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2A Innovation Capacities in Water Utilities: What is best practice? 


Due to their criticality and high capital expenditures, water utility systems have an inherent conservative logic with little room for innovation and experimentation. However, many existing utility systems suffer from significant inefficiencies and insufficient asset management. Simultaneously, the breakthrough of emerging digital technologies has significant potential efficiency gains. Applied appropriately, these technologies can improve system operations, rationalize maintenance work, enable new system designs, and – in the long run – unleash innovative business models. So far, however, the technology adoption is slow, with long lead times in deployment.  

The utilities’ ability to proactively lead technical development is often constrained. With some exceptions, Swedish water utilities are small organizations with emphasis on day-to-day operations. Most utilities have low R&D intensity and limited resources for innovation. Like other process industries, technology development is primarily driven by equipment manufacturers, but in this industry there is no competitive pressure on the utilities to innovate. Consequently, how to sustain organizational capabilities to explore new technologies for long-term development is a crucial challenge for most utilities.  

Project goal

This project aims to identify organizational best practices for fostering innovation capacities for long-term technical and operational development among the water utilities in Sweden. The intention is to deepen the knowledge on how to foster capabilities to apply emerging technologies in more effective ways. 

The idea is to study how utilities perceived as frontrunners manage their technical development on long-term basis. How do they organize their R&D and innovation activities? How do they deploy new technologies and how do they enhance new, smarter ways of working? Furthermore, are there common patterns among the frontrunners that should be learned from, or are there differences due to organizational contingencies, such as, size, location, population density, political regime, or demographic change?  

The project is based on multiple case studies of utilities, and similar organizations, in the forefront as well as international comparisons with innovative utilities in, e.g., Denmark, England, and the Netherlands. As in most case studies, the methods include interviews, study visits, and participant observations, complemented with studies of various types of documents and literature.

The plan is to publish four scientific papers, produce one doctoral thesis, and to organize a series of workshops with key industry stakeholders.