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Human intelligence behind the potential of new technologies in the water sector

  • Human intelligence behind the potential of new technologies in the water sector
  • Disruptive technological innovations used to be, at first, low-performing, and aimed to consumers with fewer needs. But the demands of humans themselves have led to a new industrial revolution (already known as industry 4.0), where digitalisation has nearly transformed those companies that want to adapt to the new times.

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We talk about new technologies as if they came out of the blue. And that is far from true, human intelligence created them. We ourselves have changed our way of life with their irruption, as well as the way we relate and communicate with each other. With them, a new world of possibilities has opened up, where users in any sector are more demanding about the services they get, particularly when we are talking about a human right like access to water and sanitation.

Through this digital transformation, companies and decision makers try to break geographical barriers, improving communication at all levels and automating processes, in order to maximise efficiency and minimise costs. However, a common error in this process of change is to think that this digital transformation is purely a technological issue. We cannot forget that this complex evolution process entails a lot more, and that humans are solely responsible for it.

It means seeking and assessing, at all levels of water management, the different opportunities that new technologies can offer and did not exist before, as well as any associated risks. Therefore, the main water sector actors are responsible for charting the way forward in this unprecedented transformation, laden with uncertainty, taking into account that humans and machines are, at the same time, two different things and the same thing. Which new technologies are we most connected to?

A new world of possibilities has opened up, where users in any sector are more demanding about the services they get

Big data: size does matter

If there is something that has driven the water industry in this digital transformation, is data processing. According to a report on the technologies that will transform the public sector by Minsait ('Innovación Pública: las tecnologías disruptivas que transformarán las Administraciones'), by 2020 there will an estimated 16,000 billion GB of useful data; that means a 236% annual increase. This abysmal data availability offers huge analytical capacity to improve the efficiency of water management; but the important thing is not the amount of data that we can process, but what we do with those data.

Thanks to predictive analytics enabled by big data, sector companies can analyse historical data to identify patterns and trends, which can help us anticipate the future. Water consumption is an area where this technology is really useful, in such a way that companies can estimate the demand and prepare to meet it in an optimal way; technology can also help anticipate and control potential incidents occurring in water supply and sanitation processes.

This technology also allows another type of analysis, a prescriptive one: to anticipate and analyse future scenarios before they occur, and be able to change them. It suggests decision options to take advantage of a future opportunity or to mitigate a risk we will have to deal with, such as extreme climate events that can lead to floods or droughts.

In this regard, thanks to big data, companies and public authorities can have a large volume of information, in a more effective and precise manner. This could result in decision making processes that are also more effective and precise.

IoT: water in the network

The fast evolution of Internet goes from its irruption in our lives, to the fact that we live in a world ever more connected, where the Internet of Things (IoT) is no longer something of the future, but our reality. Every second, an estimated average of 127 things establish an Internet connection, and by 2030, 1000 billion devices are expected to be connected.

The connectivity of things enables water companies to improve their analyses of end-user needs, but also the possibility of changing the design and planning of all production processes. The connection of different devices and sensors in the network provides a comprehensive understanding of the functioning and routines of the systems in water infrastructure.

On the other hand, IoT is especially useful to manage water for purposes other than drinking, such as for example in the agricultural sector. In a context where climate change is as real as digitalisation, irrigation associations need to automate many of their processes, and need real time information on some parameters to achieve greater irrigation efficiency and productivity.

Digitalisation has become key for our society, for individuals and for businesses

In the not too distant future, human beings, using IoT, will connect practically everything, and these things will exchange data amongst themselves; hence, it will be possible to make decisions remotely, but also by initiating certain protocols which automatically will correct or deal with specific situations; human interaction will not even be necessary.

Machine learning: human beings are not the only ones to learn

When we repeat endlessly that the digitalisation of the physical world is a reality, it is not just because we can work from home with a computer or do some processes from our mobile phone; it is not because people that are thousands of km away can now be close to us, and not even because now the footprint we leave in this planet can also be digital. We say this because the combination of software and hardware makes a product intelligent. Yes, through technology, humans bring machines to life.

The digitalisation process that new technologies have led to is no longer a choice anyone can postpone

Thanks to artificial intelligence, created, once again, by human intelligence, machines draw on big data to learn patterns from a data set, and generate actions as a consequence, leading to decisions that, maybe, human beings would have made more slowly, more costly, and less reliably. We call this machine learning.

The capacity of machines to learn and generate actions will benefit the assessment, forecast, and implementation of processes related to water management. Without ever beating human intuition — which is not failsafe, anyway — machines will optimise our decision making.

Cybersecurity: every advancement is not without risks

As computing is a common business tool, no wonder threats emerged early on. In a hyperconnected world such as the one we have created, cybercrime is already a business model with a global economic impact of 350 billion euros per year, close to 1% of the global GDP.

For a few years now, cyberattacks have become one of the main threats for any company. According to data from the Hackmageddon 2018 report, companies have gone from experiencing 18,000 of these incidents in 2014, to 100,000. Although attacks related to water management, supply or sanitation were hardly 0.3% in 2018, companies and public authorities should both consider cybersecurity a priority.

Any device with access to a network can experience a cyberattack, and be used for criminal purposes. The use of technology at any level, whether at the user level or at the company level, requires a series of measures to keep the computing infrastructure safe and, specially, the information contained therein. If the water industry wants to (and it should) adapt to the digital transformation, it cannot ignore that cybersecurity goes hand in hand with it. It must, therefore, ensure that the digitalisation of infrastructure and processes is implemented at the same pace as the protection of systems.

Cybercrime is already a business model with a global economic impact of 350 billion euros per year

The way forward: a great power implies great responsibility

Digitalisation has become key for our society, for individuals and for businesses. Smart water management represents a global paradigm shift for a company, not only concerning processes related to water use efficiency to enhance quality, productivity, and sustainability; in addition, with the use of connected platforms, there is also an increased capacity to adapt constantly to user demands, and information can be better used, analysing it in real time from multiple channels.

And this digital revolution is not something we owe to machines, but something we humans have created. Maybe they are the next step in evolution and in a not very distant future we may live in a world where artificial intelligence may beat human intelligence, but until then, we are responsible for our own capacity and what we do with it.

The digitalisation process that new technologies have led to is no longer a choice anyone can postpone. It is a long distance race where public authorities and companies have to adapt and renew themselves, or they will be left behind. Either you are in, or you are out. It is not an easy decision. The water sector is prepared to change to a more responsible, sustainable and transparent approach to water management. The question is: are we humans ready?

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