solutions are needed in the meantime. As evidenced by the Global Opportunity Report, smart water technologies present a tremendous opportunity to help manage this delicate infrastructure. Smart sensors on pipes can detect leaks and measure water-related data such as rainfall, pH, turbidity and even contamination levels. Through wi-fi connectivity, this data can be safely stored in the cloud and handled in real time by water management officials. A number of companies are leading the charge in this opportunity space, such as WAVIoT, whose smart meters can transmit hundreds of thousands of water readings to utility control panels via wireless networks, and Calliope, which incorporates machine learning and predictive analytics in order to provide real-time insights on household water use, detect leaks, and save homeowners money.
Optimistic and ready to act
Aging and dangerous infrastructure is just one problem related to water provision. An even more quintessential challenge is simply delivering water to residents in the first place, particularly in poor and slum communities of the global south’s megacities. In India, for instance, nearly 76 million people are without access to clean water – the most of any nation on Earth. Climate change, poverty and lack of infrastructure underpin this challenge, and rapidly increasing urbanization is exacerbating it. But again, the private sector is not deterred. In fact, from the Global Opportunity Report’s survey of business leaders, those in India appear to be the most aware of the potential this opportunity holds. Indian business leaders indicate that they are the most likely to pursue smart water technologies, as compared to respondents from all other regions, and they – more than respondents from any other region – believe these technologies will have a positive impact on society.
A number of solutions are emerging to help support this promising opportunity space – one of which is Piramal Sarjaval, which was featured in the 2016 edition of Sustainia100. Developed in India, this social enterprise provides water-dispensing ATMs which deliver clean drinking water to more than 300,000 people in underserved communities across 12 Indian states. As the ATMs are solar-powered and cloud connected, the company is able to remotely track water quality and transactions. This type of solution plugs a critical service delivery gap, while also generating about $4 million of economic activity in the local communities in which it operates, according to the company.
This year’s Global Opportunity Report highlights the fact that applying quick and ever-evolving technological capabilities to the challenges and risks that most deeply afflict global society can yield some incredible opportunities for positive change. The report also showcases that this change – and the solutions that power it – is good news for the planet, its people, and businesses’ bottom lines.
 American Society of Civil Engineers, 2013 report card for America’s infrastructure, http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/drinking-water/. Accessed January 17, 2017.
 WaterAid. Water: At What Cost? 2016.