Plotting a path to a digital water future

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Water utilities face a challenge to make the most of the increasing opportunities offered by digital technologies. Here we review a new report produced in collaboration between IWA and Xylem Inc. offers guidance. Plus The Source gathered messages for water utilities from some of those who provided input to the report – Avishek Chaudhuri of Tata Consultancy (see below), Al Cho of Xylem, and George Bauer and Akanksha Sharma of GSMA.

Peer progress with digital transformation

Key lessons for scaling the digital water adoption curve

For any single water utility, a move to use the growing number of digital technologies is likely to represent innovation, with all the challenges and demands this presents. That move can be helped and inspired by knowing what utility peers around the world are doing. ‘Digital water: industry leaders chart the transformation journey’, the new report produced in collaboration between IWA and Xylem Inc., offers precisely this input.

Digital technologies can be integrated at any point in the water cycle – the digital water value chain. They range from sensor, monitoring and forecasting technologies through to an expanding array that includes data processing, use of blockchain, and augmented and virtual reality and digital twins. Delivery and use of this links an ecosystem of stakeholders in digital water.

The report draws attention to the potential for these technologies to transform the world of water and wastewater, bringing operational, financial and community benefits, as well as strengthening resilience. Examples include the integration of artificial intelligence and robotics, or monitoring the performance of green infrastructure. Beyond the utility, they can support or help drive the growth of decentralised infrastructure.

To help utilities navigate their digital journey, the report brings together the input of utilities and wider contributions to set out a digital water adoption curve. Utilities can locate themselves on that curve and anticipate the path ahead.

The phases of maturity on the curve run through not started, basic and opportunistic to systematic and transformational. These phases are illustrated from a water sector perspective in terms of the characteristics a utility may have. For example, ‘analytics tools utilised for process optimisation’ is a characteristic of the mid-ranking ‘opportunistic’ stage, and ‘advanced analytics used for decision making’ is a characteristic in the advanced ‘transformational’ stage.

There are also suggestions for actions at each stage on how to move up the maturity curve. These start with first actions such as acknowledging digitalisation as a business priority, up to exchanging best practices with other utilities.

Key lessons

The key lessons from the utility peers are brought together in six overarching actions: set ambition at the CEO and Board level; build a holistic digital roadmap; build curiosity for new technologies; leverage pilots; develop architecture for data use; and collaborate with utility peers. Allied to this, a digital approach needs to be built into the utility’s organisational culture.

Utilities do of course face challenges when looking to accelerate the adoption of digital water technologies. There is the challenge of overcoming data silos and of integrating systems, especially legacy systems. There are human resources challenges, as well as a need define as clearly as possible the benefits to be gained when justifying investment. The report draws attention to these and the additional issue of cybersecurity.

Acceleration can be stimulated and supported by regulations and public policy, and understanding how to identify the right data to use in applications. External triggers such as drought may spark a drive to seek innovative solutions, and in any case generational changes will contribute to a shift towards digital approaches.

Digital technologies are already transforming the water sector. An ecosystem of stakeholders will drive this further, and water utilities have a crucial role to play in this progress.

More information: ‘Digital water: industry leaders chart the transformation journey’, authored by Will Sarni, Cassidy White, Randolf Webb, Katharine Cross and Raul Glotzbach, is available at www.iwa-network.org

The utility drive to improve data use

Avishek Chaudhuri of Tata Consultancy Services highlights the need for a digital road map

Avishek Chaudhuri, water industry advisor with Tata Consultancy Services, notes that water utilities generally “are not aware, not very good, at handling the data they have”. The industry collects masses of data. On a scale of 1 to 5, compared to banks, who he says are at 5 and completely on top of their data, he sees water utilities at “1 or 1.5 in that scale”.

The water sector has the opportunity to leverage digital technologies to become proactive, identifying when assets are likely to fail and determining which properties will suffer pressure problems, for example. Such use would pre-empt unwanted customer contacts and reduce industry costs on responses. This is “very, very much achievable and can be done,” he adds.

Chaudhuri notes that customers are generally unaware of their consumption, either because they do not have meters or the means to know how they compare with the average in their area. Without data, there is no baseline for improvement or for a water company to ask customers to reduce consumption. Given the digital technologies now available, and the ability to move data to the cloud, he sees that basic analytics can be run on data from metered customers, and customers can then use a portal to see bills, pay online, raise complaints, and so on.

Using digital technology such as mobile apps for capturing data, using low-cost sensors for water balance, and narrow band Internet of Things (IOT), can help water utilities to move up the 1 to 5 scale. “The technology is there, but there is a wider collaboration and business change involved in that as well,” he says.

There is a lack of incentive for water utilities to use data to the fullest, because most operate on a cost-centred basis, Chaudhuri believes. The conundrum is the expense of the network compared to the cheapness of the water product supplied. He sees also that water utilities do not have the discretionary spend of other sectors, meaning adoption has been slow.

Chaudhuri sees that adoption will be very specific to individual water companies or utilities depending on their aims for two, five or ten years hence. This is because priorities differ. Some may see low bills as the priority. Others strive to make operations more efficient and provide a better service. He has seen a significant change in the UK, for example, over the last two years, in terms of approach and in the way utilities embrace new technologies.

The digital road map

In general, Chaudhuri sees that water utilities “should have a very clear path or road map towards where they want to be, and then map the technologies on there, how they want to do it, and what they want to do.”

Chaudhuri adds that, long-term, “a very clear road map is very, very essential and we don’t see that now.” He sees different silos – one part looking at customer experience, another at regulatory compliance and reporting, and a third, in private companies, focused on shareholders.

“What the water companies need to do is, at some point, merge all of these,” says Chaudhuri. “That can be with changing of the processes, implementing new technology, or – I’ll be brutally honest here – just by changing an individual at critical decision-making points within the water company or making them think differently.”

Today, with digital technologies and the new possibilities that have opened up, this has become very easy compared to ten years ago, he concludes. “There are examples in the power sector, in telecoms, in banking and finance. They have used this technology to go up the maturity curve.”