Thanks to Nicholaus Rohleder for penning his thoughts on the 9th WWF in Dakar.  This is part three of a four-part article.  The opinions expressed by Mr. Rohleder are his own and not necessarily representative of those of Global Water Alliance.

Technology Transfer & Local Economic Impact

by Nicholaus Rohleder

photo credit Center of Excellence in Environmental Technology


Infrastructure investment serves as a catalyst for economic development in host jurisdictions, and it is important that local jurisdictions ensure that the translation of that economic benefit and corresponding process knowledge remains. It is hard to imagine it now, but this same process was implemented in the development of the western world within the past two centuries. Given the urgent timeline, as per discussion at the forum, the aim now is to effectuate a copy and paste model using past learnings and flatten the industrialization and emissions curve in the developing world. This entails taking the unsustainable development model that occurred in the developed world and incorporating all aspects of sustainability and technology that we have access to today to ensure sustainable and equitable development. 

The forum stressed three levels of technology transfer and local economic impact. The first is at the mainline infrastructure level concerning large projects, the second is concerning balance of system and optimization projects and technology, and the third is concerning localized process knowledge and life enhancements. 

The first of its kind — Fairmount Water Works — Philadelphia, PA

In the case of mainline infrastructure, such as wastewater plants or desalination plants, beginning this process at the construction phase is crucial. The local government should ensure that a plan of action with respect to local economic development and workforce development is well-structured and implementable. This is the chief responsibility of a host jurisdiction governing body with respect to technology transfer and retaining economic benefit. From this point forward, a mix of a project management firm and an engineering, procurement, and construction firm (EPC), the two key service providers for a large water project, are responsible for crafting and implementing the local economic development plan.

Examples of companies active in this area in the water sector include Black & Veatch and Burns & McDonnell. While some jobs are high skill and require intensive training that takes considerable time in these jurisdictions, many of the jobs require minimal training in the construction phase and can create considerable immediate economic benefit.

The provider of the technology in a large project, which in the water sector would be a company similar to Suez, will likely retain the operation and maintenance contract after the project is commissioned and operating if the EPC does not do so. It is imperative that throughout the construction process, the technology provider, if taking this role, has taken it upon itself in conjunction with the local authorities, to appropriately train individuals to hold employment after construction is complete at the facility. This can be done in whole or part by the provider. In some cases, faith-based or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially universities and professional associations (ABA) have participated in sourcing the workforce with the jurisdiction, with the technology provider or EPC responsible for functional training. The most important part of this process, as stressed in the forum, is that when new infrastructure is built, the permanency of the infrastructure, which usually carries a useful life of at least 30 years, matches the permanency of the economic benefit for the host jurisdiction. 

The same model is applicable for balance of system and optimization projects in the water sector, but the process is slightly more complicated as the private sector participant entering the jurisdiction bears more responsibility and the skill set needed is different. Xylem is a good example of a company in this position. Xylem is engaged in the design, manufacture, and servicing of engineered products and solutions for the water and wastewater sectors globally. The company sells the following products: water, stormwater, and wastewater pumps, controls and systems, filtration, disinfection, and biological treatment equipment. The company also sells pumps, valves, heat exchangers, controls, and dispensing equipment systems.  

The bulk of these products comes with a software and controls package for operations and maintenance. Xylem is slowly building a presence in emerging markets, and one of the key considerations for local governments is to engage with a private sector actor such as Xylem to help field a skilled workforce specific to these products without the need of formal academic infrastructure such as a trade school or college. Due to the specialized nature of these products, and the fact that they are being distributed broadly versus centralized, as is the case with mainline infrastructure, a wholistic partnership to developing a workforce is warranted. As per dialogue at the forum, many of these products are critical supplementary items to local water systems. Xylem’s product ecosystem, as an example, constitutes the secondary ecosystem where economic benefit can be garnered through technology transfer and training that emanates from private sector participation in a water infrastructure buildout in the developing world. 

However, this assumes that some form of educational infrastructure is in place at the onset of construction of a project. Groups such as NGOs must ensure that proper education is in place for the mechanics of technology transfer and adaptation to actually occur in practice. Many communities have stark cultural and environmental differences, and fielding a tailored educational program that allows maintenance of infrastructure and physical operation of technology is exceptionally challenging. 

When thinking of this in the applicational context, it is important to separate process knowledge from technology knowledge. Process knowledge includes understanding how things work on a job site or with a widget, and technology knowledge refers to understanding the mechanics of the tool. The ideal public/private partnership in the developing world is heavy on funding the technology knowledge and implanting it into the community and leaning on local education resources to develop process knowledge to ensure permanency of impact. 

Lastly, many in the western world take for granted the quality-of-life enhancement that basic access to water and sanitation provides. In the developing world, much of this infrastructure and basic process knowledge is lacking and that has drastic public health consequences. For example, as mentioned prior, 25% of the world’s population lacks access to a toilet, and thus the knowledge of how to live with it, and by extrapolation, maintain it. 

Nicholaus Rohleder is a Co-Founder of Climate Commodities, a financial technology company that operates the largest digital marketplace for offtake contracts, feedstock contracts, and insurance solutions in addition to a critical minerals mining, processing, and refining business and solar + energy storage business in the renewable power sector; Co-Founder of the New American Energy Fund, a hedge fund focused on the climate technology supply chain and energy transition; serves as an Adjunct Professor at the Earth Institute and the Climate School at Columbia University teaching a course on life cycle analysis and materials science; an Alumni Board Member at the Earth Institute at Columbia University; a member of the production team for the Energy Policy Now Podcast at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy; a member of the Energy Technology Leadership Council at Tulsa Innovation Labs; and part of an economic development initiative funded by the $4 billion dollar George Kaiser Family Foundation. Mr. Rohleder received a Master of Environmental Studies with a concentration in Environmental Engineering and Technology from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Science in Sustainability Management with a concentration in Environmental Finance from Columbia University, and is a former Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree.