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"Inclusive human-technology partnerships will empower the virtual organization of the future"

Published in SWM Bimonthly 12 - April 2022
SWM Bimonthly 12

Rebekah Eggers has extensive experience in energy, environment & utilities, with current responsibility for technical innovation, though her background includes solution development, product and management consulting.

Passionate about technical innovation, she says her clients are her inspiration. Meet Rebekah Eggers, a sought out strategic advisor whose various roles include responsibility for IBM Americas Technical Innovation Team for Energy, Environment, & Utilities, as well as sitting on the Board of Directors at Woodard & Curran, being an executive advisor for Digital Water City and One Water Academy, and more. With a track record of leadership for solutions that leverage data and analytics and improve operational efficiencies, we hear from her on the latest digital innovation trends in the water industry.

Can you tell us briefly about your career path and what it means for you to work on water issues?

I have been in Energy, Environment & Utilities for my entire career, 20+ years now amazingly, with current responsibility at IBM for Technical Innovation, though my journey includes solution development, product and management consulting. I hold a handful of advisory positions and am a connector at heart. I am inspired by my clients, many of whom are committed to leaving the world a better place, and believe that the combined power of science, innovation, technology, and culture can drive superior outcomes for future generations.

How can digital solutions contribute to addressing water challenges?

Technology has come a long way in recent years.  It's estimated in the first months of the pandemic we made 5 years’ worth of progress in terms of "digital solutions" and we'll progress 10 more years in the coming 2. However, it's important how you define digital. Simply shifting our processes in the water space from manual/paper/physical to digital is not the answer. How we incorporate design thinking to reimagine water and wastewater processes in light of available technologies will go a long way to improving efficiencies, ensuring reliability, and affecting safety, security, and equity.

It's important how you define digital: shifting our processes in the water space from manual/paper/physical to digital is not the answer

What role do you see for AI in water services delivery?

AI and its partner, automation, present huge potential for the water services delivery. This is, AI defined as 'augmented' intelligence that takes on dull, dirty, or dangerous tasks and frees humans up for higher-level work. We have no choice, given current workforce dynamics, but to turn to automation. However, it is not technology alone that will solve our industry's greatest challenges, but rather the human-technology partnership that is required to achieve the desired outcomes. 

By implementing new systems and tools with empathy and intentionality, leaders can invoke the collective best of machines and humans

Digitization introduces challenges for traditional workflows, as tasks once performed by people are reimagined and implemented by machines. Resistance and fear are likely to surface. But, if implemented thoughtfully, technology can improve both efficiency and the workforce experience. Inclusive human-technology partnerships will empower the virtual organization of the future. They support the corroborative potential of an organization's people and its ecosystems. By implementing new systems and tools with empathy and intentionality, leaders can invoke the collective best of machines and humans — optimizing outcomes, talent effectiveness, workforce diversity, and work-life balance.  As mentioned, this partnership alleviates the pain of tasks that are dirty, dull, or dangerous and frees up skilled resources for higher-value work.

How can cybersecurity concerns be addressed in the water sector?

This is a very timely question as the geopolitical situation in Ukraine unfolds and the cyber discussion is elevated to a new levelExperts in this field are indicating that we are entering a new era of cyber warfare, holding organizations across all industries in heightened vigilance status. The water sector's classification as critical infrastructure combined with the realities of our highly fragmented value chain demands the close monitoring of the escalating Russia-Ukraine war, including the evolving attacks and malware observed in the cyber domain as table stakes. The water sector must adopt best practices to help prevent, detect and respond to cybersecurity threats aligned to zero-trust frameworks. As world leaders and subject matter experts are anticipating threats of the likes that we have not seen before commercially, it is prudent to prepare for resiliencyIBM Security provides resources and continuous updates on the latest threat intelligence.

Could you comment on the opportunities blockchain technology can offer in the context of the water industry and new business models?

The water sector must adopt best practices to help prevent, detect and respond to cybersecurity threats aligned to zero trust frameworks

The three most promising scenarios in the near term around blockchain are supply chain management, asset tokenization, and digital identity. 

The supply chain scenario for advanced asset tracking in the domain of supply chain can answer some interesting questions – How might we keep track of the components that make up the devices provided by our vendor ecosystem? Who owns them? When have updates been made? Are there any cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the devices/assets that are already deployed in the field?  If there are vulnerabilities, where do we send alerts and take action?

Asset tokenization has the potential to assign value in the end to end stream. An example would be tracking and reporting groundwater use, where sensors transmit water extraction information and blockchain records the data exchanges or transactions. Blockchain could also be used to create "smart contracts," whereby transactions are automatically executed when the conditions are matched. This would allow water consumers, financers and regulators to monitor and track, but also Exchange "shares" compensating those with surpluses and assigning value for excess capacity, as shown in the example of how the State of California tackled drought with IoT & Blockchain..

Digital identity could allow us to track water quality via an authenticated source. This would allow for mass reporting of trusted water quality data and potentially address concerns around tap water safety. It would also alert stakeholders to issues and improve accountability.

Can you share a success story involving the application of digital technologies in the water industry?

I'd like to highlight the Digital Water City, a European Commission Horizon 2020 project. This is an initiative that I have been working with in an advisor capacity over the past 3 years. The teams are in the final year of effort to deploy 15 digital solutions across 5 cities in Europe with communities of practice (CoPs) established around cybersecurity, interoperability, digital governance and real-time control. The project partners and external stakeholders participate in the CoPs from 3 angles: local (city scale), intra-project (mutual exchange between the project cities' stakeholders), and trans-project level (among other Horizon 2020 projects).  

The three most promising scenarios in the near term around blockchain are supply chain management, asset tokenization, and digital identity

This level of collaboration is a best practice as cities across the globe face considerable challenges to achieve sustainable management of their urban water system. Digital technologies offer a variety of opportunities and solutions to tackle these challenges. works towards three main objectives for sustainable waste and sewage management: health protection, performance and return on investment, and public involvement. These focus on the digital solutions ranging from augmented reality to real-time monitoring and artificial intelligence and were developed in collaboration with diverse stakeholders.

What trends would you highlight in the digital transformation of the water sector?

An example of automation in the water sector is engineering design, where processes can be accelerated from 30 days to 4 hours

Stakeholders face unique challenges as they endeavour to meet the increasing demand for affordable, reliable, sustainable, equitable, and secure water services in an increasingly unpredictable world. These challenges come in many forms including aging assets, an aging workforce, the war for talent, and availability due to climate issues. Adding to the complexity, there's an increased number of sensors, IoT devices, drones, and mobile robots creating large volumes of unexploited data, and the growth of assets – 10x more assets than 20 years ago – spread out over a highly fragmented value chain. Yet, the sector is still lagging in terms of using the data that is available today. To address these challenges, leading utilities are evolving their asset maintenance and replacement strategy – which differs by asset class – towards a risk-based management model that combines AI and machine learning.  There is a clear opportunity in taking advantage of this wealth of data, finding the best balance between costs and risks, without sacrificing performance, and making data-driven decisions to reach affordable asset availability, reduce service interruptions, and improve mean time to recovery. 

  • The Digital Water City, a Horizon 2020 project, is in the final year of effort to deploy 15 digital solutions across 5 cities in Europe

Additionally, the way we work and interact with others is rapidly evolving, accelerated in recent years with the pandemic and the resulting virtualization of stakeholder (including customer and employee) interactions. New scenarios for work and collaboration, including the ability to do it in a hybrid environment across time zones, implore organizations to re-imagine legacy processes and create modern ones across the ecosystem with partners. Enterprises plan to entrust automation with complex, cross-enterprise work at 7 times the current rate by 2023, according to a recent Institute for Business Value study. An example of this in the water sector can be found in engineering design automation where the process can be accelerated from 30 days to 4 hours. With software-assisted capital planning, we can evaluate more options faster and free up engineers to evaluate outcomes. Where before we could produce and evaluate 3-4 designs, we can now consider those options but with 8-10 scenarios around each that take into consideration and test rapidly changing uncertainties in the environment, producing huge value creation. While technology is replacing tasks previously performed by humans, it's freeing talent up for higher-level work, creating new levels of efficiencies, and inspiring both experienced and youthful participants with more meaningful work.

Utilities are evolving their asset maintenance and replacement strategy towards a risk-based model that combines AI and machine learning

A Virtual Enterprise is emerging that embraces the new digital tools and ways of working that have become the norm in recent years. It leverages the accelerated reimagination of human-technology interfaces, including digital channels to stakeholders inclusive of customers and workforces.  Further, it highlights the imperative to establish new forms of leadership, inspiration, engagement, and connection in response to the recently elevated challenges of human empathy, creativity, and a sense of belonging that have come with increased hybrid ways of working. Successful Virtual Enterprises will be entities where leaders, employees, and stakeholders have a foundational trust in data and technology as key drivers of insight driven actions and the new rules for how we work. Digital workers and AI bots will make more decisions with greater impact. However, the ability to accomplish this in a way that is acceptable, actionable, and appropriate will be a challenge. Intelligent workflows can accelerate the virtualization of customer and employee interactions, shape enduring ways of working, and evolve into a meaningful competitive advantage that supports business value. New business models will emerge as virtual enterprises leverage a more inclusive and expansive ecosystem. We have all become more open to interacting with a broader network of people in this hybrid world – those who build on and sustain these new relationships once we "return to normal" will be positioned to thrive.

What do you see in the future of the water industry 20 years from now?

From what I have seen in the past 20 years, any attempt to predict the future has only one certainty – it's bound to be wrong! We should have flying cars by now, right? Absent of a crystal ball or clairvoyant abilities, we can turn to trend analysis to provide 'tea leave like' readings that may point to likely water sector predictions. Let's assume then that we can expect that despite best efforts, the climate crisis will to some degree continue to be a concern or area requiring great focus. If the disappointment expressed by the participating youth at COP 26 is any indication, younger generations will demand it and many of us feel an obligation to comply. In the worst case, continued or worsening drought, wildfires, and extreme water stress will continue to put pressure on aging infrastructure, despite improvements given newly available funding, but struggle to keep up. Absent end-to-end value chain oversight from an engineering perspective, solutions may be put in place that optimize for silos, but not the water sector ecosystem as a whole. Water distribution will continue to be a challenge with the potential that as a society we will be unable to support the nutrition and economic needs of an exponentially growing population. The water security discussion will expand beyond the 60 million Americans who don't drink tap water today due to accessibility and/or fear, whether or not substantiated. In addition, if the past few years are any indication, we may see more/continued pandemics, political unrest, war, crime, and careless pollution that exacerbate this doom, gloom, and uncertainty.

Collaboration across diverse industries and talent will give solutions we've never imagined and change the way that work is done

That said, I'm rooting for some promising trends that have the potential to deliver on the promise of a brighter future for generations to come! We're experiencing an unprecedented acceleration of technology adoption from AI, to Automation, and the emergence of the Virtual Enterprise that embraces the new digital tools and ways of working that have become the norm during the pandemic. The acceleration of efficiencies gained in technology supported supply chain advances, will not only improve the speed and experience of personal transportation and travel, but also that of critical supplies and goods. We will see a rise of empathy jobs in importance, pay, and interest elevating the roles of teachers and health care workers, as well as, sustainability purpose driven roles. There have been some impressive commitments to carbon neutrality, some even within the next 10 or so years, and fuel shift through the electrification of the industry is already underway with engaged participants capable of making significant impacts. In fact, 70% of global emissions can be addressed at the utility level and this work is in process. We're noticing a blurring of industry where for example concerning the electrification of transportation, we have automotive partnering with the public sector and electric utilities powered by a rise in focus on diversity and equality. This collaboration across diverse industries and talent will give ways to solutions we've never imagined and change the way that work is done. The open-source community will nurture a culture change driven by open access and the free exchange of information which will be embraced as we unearth all we can discover together. 

For the water sector, this means that solutions like desalination, direct air capture, hydro panels for vertical farms, and low cost highly distributed models are within reach. During COP 26, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pondered, "We have the technology, we can find the finances, but do we have the will?" Change is uncomfortable, transformation is challenging, but I'd like to believe we have the will.  And as management consultant Peter Drucker observed, "You cannot predict the future, but you can create it." So, let's create!