Dr. Ken Rubin, Expert on Utilities of the Future, Encourages Water Professionals to Shape the Water Career of the Future

Dr. Kenneth Rubin, Managing Director of Rubin Mallows Worldwide Inc. and Managing Partner of American Infrastructure Holdings LLC

Dr. Kenneth Rubin, PhD, Managing Director of Rubin Mallows Worldwide Inc. and Managing Partner of American Infrastructure Holdings

Dr. Rubin is the Managing Director of Rubin Mallows Worldwide and Managing Partner of American Infrastructure Holdings. For more than 40 years Dr. Rubin has provided engineering, economic, financial, and management consulting services to public and private clients worldwide.
His concepts were incorporated into the report issued by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF) – “The Utility of the Future – A Blueprint” and the more recent “2015 Annual Report of the Utility of the Future.”

We asked Dr. Rubin to talk with us about the ‘Utility of the Future’ and how it impacts our daily lives as water workers – the collection system workers, pretreatment inspectors, treatment plant operators, mechanics, electricians and plant managers who take care of cleaning sewage every day.

The wastewater utility of the future contemplates a new business model. Instead of simply collecting, treating and disposing of municipal and industrial wastewater, the utility of the future re-imagines itself not as a manager of waste, but as a manager of valuable resources.

In this transition, clean water utilities become integral components of their local economy, ecology and community. They do this through: water reuse; conversion of biosolids to energy and other commercial products; nutrient recovery and reuse; generation of wind and solar energy; and green infrastructure to manage stormwater. There’s nothing to waste in wastewater anymore.

Dr. Rubin started by saying the study had not specifically addressed the impact or needs of plant level personnel in the study.

“Fundamental changes from simply ‘treating waste’ to ‘managing resources’ will be gradual, but will have to involve all utility personnel from top management to operators. Typically, the process starts with management setting their vision of the utility of the future, followed by planning, engineering, finance and operations effecting changes at the facility level. As changes come on line, utility managers typically reach out to the community and across the organization, engaging operators and plant personnel more fully. The push for innovation and efficiency filters through the entire organization,” he said.

He pointed out that changes in wastewater treatment are never quick, so there won’t be a dramatic change in day to day operations. Changes are incremental with long horizons, over decades.

“Plant managers, operators, maintenance personnel and other workers at the plant level are integral members of a utility’s structure. Employees don’t mind change, they mind being changed, and the transition from ‘managing waste’ to ‘managing resources’ feels like an upgrade — a win for the workforce, a win for the utility, a win for the economy, and a win for the environment, so this kind of change is generally welcomed,”  said Dr. Rubin.

He said that perhaps 90% of all US wastewater facilities have not implemented any changes at all, while 10% have moved towards implementing Utility of the Future projects.

“For those 10% that are implementing change, I see attractive opportunities for those working in the plants to influence change,” said Dr. Rubin. “Enlightened management involve operators and maintenance personnel in planning for the future, as well as providing cross-training opportunities, plus incentives for innovation for all levels of staff.”

“Dialogue at the plant level is important. At the organizational level it is easy to conceptualize projects, while implementing those concepts needs the cooperation of those who make sure the system operates on a daily basis.”

Traditionally, wastewater treatment was about managing risk and keeping a low public profile. “The old attitude was ‘Clean it up, never be in the newspaper’,” he said. “Part of the process of working towards the Utility of the Future is to open a dialogue with community leaders so that the conversation about ‘resource management’ is a positive one, and the utility can be an active participant in building greener, more livable communities with stronger economies.”

To do that, utilities cannot act alone; they must acknowledge and leverage what Dr. Rubin calls the Innovation Ecosystem.

Do you know what an innovation ecosystem is? It could be coming to your agency soon... (credit: Dr. Rubin)

Do you know what an innovation ecosystem is? It could be coming to your agency soon… (credit: Dr. Rubin)

The Innovation Ecosystem involves a network of contributors – technology developers, consulting engineers, regulators, the finance community, and professional organizations — all coalescing around taking, but managing, more risk. Managing risk means accepting and minimizing mistakes through education and insurance of one kind or another.

For the clean water workforce education provides reassurance innovation can be successful. Insurance can reduce the cost of mistakes while enabling innovators to enjoy all of the benefits of successes.

As an example, Dr. Rubin talked about the financing of treatment facilities, and how innovative procurement procedures can be used. One project, being run by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, for a 32 MGD water reuse project, is using a dual procurement plan, with solicitations for both design-build project delivery and delivery via a ‘Private Public Partnership’ (PPP) approach. They could choose one or both, depending on which of the proposed solutions offers the most innovative combination of risk management, cost, and speed of delivery. The keys for procurement of Utility of the Future innovations is to ask for solutions and reward innovation.

Dr. Rubin noted many California facilities have innovative thought-leaders  implementing the Utility of the Future. These leaders embody the attributes of embracing new partners, new technologies, showing leadership in the community and being self-sustainable.

Specific facilities he mentioned include East Bay Municipal Utilities District, Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority, Encina Wastewater Authority, and the Cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. He pointed out Orange County as one of the earliest leaders in innovation with water reuse for ground water replenishment.

When it comes to water projects - California leads in the sheer massiveness in the need for water/wastewater infrastructure investment (credit: Dr. Rubin)

When it comes to water – California leads the nation with a massive need for investment in water/wastewater infrastructure (credit: Dr. Rubin)

There are models out there for how to involve operations and maintenance personnel in ‘Utility of the Future’ discussions at the plant level. Communication and information sharing are an important aspect of any forward thinking group. Dr. Rubin mentioned the “Innovation Unit” at DC Water (in Washington DC) as an example of an innovation group that is comprised of, and open to all levels of plant personnel. From the ‘big picture’ executives to the maintenance personnel who need keep the place running.

The objective of the ‘Utility of the Future’ initiative is to raise awareness that will inspire action. The action will take place at all levels.

Dr. Rubin recently spoke at the California Association of Sanitation Agencies’ (CASA) spring conference. Download his presentation here.

About the Author

Megan Barillo

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