Market design can help solve global water scarcity. Here’s how

Water rights are often based on outdated, complex systems of ownership. - Image: REUTERS/Euzivaldo Queiroz/A Critica.

Professor of Humanities and Sciences, co-founder and Chairman of Auctionomics, Stanford Graduate School of Business
Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Auctionomics, Stanford University
  • Market design is an economic tool that can be used to create and refine marketplaces and exchanges to improve the allocation of scarce resources.
  • A successful initiative in the US to reallocate scarce radio spectrum demonstrates the power and potential of market design.
  • We outline how these methods can play a critical role in solving the problem of water allocation globally.

This is one of a series of articles written by Young Global Leaders with action-oriented ideas to improve the state of the world by 2030.

In 2010, the US faced a challenging allocation problem. Demand was surging for a resource vital to daily life, but the available supply was being used by incumbents that had built an important industry around it. Moreover, incremental transfers to new uses were impossible. Could new rules alleviate growing scarcities while respecting existing users’ rights and enable a voluntary, multi-party reallocation?

The resource was not water but radio spectrum – the electromagnetic frequencies used for wireless phone calls, smartphone data, and emergency communications. Demand for spectrum had grown as more people streamed movies, placed video calls, and used mobile apps. But because spectrum that would have been ideal for smartphone apps was taken up by a fragmented industry of TV broadcasters, there wasn’t enough bandwidth for mobile uses.

Our company, Auctionomics, advised the US Congress and Federal Communications Commission to solve the problem through a series of changes culminating in the Broadcast Incentive Auction. Spectrum would be bought back from less-valuable broadcast uses and resold for cellular applications, while generously protecting incumbents who wanted to continue their traditional uses. That auction, held in 2016 and 2017, acquired a large amount of spectrum, reallocated it to higher-value uses, and raised $19 billion in gross revenue.

What is market design and how can it be applied?

The success of this initiative demonstrates the power and potential of market design to create and refine marketplaces and exchanges to improve the allocation of scarce resources. The auction design was integrated with important legislative changes that made spectrum rights more easily exchangeable while allowing incumbents to continue operating with little or no disruption.

This approach is widely applicable, especially in environmental management. Additional new scarcities will require a reallocation of resources that pays close attention to both social and environmental challenges and the interests of existing users, who will resist changes they deem harmful.

Market design, which has emerged as an important subfield of economics in the past 25 years, provides new economic theory and related algorithms, evidence, and examples to help policymakers implement effective solutions.

—Paul Milgrom and Silvia Console Battilana.

Market design methods have already solved several important everyday problems of matching resources to users. Applications include internet advertising (seeing online ads that are appropriate and match your interests), organ transplantation (finding a compatible donor for a loved one), medical residency matching (connecting newly minted doctors their first job), and charitable food donations (stocking the local food bank with the most-needed items).

Policymakers can adapt the same theory and practices for new and evolving allocation problems. For example, market design can help address COVID-19 vaccine shortages by allowing exchanges of the ingredients and supplies (such as filters, tubing, and pharma bags) needed for vaccine production.

Likewise, financial instruments using cryptocurrencies have introduced decentralized designs with fully automated trading. Spectrum-license auctions will need to change again to accommodate 5G technologies and support small-scale internet-of-things and artificial intelligence applications. The success of cap-and-trade programmes – for carbon dioxide emissionsfisheries, and other environmental goods – will depend on how well regulators can define the products to be exchanged and set rules that encourage participation while achieving societal objectives.

Equitable allocation of water

Market design will also play a critical role in solving the problem of water allocation. Many of the world’s existing rights to freshwater – both surface water and groundwater – have already been granted and grandfathered in complex ways to cities, farmers, and industrial users. In some cases, each individual trade of these rights requires governmental approval; other jurisdictions prohibit such trading entirely.

These restrictions and historical rules have led to highly inefficient allocations. Water may be unavailable to towns that require more of it as they grow, even when those urban and residential uses are a hundred times more valuable than the rural ones they would supplant. Certain industrial firms whose rights are based on historical use may have an incentive to overuse water, even during droughts, to retain their rights to future allotments. Where trading of rights is limited or prohibited, poor price signals make it difficult even to assess which uses are most valuable. And water demand will increase and shift as climate change continues to upend historical usage patterns.

The success of the US radio spectrum auction points to a solution. Instead of revoking incumbents’ spectrum rights unilaterally, Congress redefined them in a way that made trading them possible and simple, and then allowed TV broadcasters to decide for themselves whether to continue their previous uses or decline to participate. The rights that were sold were then reconfigured to be suitable for new uses and efficient trading, while those that were unsold remained fit for existing purposes.

A similar reorganization of water rights could protect existing users not wishing to sell, while creating tradeable rights for others that would allow water to flow to its most valuable use. Any attempt to compel all current users to participate will likely be thwarted by legal and political opposition, but a fully voluntary market styled on the same principles as the one for radio spectrum could accommodate resisters while drastically improving the allocation of water rights. Moreover, policymakers could use a portion of the value freed by any reallocation to offset inequities – for example, by granting credits to rural towns or small agricultural producers so that they receive the water resources they need.

Allocating water efficiently and fairly will require innovation, collaboration, and regulation. In this and other domains, market design puts practical economic theory in the service of establishing rights and introducing effective rules and algorithms. That way, we can bring accommodate diverse market participants, harness new technologies, and maximize the public good.

This decade the world will likely witness more social, economic and environmental changes than over the last century. While the COVID-19 pandemic called for immediate reforms, the mainstreaming of stakeholder capitalism, the impacts of climate change, the escalation of next-generation technologies, and the empowerment of citizenship will pave the way for a ‘resetting’ of the global economy and social practices.

This article series presents pioneering, forward-looking, and action-oriented ideas that should be adopted up to 2030 to improve the state of the world. The WEF invited a group of individuals who have been selected as Young Global Leaders (YGLs) in the course of their careers. Authors include heads of government, business leaders and scientists, prominent intellectuals or civil society leaders.

On an annual basis and since 2004, the World Economic Forum identifies the world’s most promising leaders under the age of 40 — people driving innovation for positive change across civil society, arts, culture, government and business. This series, an initiative of the Forum of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum, harnesses the expertise and experience of this group of leaders.

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