'If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it' (Lord Kelvin) or 'information is power' (Francis Bacon), are two great quotes we have heard many times, and are still true. In this case, in the information era, with the technology we have at our disposal and in a modern company, not applying them would be tantamount to negligence.
And the same applies in the water industry, which must be at the forefront of information technology, as in many other aspects, because it deals with a resource which is vital and scarce.
When we talk about Smart in the world of water, many people think about smart meters, and it is not their fault. For years, at fairs or conferences on Smart technologies, when people talked about water (if they even did), they practically only talked about smart meters. And it is a smart technology, but not the only one, nor the most important one.
In fact, there isn't a single element which is 'the most important one'. The water cycle is a chain, and 'a chain is only as strong as its weakest link' (Thomas Reid). Please excuse the aphorisms, but when someone has said it before you, and much better than you, not quoting him or her would be a waste of resources, and that is against sustainability (and it is not very smart).
And since we have these three great thinkers as our guides, let us do as they say and analyse, humbly and briefly, the Smart Water sector.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link
Said the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid. But which is the weakest link in the water sector? Well, as with almost anything, it depends. It depends on who you ask and it depends on where you are. But there is something we all agree upon, at least in a large portion of Spain: water security is, in principle, quite a weak link.
Through time, and specially through the use of infrastructure, we have been able to reinforce it, but when nature decides to close the tap and tightens the chain, you better be ready for it. Unfortunately, we have often observed that sometimes the force of nature, and climate change, do not help.
But there are many other links, more or less weak. Some of them, you will readily recognise, others not. But they are there, and turning a blind eye on them will not make them disappear.
We can focus on reinforcing the chain, but we also have to know the forces that are pulling from the chain, whether it is nature on one side, with increasingly irregular rainfall, or on the other side, increased consumption or pollution.
And Smart Water technologies are key for that.
We must not let the many techniques and technologies available distract us from the true objective of all this: getting better every day
Information is power
What the English philosopher Francis Bacon actually said was 'knowledge is power'. But information and knowledge, although not exactly the same, are closely related.
The information on hourly water consumption can help develop knowledge about consumption patterns based on different variables and thus allow predicting future patterns. It also works the other way, to predict what will happen; the more data we have about what is happening right now, the more possibilities we have to anticipate and adapt to the future.
But information as such, cold hard data on the water level in a river exceeding a certain threshold, or the pressure in a pipeline dropping suddenly, are not very significant by themselves.
And we should not just think about purely technical issues, but also about organisational issues. If your Smart access control system tells you that the company you have outsourced to oversee your remote tanks once every three days has not showed up for two weeks, you do not need much knowledge to draw some conclusions from that information.
If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it
It was said by the physicist and mathematician from Northern Ireland William Thompson, who became Lord Kelvin after the River Kelvin, which flows near his old laboratory. His contributions to science are many, such as the scale of the International System of Units for temperature, the Kelvin (K), and determining the lowest temperature limit, absolute zero.
His wise assertion summarises the essence of the Smart concept. We must not let the many techniques and technologies available distract us from the true objective of all this: getting better every day.
That is, if you have no consumption records, no gauging stations to measure river flow, no pressure gauges in the water network, or the only access control to your tanks is a lock and a key, all of these examples are useless. In that case we can cross our fingers and hope for the best. After all, a wise person also said once that 'bad news travel faster than good news', right?
Fortunately, the water sector is very advanced, and is very clear about this objective. So, has the sector become fully 'smart'?
The answer is obvious: not yet. And there are several reasons for that. Sometimes technology is not sufficiently developed to be cost-effective, not only economically, but also operationally. And yet in other cases, although the technology is within reach, it is not considered necessary, or at least, not a priority. This is the reason why some companies focus on certain technologies and some companies on others, whether rightly or wrongly.
And then some technologies are not widely used; either they are very new, or they have not been broadly adopted in this sector or this country, even though they may have been used for years in others. And it is there where there is room for improvement, for a qualitative leap, the opportunity to stand out, and not only from others, but also to improve oneself. Smart technology for smart people.