Social innovation is one of my favourite aspects of today’s society. I’m not a big fan of consumerism, and it’s pretty easy to be pessimistic about humanity’s future when you look at our behaviour towards one another and the environment, justified by economics. BUT, the fact that people who have been shaped by this culture can use it to drive social change and equity makes me proud to be human.
These innovators start with an idea.
The idea can capture hearts and minds, and often generate investment through crowdfunding (another of my favourite things people do). The pitch spreads awareness of the issue it aims to solve as well as helping the start-up to, well, start up. These platforms have become increasingly popular in recent years, with big names such as gofundme and indiegogo, as well as the social justice specific startsomegood.
Jumping back to our Domestic Wastewater Treatment Plant idea from last week,
is there a way we can couple the environmental and economic benefits with a social catalyst to precipitate change?
For these kinds of companies to become successful, I believe they require 3 key attributes:
- A quality product
- An attention grabbing campaign
- A social benefit
In our case, we have:
- A qualtiy product – domestic wwtp… tick
- An attention grabbing campaign – this could be tricky
- A social benefit – the world is our figurative oyster
Attention grabbing campaigns can be achieved through crowdfunding campaigns, whose success is defined by the public’s engagement with the product, the social benefit it provides, or both.
Wastewater treatment, as we have discussed several times, is beyond the forefront of people’s minds – they don’t care about it. This can be addressed through the adoption of a social benefit business model, focusing on an issue related to wastewater treatment. The following stats graphic, drawn by the wonderfully mediocre talent of sustainabletim, provides a platform for generating both public support for the domestic wwtp AND for driving real change in the world.
Disruptive innovation sees a new player in a market offer products or services to a lower standard, but at more competitive prices, appealing to those who feel they do not need all the bells and whistles they are forced to pay for through existing market options. The disrupter then gradually improves the quality of their offering, while maintaining competitive prices, driving the market price down.
Take a look at this Harvard Business Review article for more about Disruptive Innovation. It includes a great vid explainer for the audiovisual learner.
In this sense, companies like Who Gives a Crap can be considered disruptive as they started with simple, average quality toilet paper – targeting the low end of the market. Their social and environmental focus drew customers in, and they have since grown and diversified into tissues and paper towel. More critically, they have recently announced their new luxury line of TP (Premium Toilet Paper) making them direct competitors with the likes of Kleenex, etc. but with the competitive advantage of home delivery and environmental and social conscience!
Disruption to the wastewater treatment market would require offering a service to a lower standard than is currently available. However, high regulation requirements make this somewhat impossible (or, illegal and dangerous to human and environmental health, at least). Instead, we could consider the Uber or the Tesla models:
We’ve all been privy to the Uber vs Taxi Rumble in the Jungle of recent years, with Uber offering competitive services, and taxis being almost regulated out of the market! Here, Uber has found a way to all but topple what was once a monopoly of the personal transport industry, through offering a more convenient service at a lower price (granted, they are illegal in Australia but that hasn’t stopped them having a HUGE impact).
Adopting this model would involve being outside the regulations, and forcing radical change to the existing Water Corp service. In terms of our domestic wwtp, this would resemble going off-grid, without the protection of the state-sanctioned service.
This electric car company entered the market from the top, and trickled down. That is, they initially released a sports car (the roadster), proving electric cars are actually cool and can stand up to the petrol/diesel/lpg alternatives at the highest standard, as well as being more environmentally friendly (no emissions = less greenhouse gases + less human health issues through inhalation, etc). Once they earned respect, they then began to release more affordable cars in the Model S, X and 3. This is almost the reverse of Disruption Innovation in the pure sense of the theory, as it enters at the luxury level aiming to trickle down rather than entering at the lower level and building up.
Check out more about Tesla’s purpose and business model (AKA the Secret Master Plan) here (it’s a long vid but worth it!).
Adopting the Tesla business model for wastewater treatment would require a premium service: proving that domestic wwtp’s have the same capabilities as the centralised treatment plants do, while providing some feel-good benefit for the consumer, and subsequently offering more affordable options as the tech develops.
In Perth, the Water Corp is the only provider of wastewater management and treatment services – they have monopoly, in a sense. By introducing domestic scale treatment through social enterprise, we can offer an alternative for consumers while raising awareness of wastewater and sanitation issues both locally and in developing countries. Consumer benefits such as reduced water bills and more water to use on their garden in summer (seeing as greywater use is currently illegal), can drive business, and proceeds can drive humanitarian sanitation and drinking water projects. This helps achieve the minimum basic needs for sanitation and water in developing countries, as well as increasing urban resilience in Australian cities in the face of climate change.
I’m excited for the day social innovation becomes the norm. The day that companies demonstrate a commitment to equity in a real sense, not just including the word in their core values.
This day is coming.
This is the end of our journey through the wonderful world of wastewater. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I did and maybe (hopefully) learnt something. I look forward to seeing the future of this field in action!
Illustrations lovingly crafted by sustainabletim.