The Internet of Things, digital twins, smart water meters and other innovative technologies deliver countless benefits for utilities and cities around the world, from cost savings to water conservation. Even more so now during the health crisis when workforces many times have had to work remotely. Cisco, a leader in IT, networking, and cybersecurity solutions is collaborating with water utilities and ecosystem partners globally to deliver state-of-the-art solutions that make a meaningful impact. To learn more about the company’s avant-garde technologies and its predictions for smart water technology in the coming years, we caught up with Sielen Namdar, Industry Solutions Executive with Cisco’s Connected Cities & Communities and leader of the company’s Global Smart Water Strategy.
Firstly, we would like to briefly know your career path and your current role.
In my role as Cisco’s Global Smart Water Lead, I was charged with building the smart water business when I was hired in 2018. Today our team is helping water utilities achieve their goals by leveraging digital technology to derive actionable intelligence and operate their facilities more efficiently. I also serve as the Chair of the Americas Partnership Group for Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN). Prior to 2018, I spent 20 years at Jacobs Engineering (legacy CH2M) where I developed industry sector partnerships and facilitated complex cross-business multidisciplinary teams to implement innovative and sustainable solutions for water utilities. I also co-founded CH2M’s Smart Cities Initiative, working in collaboration with agencies, technology leaders, and ecosystem partners. I’m a Professional Civil Engineer and hold bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from the University of Washington. For the past year, I have been serving as a coach and mentor for the Seattle Leadership Tomorrow Program, a civic leadership organization focused on exploring strategies for positive change that cross sectors and silos to foster healthy communities.
Utilities can identify their key areas of challenge and goals that they want to achieve, then build small pilots for specific use cases
You recently said that by not having technology, “it’s almost like driving in the fog and not seeing what’s around you.” However, the health crisis has made the smart water market unclear. What are your predictions for the future?
The state of the smart water market is clear from Cisco’s interactions with water utilities. What we see is a renewed urgency to build and implement smart water technologies. According to Bluefield Research in the COVID-accelerated growth scenario, the US and Canada digital water market is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 8.7% between 2019 and 2030, compared to 6.5% in Bluefield’s pre-crisis Steady Flight forecast.
During the pandemic it has become clear that the utilities that have invested in digital technology including IoT networks and robust cybersecurity protocols have fared much better as they have had to switch to remote workforce and remote operations overnight. In addition, COVID-19 has necessitated utilities to operate and maintain their facilities 24/7 with reduced revenues due to cities shutting down and moratoriums on water utility shutoffs due to non-payment. These have resulted in water utilities recognizing that prioritizing and investing in smart water technologies is one of the key foundations of building a resilient future. One of the most important benefits of digital water is asset visibility and optimization, which can bring the much-needed ROI to water utilities in these challenging times and beyond.
It is imperative for water utilities to perform a thorough assessment of their systems and assets and understand their vulnerabilities
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most water utilities have put continuity plans in place. How do you think digitalization is helping companies continue to deliver water and wastewater services?
Operating and maintaining water facilities 24/7 has been a challenge in the current environment. For example, several water agencies across the US such as Knoxville County Utility, opted for sheltering in place at the water facilities as the pandemic unfolded, creating ‘Quaranteams’, assuring business continuity and availability of clean drinking water. This has worked in the short term. As requirements for balancing the health of the workforce and operations continuity persist, utilities are revisiting their resilience and continuity strategies, and leaning into enabling secure remote operations using technology. Digital technology not only enables water utilities to monitor and control their assets remotely in a secure manner, but also enables real-time visibility that can help operate and maintain their facilities more efficiently and cost-effectively.
What types of digital tools are advanced companies implementing and what is your advice for those just getting started in their digital journey?
Some of the key digital water solutions that are being implemented include advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), water loss detection, water quality monitoring, SCADA modernization and cybersecurity, condition-based monitoring, and digital twins. I’m very excited that Cisco offers these solutions to our utility customers enabling them to leverage real-time data to derive business intelligence, optimize assets, increase efficiencies, and build resiliency.
As users, devices, and distributed applications have grown in number, the networking environment has become exponentially more complex
The important thing is to get started, no matter how small. Utilities can identify their key areas of challenge and goals that they want to achieve, then build small pilots for specific use cases. The pilots can then be scaled across the utility to make a meaningful impact. Cisco offers two sources of funding to accelerate adoption of smart water. We partner with water utilities and build innovative pilots leveraging these funds, setting the stage for future scaling of these solutions globally.
Security is a major factor for water utilities. What are the key approaches for water utilities to identify cyber vulnerabilities? And do you think the water industry is prepared to deal with digital threats?
Cybersecurity is a major challenge and top of mind for water/wastewater CIOs. Implementing intelligent water/Internet of Things (IoT) solutions in addition to the recent need for remote workforce/remote operations have resulted in water systems not being airtight, opening the door to substantial cyber risks.
It is imperative for water utilities to perform a thorough assessment of their systems and assets and understand their vulnerabilities, followed by devising a robust plan for ensuring cybersecurity throughout their digital implementation efforts. Protecting assets requires a holistic defence-in-depth security approach that addresses internal and external security threats. Zero-trust networking is an effective model that addresses this challenge. The idea that just because one has access to the network, does not mean that one inherits trust. When it comes to Industrial Control Systems (ICS), it is paramount to minimize exposure. Having a clear and well-defined separation of the Operations Technology (OT) environment, enterprise network, and the cloud enables utilities to employ broader protections in each part of the network.
How does Cisco’s intent-based approach transform organisation’s network and data centers?
As users, devices, and distributed applications have grown in number, the networking environment has become exponentially more complex. Intent-based networking (IBN) transforms a hardware-centric, manual network into a controller-led network that captures business intent and translates it into policies that can be automated and applied consistently across the network. The goal is for the network to continuously monitor and adjust network performance to help assure desired business outcomes. Cisco is a leader in this field. Cisco Network Assurance Engine (NAE) transforms operations in data center networks to a fundamentally more proactive model. Built on Cisco’s patented network verification technology, it is the most comprehensive assurance engine that mathematically verifies the entire network for correctness, giving operators confidence that their network is always operating consistent with intent.
Our team is helping water utilities achieve their goals by leveraging digital technology to operate their facilities more efficiently
What trends do you think will define smart cities these coming years?
Smart cities implementation will undoubtedly be accelerated post COVID-19, and most likely cities will take a holistic approach to define how to meet the needs of their communities using digital technology, from utilities, transportation, public safety, and environment, to education, healthcare, and social equity among others.
The key element to consider is that business as usual is no longer sustainable for cities and communities. There is not enough funding to solve all challenges through building new grey infrastructure, and a large percentage of public sector staff is about to retire in the next five to ten years leaving a large knowledge gap. Smart cities technologies have the power to help optimize assets, bring business insight to decision-makers, contribute to increased efficiencies, and bridge the social equity gap leading to healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient communities.
During the pandemic, utilities that have invested in digital technology including IoT and cybersecurity protocols have fared much better
As well as leading Cisco’s Global Smart Water business, you are also chair of SWAN. Could you tell us a bit about this endeavour?
Yes, I’m honoured to serve as SWAN’s Americas Chair of Partnerships. Our goal is to accelerate smart water and wastewater development in North and South America through the SWAN Forum’s collective industry expertise and collaborative partnerships. This is achieved through joint-workshops, webinars, conferences, and collaboration with water utilities, national water associations such as WEF, AWWA, NACWA, and universities and research organizations.