How the water industry can push past the fear of failure

Posted 16 May 2017

Dr Jordan NguyenRisk is an inherent part of innovation, yet many organisations – particularly those in conservative industries like water – are risk averse. Is this fear of failure holding the industry back?

As an example of what is possible when you abandon fear of failure, Dr Jordan Nguyen, a keynote speaker on Day One of Ozwater’17, shared several stories about how failure actually led to some of his biggest innovations. 

His work explores the intersection of humanity and technology, and recently led to the development of a device that reads brain signals to help profoundly disabled individuals steer wheelchairs.

Although he has been interested in electronics his entire life and loved taking them apart, he “wasn’t very good at putting them back together again”. But that early curiosity to see how things work and whether they could be made better spurred him to pursue a career in engineering and robotics.

One particular encounter with an early playmate stuck in his mind. A robot from his father’s lab was an early checkers opponent, and over several games Nguyen picked up on how the robot learned.

It would try, and fail, and then learn from that failure. Over and over again.

“We don’t program into robots a fear of failure – robots get so good at what they do by failing and learning from that,” he said.

According to Nguyen, the five technologies set to have the largest impact on every industry, including water, are the Internet of Things, cloud computing services and systems, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and biotechnology. On their own they are great, but together they combine to create truly innovative solutions. 

“Innovation is about challenging knowledge and past ways of thinking, and being adaptable,” he said. 

The rapid pace of change is driving home this point for organisations across the water industry. How these systems interact with each other and affect the services water organisations provide is still up for debate, but what is clear is that the industry is in transition, said Sydney Water’s Managing Director Kevin Young.

The water industry is more traditional and conservative, he said, but it should view discussion of disruption as a call to arms rather than a threat.

“We wait to be told what the next big thing is and then wait to react. The water industry needs to move away from being enablers and towards being the decision-makers,” he said.

During his keynote session, Young encouraged water professionals to “own their own disruption and drive a different customer experience”, as the role the industry plays in shaping cities and communities will only increase. 

“The difference we can make in people’s lives is exciting. There are so many opportunities for the water industry to be proactive and prevent issues with effective planning. We need to be the change makers.”

This shift from passive to active participation is a vital one, especially since Sydney is set to grow by 1 million people in the next decade. A lot will change between now and then in terms of how water utilities operate, Young said, but one thing will not – the need for master planners who keep customers at the heart of operations. 

“It’s not survival of the fittest … it’s survival of the most adaptable,” he said. 

“That’s our industry’s future, and we can get there.”