As a sector, we are moving towards a new interconnected future, where assets in water systems are constantly generating data. These smart solutions generate a deluge of information pointing to different management departments. This flow of bytes leads to many questions: What do we want to improve? How do we set objectives and measure whether a solution meets the objectives? How do we migrate existing protocols to new data capture and management systems?
We would like to think that these issues have been properly considered before any project specifications are drafted, but that is not always the case. Among other reasons, political pressures to innovate as a Smart City, the interests of small groups of staff within an isolated department, and R&D incentives can guide the implementation of smart solutions without a robust, thorough strategy aimed at a long lasting technological evolution. This complexity around digital transformation is also used as an internal excuse to justify inaction without operational improvements.
Since technology, its subsequent operational risks and the needs of each operator change at different paces, it is useful to focus on what you can isolate to justify a digitalisation project. First, there are financial aspects: how much can be saved in terms of water, energy, labour costs, etc.? How long is the payback period of the investment in hardware or software? How much will internal changes to transition to this new solution cost? This approach must also take into account the citizens: Will the clients' experience improve?
Service providers do consider these aspects, but the peculiarities of each operator and network resist comparisons of results between projects. Bluefield Research has analysed more than 300 smart water contracts related to the Internet of Things in more than 10 countries, to compare them. Some conclusions follow:
- Regulations are missing, but they do not guide action: Aside from the United Kingdom, few markets provide incentives for IoT innovation, and regulations in the EU or by the EPA in the US move forward at a very slow pace in comparison with technological improvements. Therefore IoT projects are based on concrete local needs.
- The resource is the driving force: The proliferation of smart meters, acoustic sensors to detect leaks, smart pressure valves and data loggers is driven by resource scarcity in several markets, such as California, Texas, Australia, some Spanish cities, and the Middle East. In these markets, leaks translate into financial terms more easily, and IoT projects are part of the strategies to reduce unaccounted-for water. Likewise, excess water as floods requires urban resilience programmes with an increasing focus on IoT solutions.
- There is nothing better than a culture of continuous improvement and environmental awareness. Even if water resources are scarce, that does not always translate into a robust IoT strategy and the deployment of new solutions. The internalisation of costs and a corporate culture applied to the public sector stimulate the digital transformation of operators. And if that culture is missing at the national level, it is even more essential at the municipal level, with network managers that are willing to innovate.
Now is a good moment to reflect upon these project drivers, considering 5G. Ultimately, technological solutions and their facilitators, such as the 5G protocol, are much more abundant than IoT contracts in the water sector. The shutdown of old 2G/3G networks and the transition to 5G will gradually pass by, and the use of new connected devices will be optimised. This data transmission innovation is important for the Internet of water assets, but it will need to come together with basic project drivers, such as regulations, resource scarcity/excess, and an innovation culture, that should underpin it.