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Why a 'no-collar' workforce will enable water's digital transformation

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  • Why 'no-collar' workforce will enable water's digital transformation

Utility workforces are being driven to adapt and learn new skills to keep up with the digital transformation which will result in a hybrid human-and-machine environment, according to a new white paper from the IWA on digital water.

Robotics will not displace human workers but automate repetitive, low-level tasks

Embracing a hybrid human-and-machine environment

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will not displace most human workers and instead will provide opportunities to automate some repetitive, low-level tasks in the water sector.

That’s according to a new white paper from the International Water Association (IWA) entitled ‘Digital Water: Industry leaders chart the transformation journey’.

The paper describes the need for a hybrid human-and-machine environment that will require redesigning jobs and reimagining how work gets done, referred to as a ‘no-collar' workforce.

Currently, utility workforces are being driven by the development of digital technologies, requiring them to adapt and learn new skills to keep up with the pace of utility evolution.

In addition to recruiting new talent proficient in information technology, companies need to train existing employees and attempt to continue to operate and adjust to new systems seamlessly.

The need for emotional intelligence

Despite the changes, utility workforces can rest assured that they will always be needed.

According to the IWA, human capital will always be necessary for both physically developing water infrastructure networks as well as installing digital technologies.

It added that intelligent automation solutions might be able to augment human performance by automating certain parts of a task, thus freeing individuals to focus on more human-necessary aspects, ones that require empathic problem-solving abilities, social skills and emotional intelligence.

Despite the characteristics and strengths of people continuing to excel with machine alternatives, the white paper outlined examples where digital technologies reduced the need for manual workforces.

VA Tech WABAG was referenced as previously needing between 10 and 15 operators for projects. With digital technologies, which it said can help to reduce labour, streamline operators and minimise human errors, it now only requires three to four for the same projects.

“This freed up personnel for other, more demanding tasks requiring human interaction, emotion, decision making and complex skill sets,” said Gyanendra Saxena, VP of VA Tech WABAG India.

The role for virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) were also mentioned in the paper a way to benefit the water utility workforce by reducing risk and saving billions in maintenance costs, engineering tests and innovation.

The technology can allow users to test or simulate real-world situations without the usual dangers or costs associated with large engineering projects.

Digital Water Adoption Curve

The white paper is based on interviews, surveys and inputs from nearly 50 utility executives to find out how digitalisation is transforming the water sector through the experiences of water and wastewater utilities.

These utilities have reached different levels of maturity and can be along the ‘Digital Water Adoption Curve' - a synthesised view of how utilities are adopting digital technologies.

There are five stages to the curve: not started, basic, opportunistic, systematic and finally, transformational.

Utilities at the early development stages are focusing efforts on implementing software platforms and smart meters. Meanwhile, more digitally mature utilities have incorporated technologies like VR and big data into automated processes and decision making, helping to run smart solutions.

Multiple utility case studies were referenced in the paper, including Ghana Water, with chief technology officer Richard Appiah Otoo quoted as saying: “The world is moving in the direction of technology and Ghana Water cannot afford to be left behind.”

The Taipei Water Department is listed as a digital success story in Taiwan. Turning to digital solutions after a severe drought in 2002, the company adopted sensors, smart meters and pressure control systems that it attributed to the greater Taipei area not experiencing a water shortage for 17 years.

The dawn of digital

The paper has been designed as a roadmap for utilities to assess where they are in their digital journey, and what steps they can take to cultivate their digital maturity.

It also lays the foundation of the newly launched IWA Digital Water Programme, which is a gateway for water utilities to access knowledge on research, technology and innovation in the digital water space.

Concluding, the white paper set out a strong statement and advice for water utility digital transformation: “Water and wastewater utilities must embrace digital solutions. There is really no alternative.”

“The dawn of the digital water economy will prove transformational in enabling the water sector and its customers to transition towards a new paradigm for urban water management,” said Kalanithy Vairavamoorthy, executive director of the IWA.

He added that embracing digital innovation will “prove transformational in positioning the water sector and its customers for resilience and efficient economic development, finding sustainable pathways for people and systems to persist, adapt, and transform in the face of change”.

The topic of digital water transformation will be explored together with the IWA in the new Aquatech Innovation Forum. For more information and to download your copy of the white paper from the IWA, click here.

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