Innovate or Die (part 2). Although innovative stormwater quality product offerings which deliver higher performance and reduce costs of compliance are desperately needed in public infrastructure and private development, they are few and far between. The reasons why are numerous, let’s take a look at one of them.
Innovate not…because the regulations prevent it.
Early stormwater quality products promised much, delivered less and relied heavily on what is now generally accepted as ‘inaccurate’ data (to paint the prettiest possible face possible on it), as early players rushed to capitalize on the emerging market. Although ‘you can fool some of the people some of the time,’ eventually most everyone figured it out. It doesn’t mean the products quit selling, despite often being incredibly expensive to install, problematically located (‘out of sight, out of mind’) and very costly to maintain. There weren’t many choices; you had to do something. Buyers and regulators were resentful though and the backlash from the ‘once burned, twice shy’ regulatory community at all levels has been a strenuous bias against manufactured BMPs in general, and the development of testing protocols designed to exclude (‘we’re not going to let that happen again’), rather than encourage new technologies.
Worse yet, valid scientific testing has been pushed aside in favor of time consuming, costly and by definition, extremely localized, field monitoring. While certainly very valuable, the idea that technology verification and product approvals should always hinge on two-plus year field testing dramatically limits our ability to address our water problems, and poses a major obstacle to the adoption of new ideas and new technologies. But I digress.
New technologies, in states, regional authorities, counties and cities all over the country, are not only not encouraged, embraced, or accepted, but old technologies which we know are expensive and not particularly effective are locked in place by ‘approved’ technologies lists. Creative engineers and designers who would seek to raise the bar on performance, on cost-effectiveness or maintainability, in meeting their clients’ stormwater quality obligations are routinely met with rejection, even when the difference between the ‘approved’ technology and the specified system differs by functionally irrelevant issues such as size, shape or type of container.
In one example, this was true despite the fact that sizing parameters utilized for the original and the iteration were identical; the ‘approved’ technology was used exactly as tested and approved. Neither the container material nor the shape of the approved system was addressed in the testing by which the original version was approved (nor did they have any impact whatsoever). As crazy as this may seem, it’s just one example of what’s happening every day, and frankly it’s hard to blame those who are rejecting the applications. They’re stuck in a system that offers no opportunity (or reward) for risk taking (generally required for innovation), regardless of how trivial.
The idea that we can solve a national problem with a system that virtually obliges local governments to implement a process of local approvals (there are no national standards, after all), regardless of whether they have the staff, the budget or the in-house expertise to do so, guarantees an inefficient and counterproductive system. Approved Lists typically get updated every five years, except when the budget’s too tight, so some are much older. Furthermore, since we don’t trust science to tell us what will and won’t work, and we ‘don’t want to get burned again,’ if it’s not on the list, anything new, no matter how derivative, is going to have to be monitored for two years before it can be considered for the list.
From the Chesapeake Bay to the Edwards Aquifer, to Puget Sound, new ideas, new technologies are suppressed. Ultimately the fate of our waters is being determined by outdated, inefficient, failure-prone technologies and maintenance-intensive methods that we already know don’t work very well. Why? One of the big reasons is our failure to leave the door open for innovation. The solution? Break down the obstacles. Get national standards in place. Get science back into the approval process and examine new technologies independently, nationally and on a timeline that reflects an appropriate sense of urgency.
In the meantime, encourage and enable innovative solutions by opening up the approval process to new ideas in your hometown. Allow new technologies into the market on a provisional basis. Once in place, monitor some of the systems and verify that they meet their claims. If they don’t, revoke the approval going forward. Given what we know about the generally poor performance of most of what we already have in place, a few mistakes along the way aren’t going to have a significant impact. No risk, no reward.
The risks associated with moving too fast on approving new technologies is dramatically lower than continuing to utilize locked-in technologies that we know won’t prevent or minimize degradation of our waters.
Next time, we’ll look at the innovation problem from the innovator/manufacturer’s perspective when we discuss:
Innovate not…because I can’t possibly reach a national market.