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Water is a critical resource, and we're witnessing a pivotal, disruptive shift in the water sector

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Álvaro Romero Danés, a seasoned Civil Engineer, is the latest expert to join NTT DATA and will lead the company's water business with a focus on advancing digital transformation in Europe and Latin America. Romero Danés' career journey started at Canal de Isabel II – Madrid’s water utility – and solidified at Indra's Minsait consultancy, where he ascended to the role of global water manager.

His appointment conveys a powerful message from the trusted global innovator, showcasing its intent and capability to be an unparalleled partner in the digital transformation of leading public and private stakeholders in the water sector.

In this exclusive discussion, Romero Danés shares his strategy to consolidate and expand NTT DATA's water capabilities and expertise. Leveraging a multi-skilled and seasoned team, he aims to establish NTT DATA as an innovative delivery partner to comprehensively tackle the digital transformation challenges of the water sector.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 19 - September 2023
SWM Bimonthly 19

What challenges did you encounter when you started at NTT DATA?

I joined NTT DATA to lead the water business division, enhancing the “Smart” side, which entails the digitalization of the water sector. The company aims to assist all sector players, both public and private, in their digital transformation journey. In fact, prior to my role, a dedicated water sector business line was already in place, made up of a diverse team of civil engineers, agronomists, hydrologists, chemists, environmentalists, biologists, and more. These seasoned professionals were already managing projects both domestically and internationally.

Since I started, we have developed a strategy to consolidate the knowledge of the water business within a digital transformation framework. We are elevating solutions and services in the water and sustainability industries, backed by a team that comprises all the necessary IT profiles. This allows for a comprehensive approach to projects, integrating automation, customer experience, artificial intelligence, analytics and data management, blockchain, cybersecurity, BPO, consulting, and more.

NTT DATA is one of the leading companies in digital and commercial services. Where does it position itself in the water industry?

We have a significant presence within public bodies and are currently expanding our influence in the urban water and private management sectors. NTT DATA’s strategic decision to boost this new unit, thereby enhancing our footprint in the sector, stems from our understanding of the universal need for water digitalization. This is mirrored by initiatives like the significant European funding plans dedicated to the digitalization of water usage, amounting to over 3 billion euros.

On a global scale, the water industry is undergoing major transformations due to climate change, urbanization, and the requirement for more sustainable resource management. Digitalization is seen as a key enabler for these changes, offering the potential for better data collection, analysis, and more efficient operations. As such, NTT DATA is positioning itself as a leading partner for both public and private sector entities across the world, to drive this essential digital transformation in the water industry.

  • We are elevating solutions and services in the water and sustainability industries, backed by a team with all the necessary IT profiles

From your perspective, what are the main challenges facing water management at the moment?

Firstly, water scarcity is a major challenge facing the sector and the problem isn't confined to select regions. For example, Andalucía in Spain is grappling with severe drought, and in Catalonia, an emergency was declared as recently as last March. However, it's vital to understand that water scarcity is a critical issue globally. In Cape Town, South Africa, a serious drought in 2018 almost led to a "Day Zero" situation. Hence, it's not a standalone problem but an outcome of climate change.

Beyond the need for more effective management due to water scarcity, which can be facilitated through tech-based solutions, safeguarding water quality is vital to ensure both human health and ecosystem sustainability.

Financing and sustainability are two additional critical issues. Not only is funding required for the creation and upkeep of water infrastructure, but it's equally important to ensure that investments made in the water sector are climate change-resilient and sustainable. Sustainability calls for taking into account social and environmental factors as part of water management, and the role of public participation can't be understated.

As digitalization proves to be a powerful tool to tackle these challenges, what is your view on the digitalization of water management both within public administrations and service-providing entities?

The need to continue progressing in this direction is vital, and the sector has acknowledged this. A testament to this is the remarkable interest shown in financial assistance programs for digitalizing water management across the globe. This interest is vast, and all stakeholders are in agreement that this is the path to achieve greater efficiency and sustainability in management, thanks to the deployment of existing new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The water industry is undergoing transformations due to climate change, urbanization, and the requirement for more sustainable management

Additionally, to effectively manage water through the use of digital platforms, it's crucial that we continue working on the deployment of field sensors, particularly with smart meters. These devices are fundamental as they enable us to gather data and optimize management. For instance, Australia has been actively pushing for the installation of smart meters to improve water resource management, especially considering the country's susceptibility to droughts and water scarcity. The key is not just to focus on digitalization but also on the infrastructural changes required to support this digital shift.

What resources does NTT DATA provide to water service operators to guide them through their digital transformation journey? And for public administrations?

We have several tools. On one hand, we employ artificial intelligence solutions to optimize wastewater treatment plants. The aim is to realize energy savings, better use of additives, and facilitate the generation of predictive alerts.

We also have AI-driven solutions designed for the comprehensive management of the water cycle. Among the key benefits are assistance in decision-making, reduction of non-revenue water (NRW), optimization of leak detection, and effective management of meter fleets. This fosters efficient usage, standardization of management, and continuous monitoring of the network and water infrastructures. We have implemented such solutions in ACEA, the water operator for the city of Rome, and we are now collaborating with BuntPlant on a global scale to further develop and implement these services.

Sustainability calls for taking into account social and environmental factors as part of water management, as well as public participation

Additionally, we offer solutions for water quality control, and spill control, and use satellite technology for leak detection. We also provide solutions for river characterization and restoration using hydromorphological indicators, complying with the requirements of the Water Framework Directive, and leveraging artificial intelligence and drone technology. In Spain, we align closely with the recent National River Restoration Strategy 2022-2030.

Alongside our diverse range of projects, we acknowledge the critical role of eco-efficiency in irrigation management. Just recently, on August 2nd, the first call for projects under the Strategic Project for Economic Recovery and Transformation (PERTE) to support the digitalization of irrigation and the second call for projects under the PERTE to support the digitalization of urban water cycle management was announced in Spain. It's in this timely context that we are applying our extensive experience and sector knowledge to develop a platform funded by the PERTE to assist irrigation user associations as they transition towards more efficient and sustainable practices.

A key part of our strategy includes leveraging the Water Observatory platform. This platform is responsible for collecting, analysing, and disseminating information related to the hydrological cycle and water uses, contributing to efficient monitoring and management of water resources with up-to-date data.

  • The key is not just to focus on digitalization but also on the infrastructural changes required to support this digital shift

The water industry is among the last of the utility sectors to embark on its digitalization journey. What are your thoughts on why it has lagged behind?

In my view, we are just commencing the digital era for the water sector. Several sectors within utilities, such as energy, oil, or gas, have made significant strides in their digital journey. However, the water sector has largely been overlooked until now. Today, with the increasing emphasis on sustainability and climate change, the need for a digital transformation in this sector is more evident than ever. Water, much like other utilities, is a critical resource, and we're currently witnessing a pivotal, disruptive shift within the water sector.

Amid the current boom in artificial intelligence, how is it being used in water management, and can it help improve decision-making in risk situations?

Artificial Intelligence is being applied in many aspects of our lives and in most sectors today. For instance, AI plays a significant role in monitoring and analysing water quality, allowing for the early identification of pollutants, detecting patterns and trends in water quality, and forecasting future occurrences. Furthermore, it streamlines the management of water infrastructure, encompassing distribution networks, treatment plants, and asset management.

The Water Observatory platform is responsible for collecting, analysing, and disseminating information on the water cycle and uses

On the other hand, hydrological modelling and information management through AI allows the prediction of extreme phenomena, such as floods and droughts, and the management of water resources. Similarly, it contributes to improving energy efficiency by optimizing the use of energy in water infrastructures, such as pumping, purification, and water desalination.

And finally, artificial intelligence is revolutionizing customer service, through the use of chatbots and virtual assistants to handle user requests and questions, as well as for billing management and resolution of technical issues.

What strategies are being employed in the digital transformation of the water industry, considering countries' different levels of digital maturity? Which markets does NTT DATA prioritize in this landscape?

The water industry's digital transformation is being managed in a comprehensive, multidisciplinary manner and it’s tailored to the digital maturity of each region. In technologically advanced nations, state-of-the-art technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are used to optimize water management. Meanwhile, in nations that are still progressing digitally, the focus is on modernizing infrastructure and introducing digital technologies through international collaboration and public-private partnerships.

Water, much like other utilities, is a critical resource, and we're witnessing a pivotal, disruptive shift within the water sector

The common goal here is to bolster efficiency and sustainability in global water resource management. In this transformation, NTT DATA plays a pivotal role, leveraging our advanced digital capabilities and vast experience in the water sector. Our primary areas of focus are Europe and Latin America, although our services have global coverage. As the 6th leading IT company globally, we adapt to the unique needs of each region, thus ensuring efficient, sustainable solutions to meet ever-evolving demands.
 

  • AI streamlines the management of water infrastructure, encompassing distribution networks, treatment plants, and asset management

Could you tell us about some of the projects NTT DATA is involved in within this scope?

We're committed to fully digitizing the water cycle, working hand in hand with both public and private institutions. A key project we've recently undertaken in Spain involves digitizing the water quality data management system for the General Directorate of Water and Hydrographic Confederations, as an integral part of the Recovery, Transformation, and Resilience Plan (PRTR).

In addition, we are developing hydrological planning and water observatory projects in Europe and America, assessing the status of water bodies and resource management. One of our noteworthy projects focuses on the hydromorphological characterization of rivers. This project uses artificial intelligence and can be replicated worldwide.

Finally, our partnership with global companies in digital transformation and asset management enables us to keep making strides in improving global water management.

One of the major challenges in digitalization is cybersecurity. What measures are you taking to ensure the privacy and protection of customers, services, and infrastructure?

Right now, we have a multitude of solutions within the field of cybersecurity. At NTT DATA, we have a very robust cybersecurity unit that works across multiple sectors. We even have our own security operations centre. Over the years, we've established a track record of deploying advanced solutions tailored to the needs of our customers. In terms of cybersecurity of assets, and in the case of the integral water cycle, there are critical assets, so we are strengthening this line against attacks of any kind. The methods and capabilities we use to protect the networks, field-deployed sensor systems, water assets, data from unauthorized access or cyberattacks, guarantee the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the information.

As the 6th leading IT company globally, we adapt to the unique needs of each region, thus ensuring efficient, sustainable solutions

Furthermore, given the growing reliance on data by managers and companies in the sector, it is crucial that they maintain a comprehensive strategy. This strategy should cover areas such as compliance with data protection regulations, governance, resilience, and audits, amongst others.

As you embark on your new journey as the Water Director at NTT DATA, what are your primary goals?

In essence, to contribute our bit to the digitalization of the water sector. For this, I believe that our differential value is that we have a very deep understanding of the integral water cycle, as well as extensive technological knowledge. At NTT DATA, we have established an integrated knowledge structure within the company, rooted in water engineering, consulting, and emerging technologies. This grants us a distinct competitive edge as we bring together the best practices in the development of complex information systems, with a deep understanding of water management issues.