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Meet the Innovators: Dr. Robert Bornhofen, DC Water

Dr. Robert Bornhofen – director of innovation at District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) – outlines the approaches and attitudes that have underpinned the rollout of smart wastewater solutions across America’s capital.

What do you think Utility Week Innovate readers would be surprised to learn about you?

I am neither an engineer nor a utilities guy. Rather, I’m a seasoned innovator who specialises in helping organisations solve key problems. Both as a practitioner and educator, my work has spanned multiple industries, challenges, and more than 400 adult students in learning what it takes to innovate.

How would you describe your creative process in three words?

Diverse (in thought), fresh (in perspective), and safe (from ridicule).

  • Book your place at Wastewater Conference 2023 – the largest showcase of wastewater-specific case studies, innovation and thought-leadership – taking place in Birmingham on 25 and 26 January 2023 here

What do you think is the key to creating the conditions for innovation within the UK utilities sector?

A combination of top-down leadership and bottom-up activity. It starts with senior leadership’s vision, strategy and commitment to change.

Next is organisational alignment so that the innovation program involves everyone. Silos that once separated water from sewer from wastewater treatment need to be flattened for innovation to effectively work.

To drive progress, a mature innovation framework is needed to organize and direct activities. So too is having an experienced innovation leader for the entire organisation with direct access to senior leadership and free access across the workforce and to external stakeholders. As Simon Sinek once said: “the role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” That’s my credo as well.

But the key to success is at the worker level, those who know first-hand what needs to be fixed and how. Their voices need to be heard, recognised, and acted upon. For without active employee engagement, most innovation programs will eventually fall short of expectations.

What excites you most about the next 10 years in utilities – any trends, tech or specific innovations?

It’s not what we know but what we don’t know that excites me most.

Today, we hear a lot about digital twin, IoT, AI, machine learning, blockchain, 5G, etc.  Tomorrow, we hear about virtual reality (Metaverse), open telemetry and industry cloud platforms, among other developments. Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technology (2022) provides further insight into new and emerging technologies.

What’s also exciting are new scientific breakthroughs that involve basic science, like new and improved ways to clean wastewater, detect and destroy PFAS, and sustain a one-water ecosystem to reuse our precious and finite water resources.

I’m an optimist and look forward to help shape the future of the utility sector by what gets accomplished through innovation.

  • You can hear Dr. Robert Bornhofen explore DC Water’s approaches to better managing storm water and a network operating at capacity, as well as lessons in how to mitigate spills and environmental impact from America’s capital, at Wastewater Conference 2023 in Birmingham on 25 and 26 January 2023. Book your place here

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the utilities sector at present?

It’s a three-way tie for the biggest challenge.

The first challenge, and no surprise, is climate change and the adverse impact it’s having on the utilities sector.

Two, water equity. Clean and reliable water is not a privilege for the wealthy but rather a basic right that all people should be able to afford and expect.

And three, aging pipe and asset infrastructure in urgent need of attention, more so than available funds to invest.

These challenges are real and require strategic leadership to make the right decisions and foster an innovative, can-do work culture across the organisation. It becomes a collective effort among many stakeholders to solve the most challenging problems in need of new ways of creating value.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t ever stop learning and growing as a person.

Simply put, it’s never too late to learn. In fact, I went back to school to earn a post-graduate degree when some of my peers were thinking about retirement.  As a role model and father of two boys, I lead by example (I suspect that most of you reading this advice feel the same way.)  We find purpose in what we do, push ourselves to learn and discover, and become change agents to drive progress.

Utility Week Innovate, in collaboration with Utility Week Live aims to discover and promote innovative approaches to tackle front line business challenges through case studies, technical/project studies, networking, and live content. Be recognised as a key solution provider and meet your target audience face-to-face at UWL23. Find out more about exhibiting