On my way home from the AWRA conference in Orlando I sat next to a fellow on his way home from the IAAPA Expo (International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions), which had taken place at the Orange County Conference Centre the same week. Even though he slept for most of the 7 hours we sat next to each other, I did learn a thing or two while he was awake.
There were 35,000 people at the amusement park convention and the expo was so large that the distance to walk around all of the vendor booths was 9 miles!
It is hard for me to grasp the scale and the meaning of this. There were, perhaps, 500 water professionals who could afford the time and money to come to the AWRA, a significant turnout for water professionals in North America.
Does this mean the water sector is worth less than what the theme park sector is worth?
Does this mean that the rate of change and hence the importance of knowledge sharing is far lower for water management than it is for amusement facilities?
I don’t think so. If all the amusement parks in the world shut down tomorrow people would soon adapt and find other ways to entertain their kids. However, if all of the water professionals in the world stopped working tomorrow it would not take long before all societies regressed to a primitive state, driven to despair by conflicts, hunger and disease.
We don’t normally think about all of the people, planning and logistics that are behind either the amusement park industry or the water security and sustainability sector. It doesn’t make sense that amusement parks should need 70 times as many people to get together in order to share ideas, innovations, technologies and best practices. They do so because they can afford to and it makes sense.
People are willing to pay for amusement.
The industry does not have to provide services for everyone – they only have to serve those able, and willing, to pay. This means that the business model can be optimized around increasing the willingness to pay and by targeting only sectors of the population with the ability to pay. It may not be fair that millions of people cannot afford to go to a theme park but they are not mandated to be fair.
Water is different.
Whereas the amusement park industry is profit-driven, the water sector is service-driven. There is profit to be made from the use of water itself but the provision of water data, information and knowledge is widely considered to be a common pool resource. Unlike an amusement park where a gate can be installed to collect fees, data must be accessible in order to have value. Attempts at monetizing water data by restricting access to it invariably fail.
There can be many motivations for sending people to the IAAPA Expo but I expect that a key motivator is profit. The information gained by networking and sharing knowledge and ideas must substantially improve decision-making and reduce uncertainties in business planning and management.
What can we learn from this?
Could increasing the participation at water conferences improve the rate of innovation and the development and adoption of best practices? Could it lead to more effective collaboration amongst those with similar mandates and challenges? Could better knowledge sharing lead to better decision-making and hence better outcomes from a watershed scale all the way down to the end-of-pipe?
Most water agencies don’t have a line item in their budget for sending their working level staff to conferences. Maybe they should.
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