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Digital water: the end of the beginning

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Will Sarni
Will is an internationally recognized thought leader on water strategy and innovation. He has been a sustainability and water strategy advisor to multinationals, water technology companies and NGOs for his entire career.

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  • Digital water: the end of the beginning

After a few months of processing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy and business, it is now a bit easier to start to draw conclusions and pose questions on what the future may hold for digital water. One my favorite quotes is from William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and credited with creating the cyberpunk genre, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed, yet.” For me it framed the state of digital water technology adoption pre-pandemic. I believe it still holds even while digital water technology solutions have garnered recognition as essential to keep water and wastewater utilities and industries operating. Digital technologies to monitor infrastructure asset performance and support workforces operating remotely are no longer optional (Why I am Doubling Down on Digital Water).

The recent report by Bluefield Research, Covid-19 Water Industry Impact - Navigating Toward Resiliency, clearly frames the impact of the pandemic on the water industry and the accelerated demand for digital technologies. It states, “The shelter-in-place orders highlighted utilities’ lack of preparedness to manage a remote workforce and monitor and operate assets from a distance. Utilities managers have abruptly come face-to-face with the need to invest in these systems going forward to be truly resilient in the face of unpredictable disaster situations.”

However, while we acknowledge that the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the water sector, we need to also double down on investing in the human aspect of digital technologies. There was a recent quote from a management consulting firm that said, “We are seeing three years of digital transformation in three months.” It is catchy but likely not really capturing the ongoing challenges in bringing digital water technologies to market and ensuring that a workforce has the capabilities to translate these technologies to enterprise value.

These challenges not only remain but have become more acute – workforces need to get up to speed quickly and technology providers must be crystal clear in their value proposition when facing the reality of the negative financial impacts of the pandemic.  The challenges identified in the International Water Association Xylem Digital Water Report remain as relevant as ever and require investment and a strategy to overcome them: systems integration and interoperability, human resources impact, financing solutions without a clear value proposition and cybersecurity.

The human resources dimension is the most critical

To better understand the HR challenges and opportunities with digital transformation, I recommend reading  The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation. The book lays out why an organization's response to digital disruption should focus on people and processes and not necessarily on technology. Based upon my experience, the most important conclusions from the research are: 1) digital disruption is primarily about people and that effective digital transformation involves changes to organizational dynamics and how work gets done; and 2) every organization needs to understand its “digital DNA” in order to stop “doing digital” and start “being digital.”

The key strategies in overcoming these challenges include; creating a digital roadmap and a clear business strategy, building an innovation culture and cultivating a digital ecosystem of stakeholders. Developing and executing these strategies is now urgent if we are to learn lessons from the pandemic and build a sustainable and resilient water sector and to achieve the goals of SDG 6: “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

The reality for solution providers and customers is that technologies don’t sell themselves.

While these challenges remain, I believe we are at the end of the beginning of the digital transformation of water. This new phase will truly be transformational.

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