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Dragan Savic: "Digitalization gives all actors in the water sector the enabling tools"

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  • Dragan Savic: "Digitalization gives all actors in the water sector the enabling tools"

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The International Water Association is the network of water professionals striving for a world in which water is wisely, sustainably and equitably managed.
Schneider Electric
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As part of our interviews on digitalization in the water industry, we interview​ Dragan Savic, Chair of IWA Digital Water Programme’s Steering Committee.

Professor Dragan Savic Freng is the CEO of KWR Water Research Institute, the Dutch drinking water companies’ collective research organisation. He obtained his PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Manitoba, Canada, in 1990, and then held a number of academic, consultancy and project management positions in Canada and his native Serbia, before relocating to the United Kingdom, where he co-founded the University of Exeter Centre for Water Systems in 1998.

The Centre is now recognised as a leading international research group for excellence in water and environmental science research. For over 20 years he co-led the Centre, which now has a staff of more than 80 and funding at any time exceeding 5 million pounds sterling (6 million euros).

In 2001 he became the UK’s first Professor of Hydroinformatics, holding this post until 2018 at the University of Exeter, where he was also the head of the Engineering faculty between 2010 and 2014.

In 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng), the highest honour for a UK engineer. He is also a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers (UK), a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (UK), and a Fellow of the International Water Association (IWA). He is currently Visiting Professor at the Universities of Bari (Italy), Belgrade (Serbia), IHE Delft (the Netherlands) and the Harbin Institute of Technology (China).
His research interests cover the interdisciplinary field of Hydroinformatics, which transcends traditional boundaries of water/environmental science and engineering, informatics/computer science (including Artificial Intelligence, data mining and optimisation techniques) and environmental engineering. The applications of his research are generally in the environmental engineering areas, including water resources management (both quality and quantity), flood management, water and wastewater systems, and environmental protection and management.

Question: The International Water Association (IWA) works towards a water wise world. What role does digitalization play to achieve this goal?

Answer: Digitalization is very much a part of this transition, as it gives all actors in the water sector the enabling tools. To begin with, improving a system requires understanding the whole system, which generally means the collection and processing of data towards insights, knowledge and eventually making informed decisions. When this is achieved, it can be used to better manage and/or (re)design systems, with a focus on efficiency, resilience, risk mitigation, sustainability, etc. Also, these data in combination with additional digital tools can be used to involve stakeholders and inform the public.

The challenges the water sector is facing now and will be facing in the coming decades, including progressing climate disruption, population growth and urbanisation, are huge

Some examples to make this more concrete are:

  • detection and localization of leaks to reduce water loss using several types of data;
  • a flood model applied in a serious game to involve all stakeholders and help decision makers with the selection of the best flood protection measures;
  • numerical optimization tools to help design a future water system that meets requirements at minimal cost while also being resilient to multiple future threats or extreme events;
  • sharing water quality data with the general public to increase trust and confidence in the service provider;
  • presenting individuals' water consumption data via information and gamification apps to nudge them towards more efficient water use.

The challenges the water sector is facing now and will be facing in the coming decades, including progressing climate disruption, population growth and urbanisation, are huge. The complexity and interdependences render it near impossible to make coherent, informed decisions without using digital tools. From that perspective, digitalization is an essential step to better understanding and better management of these complex systems.

We see that throughout the world water and wastewater utilities have embarked on the journey to become digital water entities

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the Digital Water Adoption Curve cited in the recent whitepaper Digital Water: Industry leaders chart the transformation journey?

A: We see that throughout the world water and wastewater utilities have embarked on the journey to become digital water entities. Many things are being tried out for the first time (often in parallel at several locations in the world). There is no single template, as there are many ways to do things. The recent whitepaper Digital Water: Industry leaders chart the transformation (produced in collaboration between the International Water Association and Xylem Inc.) describes how several, very different water and wastewater utilities from all over the world are progressing on this journey. The Digital Water Adoption Curve is a simple but a clear visualization tool that makes it easy for utilities to understand where they are in this transition - thus providing context for their policies and actions with respect to digitalization. It also shows which aspects lead to the most important next steps to take for the utility to effectively move forward on the curve, or to increase its degree of digitalization - which is to say, to increase its benefits from this transition.

Q: What recommendations would you give utility decision makers that want to accelerate their adoption of digital solutions?

A: First, they need to know where they are now in the process of digitalisation. We have seen many utilities that have always thought that they were collecting valuable data ready to be exploited, only to realize years later that issues such as the quality, storage, or metadata (describing the data) prevent them from doing so now. That's a lot of money and effort wasted, thinking you were doing the right thing.

When a utility understands where it is in the process, it is easy to identify the next steps from the adoption curve. But in addition to this, it is also very valuable to identify and talk to utilities that are just one step ahead of yours, to learn from their experiences.

Q: What are the current digital adoption trends?

A: We see that many utilities in our part of the world are setting up data lakes and warehouses, preparing themselves to become data-driven organizations. Engagement with customers through digital media, including custom apps, has increasingly been explored. The awareness that the organizational aspects rather than the technological issues require much more attention is also on the rise. Finally, we see more attempts by utilities to integrate various digital sub-systems, such as SCADA, GIS, modelling tools, financial systems, into a centralised system of systems.

When a utility understands where it is in the process, it is easy to identify the next steps from the adoption curve

Q: How can the water sector learn from other energy utilities that have already embraced digitalization?

A: On the technological side, existing frameworks from other utilities, such as data quality management, can be implemented in the water sector relatively easily. But we know that technology is not the greatest challenge for water utilities. The greatest challenge is in the people, the organizations, the culture. This is, I think, where we can learn a lot from sectors that have gone down the digitalization route before us.

Q: Where in the world is the opportunity for digital water technologies especially promising? And why?

A: Disregarding for a moment the question of human and capital resource availability to take steps in the digitalization process, the biggest opportunities exist in the most water stressed areas in the world. Good examples of this are Israel, Australia and California, who have embarked on digitalization and water efficiency journey ahead of others. Some surprising frontrunners have also been identified in areas where, for a long time, water wasn’t seen as an issue – this is the case of South East of England where the high population density means the available water per person is actually less than in many Mediterranean countries. This has lead, for example, to the introduction of smart customer metering to curb consumption and postpone the need for providing additional water resources.  Planning for future water and wastewater service delivery under challenging and evolving conditions (population growth, changing climate) is particularly difficult in the absence of sufficient data and usable models. This is sometimes the case even in developed countries, but more often in low- and middle-income areas of the world. Considering that over the next 50 years the largest growth in population is expected in Africa, that is where I see the largest opportunity for citizens to benefit from digitalization of water services. Unfortunately, these areas may not always have the necessary human and capital resources available. But when they do, the application of digital water will really help to make every drop count.

We know that technology is not the greatest challenge for water utilities. The greatest challenge is in the people, the organizations, the culture

Q: How important would you say water technology innovation is?

A: Water technology innovation is important in the sense that in many fields the technology is still developing, i.e., there is still room for improvement. However, I would say that at this point in time implementation is much more urgent than innovation, which doesn’t mean that we are not looking into the new ways of managing our systems, including innovation in digital tools. There really is a lot of useful and usable technology available that can be implemented in our water systems to increase our understanding of systems, improve their performance, efficiency, resilience, etc. Their implementation requires investment, piloting and scaling up successful pilot projects. These steps are ready to be taken by many utilities. Nevertheless, further development in sensor technology, robotics, remote sensing, virtual/augmented reality, data analytics and the application of artificial intelligence techniques to key water management challenges will further increase the benefits of water technology to a significant degree.

Q: What sectors adopt digital water technologies more rapidly. And why?

A: The long life of many water assets make the sector somewhat slow and conservative. Especially for drinking water utilities, where an additional factor is their sensitivity with respect to their public image. On the other hand, being technologically progressive can also have a positive effect on their image. I am not sure that other sectors as a whole adopt digital water technology more rapidly. We see a lot of variation within the drinking and wastewater sectors in terms of adoption rates, as described in the paper. Broadly speaking, many sectors are obviously ahead of the water utilities in terms of digitalisation, often driven by or associated with companies for which the internet is their primary field of operation.

Water technology innovation is important in the sense that in many fields the technology is still developing

Q: These digital solutions, however, can be vulnerable to malice. What is your opinion on cybersecurity for water utilities?

A: This is a real issue not only for water utilities. We have witnessed a number of high profile security breaches in various sectors, such as banking or even military, whose systems have been compromised due to cyber/criminal activities. However, like with all activities in life, there is a conscious effort to balance the risks and benefits associated with the adoption of technology. That is also the case with digitalization in the water industry. Fortunately, awareness of the issue is growing, but that does not mean that all utilities have taken sufficient measures to protect themselves. Also in this respect, it is worthwhile to look at and learn from the frontrunners.