An expert in digital intelligence for water and wastewater networks and water resources engineering, Dr. Lindsay Birt, Client Solutions Manager at Xylem, is one of the eight recipients of the US Water Prize 2021, an annual award granted by the US Water Alliance. Cristina Novo had the pleasure of speaking to her about digitalization, climate change and Xylem’s DEI initiatives.
Question: Could you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role in Xylem?
Answer: As Client Solutions Manager, I partner closely with utility leaders to help them solve their most pressing water challenges through digital solutions. I help clients unlock value from the data they collect so that they can make data-driven decisions that optimize operations and deliver water, energy, and cost savings to their communities.
I have an interdisciplinary background, having achieved degrees in Agriculture and Biological Engineering with a focus on watershed management. I have also completed courses in social science.
Our goal at Xylem is to help change the way utilities think about water management. A core part of this is bringing together innovative ideas from a diverse range of expertise to deliver solutions that transform what’s possible. I believe that collaborative partnerships are critical to driving progress and supporting utilities to deploy the digital solutions necessary to address critical water issues.
Q: What does it mean for you to receive the Outstanding Rising One Water Leader prize from the US Water Alliance?
A: It’s a huge honor, and an achievement I am incredibly proud of receiving. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the Alliance and to meet some of the incredible minds that share a vision of solving critical water issues to create a more equitable and just world. For me, this recognition has given me even more drive to continue doing what I love and what I am most passionate about. There’s a lot more to do – and I am excited to be part of the effort!
Q: Can you tell us about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Xylem?
A: At Xylem, we recognize the value of a diverse team – particularly when it comes to driving innovation and building a sustainable and resilient company. Through collaborating with clients, we see how diverse perspectives spark new ideas and unlock different ways of seeing and solving problems. As a company, Xylem has set out a series of goals that reflect the emphasis we place on diversity and inclusion, including achieving 50 percent female representation in leadership positions by 2030, and achieving at least 25 percent U.S. minority representation in leadership positions by 2025.
My personal mission is to also encourage students of diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in water. As a female of color in the water profession, I am working to ignite change within the sector so that it is more inclusive of diverse backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints. Most recently, I organized an abstract on diversity and inclusion for WEFTEC in collaboration with WEF InFLOW student scholars, industry, academia, and municipal sectors, with the support of Xylem.
My personal mission is to also encourage students of diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in water
Q: Could you provide some case studies where Xylem’s solutions have been successfully implemented to address urban water challenges?
A: Digital solutions that support situational intelligence and system optimization really can empower utilities to proactively identify risks and get ahead of issues before they escalate. By providing utility managers with real-time and predictive insights on the performance of their existing assets, decision intelligence tools can address urban water challenges while reducing the costs associated with maintenance and network optimization strategies.
For example, solutions from our digital platform, Xylem Vue, helped the City of Raleigh Public Utilities Department (Raleigh Water) get a clearer picture of its 2,340 miles of pipes by accurately predicting which parts of the pipe network might fail. Combining sensors and advanced risk analytics with Esri location intelligence software, Raleigh Water achieved a far more accurate, predictive, and targeted view of its potential trouble spots. Xylem Asset Performance Optimization analyzed the utility’s entire network, combining historical pipeline break data with information from Raleigh Water using Esri ArcGIS Enterprise.
The resulting assessment identified the most at-risk pipeline segments, based on their probability of failure. Raleigh Water was then able to prioritize those at-risk areas for more targeted preventative maintenance. This work with Xylem has already saved the utility 75% of planning time while reducing risk to the network, decreasing response times, and lessening the community impact of breaks that might occur.
The City of South Bend, Indiana, also used solutions from the Xylem Vue digital platform to optimize its existing wastewater network with artificial intelligence systems. The technology enabled the network to react to sudden wet weather events and avoid flooding by quickly moving flows to under-utilized parts of the network, delivering an 80% reduction in combined sewer overflows in the City. Xylem is now working with South Bend on a revised plan consisting of a monitoring system of more than 165 sensors and software agents located throughout the City’s urban watershed. The smart sewer system will enable the City to exceed the requirements of a wastewater consent decree for 60% less capital investment than originally planned.
Q: Can you comment on the advantages of implementing a real-time decision support system (RT-DSS) for urban watershed management?
A: The City of South Bend is a great example of how real-time decision support systems can revolutionize urban watershed management. Sewer overflows are a growing problem for many utilities, and with severe rain events on the rise due to climate change, utilities are challenged with managing them more frequently. Smart systems that integrate directly into existing wastewater networks, using a combination of sensors and weather data, digital twin technology and optimization algorithms, can drastically reduce sewer overflows, minimize flooding events, and optimize functionality while maintaining regulatory compliance.
I think we are just scratching the surface when it comes to smart water technologies
Q: What recent trends have you seen in the uptake and use of smart water technologies in the water sector?
A: I think we are just scratching the surface when it comes to smart water technologies and their ability to transform communities around the world. We’ve already seen the exceptional benefits digital solutions can bring to the industry in terms of saving water, energy and costs. Right now, a greater focus seems to lie in water equity and how we can leverage digital solutions to support the proportional distribution of water, ensuring that everyone has access to safe, clean drinking water.
We are all familiar with the Flint water crisis of 2014, but water equity is a challenge that stretches right back to the industrial revolution. Now is the time to bring equity to the forefront and come up with actual solutions to address it. Most of us have some sort of mobile device with mapping systems that are driven by machine learning and digital intelligence. If we can use that to navigate our routes, we should be able to use it to navigate our water networks.
There has already been some progress in this space, and at Xylem, we have created the Water Equity Lens – a spatial and analytical tool that helps communities assess their water equity performance. Solutions like this will dominate the conversation on how digital solutions can enhance the resiliency of our water systems going forward.
Q: What are the main challenges utilities face when it comes to harnessing the digital revolution?
A: Computing power has exponentially increased over the last decade, but the water sector has been slower to adopt. This is largely because many utilities have maintained legacy systems and processes, and digital solutions are sometimes viewed as being peripheral luxuries from an operational perspective. However, as well-capitalized utilities continue to spearhead the adoption of digital, the benefits are becoming more and more apparent. Smaller utilities are starting to follow suit, but their rate of adoption is more incremental in comparison.
Utilities are also under pressure to be more operationally and financially resilient. Digital technologies can help them deliver safe, compliant, reliable, and affordable water to their communities. Solutions from Xylem’s digital platform, Xylem Vue, can help simplify the digital experience for utilities.
Q: What role do you see for smart water solutions as climate-driven extreme events become more frequent in the future?
A: Recent extreme weather events, particularly Hurricane Ida in the U.S. and the devastating floods in Germany, have highlighted the need to fast-track the digital transformation of the water sector to build greater resilience. Utilities that have not yet implemented digital solutions generally adopt a reactive approach to such events, making recovery efforts harder. By harnessing the power of digital solutions, utilities gain greater insights into their networks which allows them to move to a predictive approach that ultimately increases resiliency in the face of threats.
For example, digital tools that support situational intelligence can empower utilities to predict when risks are going to happen, allowing them to set a new standard for enterprise visibility and take response planning to the next level. Digital twins driven by real time sensors mirror physical systems and can provide unprecedented foresight and control, especially when coupled with algorithms and control logic that optimize operational choices. Sensors in sewer networks can also detect problems in real-time, and artificial intelligence (AI) based solutions can predict network failure before it happens.