How water utilities apply digital innovation to drive growth strategy
On September 6, Envirosuite hosted with Smart Water Magazine a webinar with the title “How water utilities apply digital innovation to drive growth strategy”.
As digital innovation became a trend in the water industry over the last decade, different technologies overcrowded this digital space. It is crucial for water utilities to select and implement the technologies that work best for them in order to achieve the best possible outcomes.
The webinar brought together water utility and technology vendor perspectives to offer a detailed conversation on digitalization: what technologies are in the market, and how they can be applied to optimise service delivery and improve resilience.
Olivia Tempest, Content Manager at Smart Water Magazine and moderator of the event, introduced the webinar and Envirosuite, the global leader in environmental intelligence with headquarters in Australia. In a live dialogue, three panelists shared their perspectives on how water utilities can make digital technologies work for their organizations and drive forward their business objectives.
The webinar brought together water utility and technology vendor perspectives to offer a detailed conversation on digitalization
The three panelists were Daniel Lambert, Executive Manager, Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions at UnityWater, bringing the unique perspective of a water utility that provides essential water supply and sewage treatment services in parts of Queensland; Chaim Kolominskas, Manager of EVS Water – Envirosuite’s suite of solutions focused on improving environmental and operational performance in the water industry, and Jide Fadero, EVS Water Lead for EMEA at Envirosuite.
Olivia launched into the conversation with a broad question: what does the digital transformation mean for water utilities around the world? Daniel Lambert noted the importance of understanding the context: the core business of water utilities is to provide reliable and safe water and wastewater services to customers. Faced with challenges such as growing populations, climate change, etc. digital transformation is about using digital technology to respond and innovate better ways of delivering services, including improving services to customers as well as environmental benefits, and preventing issues.
Chaim Kolominskas added that while transformation has so far focussed on collecting, storing and displaying data, there is now an opportunity to use that information in a way that drives improvement in operational and environmental performance. In fact, he thinks that Envirosuite’s business really started taking off after they started to understand what translating information into something useful really meant from a product design point of view: what information, in what form, in whose hands and with what frequency are really important factors when implementing a digital transformation.
Water utilities can conduct digital technology reviews to ensure that the most relevant and most modern and cost-effective digital technologies are implemented
The dialogue moved on to talk about the risks of going digital and how water utilities can address them and benefit from implementing digital solutions. Jide Fadero pointed out regulatory risks, so the introduction of new regulations that utilities were not planning for or their strategies do not align with, forcing them to reassess their strategies in order to adapt. He mentioned the example of some water utilities in the UK focused on the sewage network, which have to adapt to a new Environment Agency regulation that calls for the utility to understand the quality of the wastewater before it is released. Other risks include the cost of digital technologies; after a successful pilot, deploying a technology fully across their assets may be quite expensive. To address this, water utilities can conduct digital technology reviews to ensure that the most relevant and most modern and cost-effective digital technologies are implemented. Data protection is another obvious risk.
Dan outlined some of the risks from a utility perspective: not having a clear strategy, lack of collaboration between utilities and technology providers, and not investing in knowledge and appropriate capacity building. Also, challenges around costs and quality of data, with increased costs due to more data being stored and consumed. He also cautioned about the risk of investing in technology that becomes obsolete or requires significant investment, thus becoming a burden on the utility.
While digitalization enhances decision-making efficiency, it also enables predictive analytics, one of the things where there is currently a lot of investment in the industry
Next, when asked whether they thought digitalization is directly connected with improved efficiency for water and wastewater utilities, some interesting examples were provided. Dan thinks there is evidence to support that, for instance in trials done with 10,000 digital meters on their assets, data shows efficiency improvements in things like non-revenue water. He emphasised the need to make sure you have the right technology for the right purpose and context. While digitalization enhances decision-making efficiency, it also enables predictive analytics, one of the things where there is currently a lot of investment in the industry, to focus efforts based on predictions of where breakages and bursts might occur. Chaim added efficiency and digitalization are definitely connected, and mentioned examples from projects Envirosuite is working on in South East Asia. In one of those projects, information already available at the plant combined with near-real-time and predictive modelling is used to work out exactly how much coagulant is needed at a drinking water facility, without the need to involve the laboratory at all, thereby saving in chemicals and labour; that can be scaled up to the whole treatment plant.
In another example from a sewer network in Australia, using information that is routinely collected, complemented with some modelling, it is possible to map risks related to corrosion and build-up of methane and sulfides across the whole network and avoid any incidents, which can be costly and be extremely disruptive and dangerous, as well as reduce the amount of monitoring. Efficiency gains can be tied to the concept of digitalization and seen across the whole industry, he said.
A clear strategy, plan and roadmap is really helpful to prioritize and identify the right types of technology applicable at the right stages of the journey
Olivia then dove right into the gist of the discussion: since digitalization encompasses countless solutions, how can water utilities and operators know which technologies are best suited for their specific needs? Dan noted the importance of understanding the current state of a utility, and what we would like the future state to be, to focus on the technologies and solutions that can help get there. In this regard, a clear strategy, plan and roadmap is really helpful to prioritize and identify the right types of technology applicable at the right stages of the journey. Jide agreed, and added that those objectives and goals come from what the utility has internally planned for growth, but they should also align with what third party regulatory bodies have planned, for example, in the UK, the Environment Agency or Ofwat. You can then plan and come up with projects, and select the digital technologies to help achieve those goals and objectives.
The conversation then turned to the issue of applying new technologies to achieve the best outcomes. Jide provided an example of one of their customers, in charge of a sewage network in India with odour issues. They did a technology assessment to find the best technology to help them address the issue, and started collaborating with Envirosuite. Chaim noted that, in essence, applying new technology is about driving change through an organization. The experience at Envirosuite shows a couple of factors come up repeatedly, one is having an internal champion committed to driving improvements within the water utility.
At the same time, Envirosuite, as a vendor, puts a lot of time into understanding stakeholder needs within water utilities, which are often large organizations. In a project Envirosuite has recently worked on in Western Australia with pro-active odour management technology, they found it was crucial to spend time with different stakeholders – operations, planning, safety, environment, asset strategy – during the delivery of the technology, and listen to their feedback. He stressed that the example translates to the whole business and the best innovations that they have delivered to the market, which have come from listening to customers and translating that into product design.
From a utility point of view, Dan advised being ambitious but realistic, and not to try to reinvent the wheel, as vendors can sometimes do things better than a utility can, or already have experience doing it.
When utilities talk to external vendors, collaboration can lead to unique and innovative solutions
The speakers then discussed the importance of having in-house digital capability when it comes to implementing new digital solutions and ensuring the data generated can be turned into insights. Jide emphasised the importance of in-house digital capability, as utilities know what are the issues and their objectives. He noted a way for a utility to stay relevant is to know what’s relevant in the digital landscape, and suggested they continually survey the digital terrain to know when new technologies that have added value are on the market. When utilities talk to external vendors, collaboration can lead to unique and innovative solutions. Dan added that regardless of their in-house digital capability, no utility has the skills to solve all the problems in the most efficient and effective way, so partnerships with vendors and collaborations are key. Going through co-development, co-design and co-delivery processes, it is possible to get the best expertise from the vendor and apply it in a bespoke way. He added that having the right governance is also important to maintain oversight.
Finally, the discussion concluded on different approaches to embrace digitalization: is it better for utilities to start small, or to embrace digitalization completely, when starting from scratch? Chaim said while as a vendor they will be interested in utilities embracing digitalization completely, they often start small to prove the value of their products. He pointed out that utilities will want to see that an optimization solution can save money at one part of the treatment plant before expanding to the whole plant or deploying at multiple plants. He also remarked that digitalization is happening everywhere and it’s important for organizations to have a plan for where to go, and how to get there.
Dan suggested it depends on the type of technology and the type of solutions. He stressed that, regardless of whether it’s a small- or large-scale rollout, it is key to always have a clear way of monitoring progress, measuring success, and having governance and oversight, in order to ensure the success of projects.
The final part of the webinar was a question-and-answer period led by the moderator, where the speakers answered questions sent by the audience. Answering a question on the role of open-source data to enable innovation and shared efficiencies, Dan said the industry is still grappling with cybersecurity and other aspects around privacy; he noted he is an advocate for open sourcing data, but it has to be done the right way. Chaim said it definitely has a role in accelerating information, while pointing that historical information has a lot of value for vendors to test, and so, as a concept, it is worth pursuing, but of course, there are security concerns.
A clear way of monitoring progress, measuring success, and having governance and oversight, in order to ensure the success of projects
Asked about whether Envirosuite is more into Artificial Intelligence models or instrumentation, Chaim explained Envirosuite works in modelling solutions: machine learning, so artificial intelligence-based solutions, but also deterministic modelling, and really translating that information in a way that it is useful, while instrumentation is occasionally part of the solution. Jide added they sometimes partner with instrumentation vendors to provide a complete solution to clients.
Dan answered a question on digital development in the future and generating trust in the drinking water for the end user: communicating the risks and the approach to managing those risks in real-time to customers is going to be a really important mechanism for building trust. Jide noted the involvement of public relations from the part of the water utility side can help give confidence to the public as to drinking water quality and how digitalization helps maintain it, improve it, and keep it sustainable.
The speakers wrapped up with a last question on which technology is really making a difference in efficient water management in utilities, also with a look at the future. Chaim commented water efficiency, as well as variability in water quality, are areas driving interesting innovation, and noted there are huge opportunities in automation of decision making, so processing the information in a timeframe that is useful for decision-making. Jide added technologies that help with climate issues, and also energy consumption. Dan remarked that digital will play a role in the step changes in treatment and household-scale solutions, and cited net-zero water houses, net-zero water closed-loop systems, that will transform the whole industry, as the pipe networks, the treatment plants, and the current utility model would be thrown upside down.
Olivia thanked the panelists and informed the audience that the webinar will be available on demand.
Watch the webinar now on-demand.