October 12, 2018

Making Water Visible to Understand its Use

Annie Morino, Fowler Center Scholar, MBA Candidate 2020, Weatherhead School of Management

As a Fowler Center Scholar, I was privileged to attend a student reception with this year’s winner of the Inamori Ethics Prize, Dr. Farouk El-Baz who “is known for pioneering work in applying space images to groundwater exploration in arid lands.” His work led to the discovery of water in Darfur, helping to end their brutal civil war.
When we think about the UN Sustainable Development Goal to provide clean water and sanitation for the world (Goal #6), we might think about this man’s work. A space scientist and geologist, Dr. El-Baz helped identify the lunar landing location for NASA’s Apollo Space mission in 1969.

But short of landing a man on the moon, what can everyday people and businesses do to play a role in expanding clean water access around the world? My recent Design Workshop with Professor Youngjin Yoo offers some clues.

Professor Yoo asked us to take pictures of our water use for five days and review them for patterns. While a few pictures captured water’s beauty, the majority captured mundane scenes from our bathrooms and kitchens, places where the water we use is not really visible. In these cases, water is part of the background or hidden by plumbing. Even our household water bills cannot truly capture our water use, reporting use in foreign sounding units or simply estimating our use. Before coming to Weatherhead, one of my last projects at work revolved around a municipality’s struggle to accurately estimate water use by residents and businesses. Their old meters always underestimated the customers’ bills, leaving the city to cover the enormous difference in cost. Now that the city has replaced the meters, customers are seeing the real cost of their use for the first time and they are upset by the increases in cost. In the Weatherhead workshop, we designed a water meter that would connect each water outlet to a sensor and an app which would show (in gallons) how much water your family, neighborhood, and community used and how it was used. Whether your goal is to conserve water or to reduce your water bill, it’s clear that just being able to comprehend the volume is a good first step.

The environmental challenges of our time are not only opportunities to transform our public institutions; they also represent new profits and investment potential. A company could easily design this water new system and municipalities and utilities would gladly buy it for the right price. It could also attract a new kind of investor. As James Osborn of Envest Asset Management discusses in his Investopedia article, investors are increasingly concerned about the way their funds are managed and whether they are investing in socially responsible endeavors. Osborn states, "In 2016, SRI/ESG made up over 20% of the $40 trillion money management market."

Could understanding the amount of water we use lead to questions about where the water comes from, how much we actually need, and how to improve access for others? It’s an opportunity worth exploring, and I’m thankful to be at the Weatherhead School of Management to start to unpack it.

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