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Global Universities Shaping the Future of Smart Water
Innovation and creativity are critical to developing and advancing smart water solutions. This ingenuity is often sparked by student researchers and young professionals. To understand how universities are now impacting the smart water sector, SWAN spoke with three leading, global institutions: University of Exeter, University of Louisville, and Hof University. Learn how these universities are cultivating talent across disciplines, building collaborative partnerships, and shaping the next generation of smart water leaders.
Q: As a leading research institute, what do you see as the role of innovative technologies to advance the water sector?
Raziyeh Farmani, Professor of Water Engineering and Industrial Fellow of Royal Academy of Engineering at Centre for Water Systems, University of Exeter: The water sector is facing many challenges including climate change, societal changes, and regulatory requirements. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that the sector needs to be resilient to deal with known and unknown future challenges. This will require investment in skills, education, research, and innovation to adapt, by taking advantage of technical innovations.
Ted Smith, Research Associate Professor, The Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, University of Louisville: We are part of a medical school and we take a very basic science approach to the issues of drinking water and wastewater. During the COVID-19 pandemic we have scaled up our methods to not only look at sewered systems as signals from health risks “above ground,” but have worked to leverage the approach to help utilities. For example, PFAS chemicals are typically viewed as a testing and remediation issue. However, we can now use the kind of sewer-tracing methods perfected during COVID for identifying PFAS sources which may be more cost-effective to reduce than to treat. The technology stack to do this work well comes down to better informatics in the pipe.
Günter Müller-Czygan, Professor of Water infrastructure and Digitization of Hof University of Applied Sciences Institute of Water and Energy Management: In the future, data and associated smart plant controls and integrated solutions will play a decisive role in meeting the challenges of climate change in water management. One research focus in Hof is the development of AI-based interconnected solutions for data linking and predictive control of sewer networks and connected wastewater treatment plants. In addition, these solutions are also being investigated to see what significance they can have for the development of urban spaces as sponge cities.
Freddie Guerra, North American Digital Water Lead – GHD
GHD recognises and understands the world is constantly changing. We are committed to solving the world’s biggest challenges in the areas of water, energy and urbanisation. We are a global professional services company that leads though engineering and architectural skills and experience. Our forward-looking, innovative approaches connect and sustain communities around the world. Delivering extraordinary social and economic outcomes, we are focused on building lasting relationships with our partners and clients.
Established in 1928, we remain wholly owned by our people. We are 10,000+ diverse and skilled individuals connected by over 200 offices, across five continents – Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America, and the Pacific region.
GHD is focused on the nexus of innovation and technology within the water sector. How do you help utilities shift their mindset from “doing digital” to “being digital”?
There are two types of digital attitudes for organisations – “doing digital” or “being digital.” “Doing digital” describes companies that leverage technologies to enhance their capabilities or address issues while still relying on legacy operating models.
In contrast, “being digital” describes those that have shifted customer, employee and asset models into a new reality. A reality where agility is the new norm, technology and data are the enablers, human experience is the focus, and certainty of value is the outcome.
GHD is empowering and building capability within organisations to allow them to solve problems today, tomorrow, and beyond, and achieve their missions. We’re helping organisations implement digital functions so that they can do things faster, cheaper, and better while also reimagining the way they work, operate, plan, and more.
Utility digital transformation is driven by technological advances, heightened environmental awareness and evolving customer expectations such as affordability and equity. What are the key challenges to realise digital opportunities to foster this transformation?
True digital transformation is more than the implementation of new technologies – it requires an overhaul of organisational structures, governance, work processes, culture and mindset.
We also need to be prepared to address the challenges associated with digitisation:
There needs to be collaboration to figure out exactly how to scale up new processes enabled by digital technology. How are we going to capture, store and share valuable data across our system? Machine learning and artificial intelligence will play an integral role in this. We need to think about how to implement end-to-end processes from smart capital to intelligent operations.
Along with technology, it is essential we do our due diligence and phase in the right IT systems to support the switch to digital. It is imperative to have a planned transition strategy because being digital requires an overhaul of organisational structures and distributing new roles across existing staff to support the new technologies. By addressing these challenges, utilities will better understand their customers and deliver improved outcomes, provide services more effectively and efficiently, find new solutions for challenges, find new sources of revenue, and more.
As an experienced strategist in the water sector, what critical areas must utilities consider if they are to deliver on a 21st century mission?
In the past, the core mission of utilities like water, was to protect public health and provide quality water service. However, in a world that has been shaped by pandemics, extreme weather, and economic disruptions, today’s customers are expecting more from their water suppliers.
Digitisation is helping meet the demands of 21st-century consumers in several ways. Through elevating the customer experience, generating more public value and expanding citizen security, utilities are creating tools to encourage greater collaboration and participation by consumers, all while safeguarding and protecting them. Utilities must be prepared to protect their customers from a wide range of threats or risk losing trust. Active defense strategies and advanced threat intelligence that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) provide a basis for withstanding more sophisticated attack methods.
Utilities must also create the future workforce. Utilities need to augment their employees’ skills and capabilities to drive greater efficiencies, elevate customer focus while strengthening inclusion and diversity. In a competitive labour market, the public sector has not always been the first employer of choice for top talent. As utilities gradually build a more dynamic work environment, they will need to consider options to attract younger workers and millennials who are in search of purpose-led roles where they make a difference to society. Organisations ought to do more to attract, retain and develop people with the required skill sets across a wide range of areas.
Lastly, by developing smarter infrastructure, utilities can harness the latest technologies to maximise value and efficiency while creating resilience and sustainability. By taking on this outlook, companies will begin to apply digital technologies, such as smart devices, sensors, and software, to physical structures like pump stations or water treatment plants. These intelligent applications result in more efficient and effective monitoring and greater control of water and wastewater systems.
Please share your outlook on the value of intelligent asset management in the smart water world.
Utilities should consider leaving traditional asset management behind and developing a holistic strategy with robust data governance and cybersecurity at its core. Previously, infrastructure was managed based on historical snapshots from condition assessments. Digitising assets allows for the proliferation of smart devices and enables utilities to manage assets intelligently through real-time data and insights.
GHD’s intelligent asset management enables utilities to manage assets with near real-time data and insights vs. managing assets based on historical snapshots from condition assessments. These smart devices link data with communications technologies, then use analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to inform utilities about “what is going on,” “what may happen,” and if something does occur, “what to do.”
Intelligent asset management advances new ways to manage assets in near real-time while boosting operational efficiencies, saving costs, increasing asset life expectancy, improving reliability, and enhancing safety. This approach is the foundation for a smart water utility.
Carmen de Miguel, Strategic Marketing Manager, Water & Wastewater Segment – Schneider Electric
The purpose of Schneider Electric is to empower all to make the most of our energy and resources, bridging progress and sustainability for all and acting as your digital partner for Sustainability and Efficiency.
We drive digital transformation by integrating world-leading process and energy technologies, end-point to cloud connecting products, controls, software and services, across the entire lifecycle, enabling integrated company management, for homes, buildings, data centers, infrastructure and industries.
As a founding member of SWAN, what do you see as SE’s role in advancing the smart water/wastewater industry?
Schneider Electric holds innovation in its DNA and sustainability at the core. When we co-founded SWAN back in 2010, we had the vision that technology was the way for the water industry to address its present and future challenges, and now more than ever we believe that the future for sustainable and resilient water is digital. We work with our customers and our partners to drive digital transformation towards decarbonisation, electrification, efficiency, and circularity in water. Our approach is focused on combining energy and process to decarbonise water infrastructures, enabling end-to-end asset management and optimised operations through our simulation-based digital platform and services, and achieving full management of water resources by unified operations solutions.
What was the motivation for SE’s new joint venture with SUEZ and how will this impact the water sector?
The motivation for the JV creation was to provide complementary expertise, strengthen agility and leadership in this fast-growing digital water market. This was communicated in March 2021 by executives of both companies:
Diane Galbe, SUEZ Group SEVP, Smart & Environmental Solutions global Business Unit and Strategy: “The creation of this joint venture is fully in line with the SUEZ 2030 strategic plan which aims to use cutting-edge technologies in order to offer all of our customers’ digital solutions that are 100% sustainable in terms of their impact on health, quality of life, environment, and climate.
Peter Herweck, EVP Industrial Automation at Schneider Electric: “…we are creating new solutions and services to empower our customers with actionable information to manage their process and assets more efficiently. With this joint venture, we look forward to becoming the digital partner of water cycle players, enabling them to reach true resiliency and sustainability.”
SE has received several ‘Sustainability’ accolades, including recently being listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI). How does this influence your work, especially in emerging markets?
Being recognised as a world leader and trusted advisor in sustainability is a tremendous honour that makes all of us in Schneider Electric proud and even more committed to our job, since we have a clear purpose and we see a positive impact in what we do. Water is right at the centre of sustainability and having worked in the water industry for 25 years gives me some perspective about the role of our sector in life and environment preservation, as well as in the economic and social development. I am truly passionate about my job and about the opportunities that technology brings to improve the way water is managed. Since my role is globally positioned, I get the chance to see the impact in emerging economies, and how technology paves the way for the sustainable development of cities and communities. That makes me proud of our customers and my SE colleagues.
Looking back over your career in the water sector, what is the most important piece of advice you received and how can young professionals apply it today as they begin their career journey?
There are several of them from different people. If I had to pick one, it would be what my younger sister told me when I had to decide about a quite challenging job opportunity at the beginning of my career: “Whatever you decide, do not look back and rethink since you will always find reason to regret, just make your decision and go ahead”. This is applicable to all facets of life and I recognise I have followed that advice and never regretted a decision. Lastly, I would like to dedicate another one to young professionals, who are the future of our industry. The phrase is not mine, but I entirely subscribe to it: The future belongs to those who prepare for it!
Mason Throneburg, CEO & Co-Founder – Confluency
Confluency is a leading water startup that helps teams harness the full capabilities of simulation models through the integration of advanced data analytics, and deep insights of engineers and operators, to make better decisions. They collaborate with utilities and consulting firms to develop a clearer understanding of the water system and develop tailored strategies for utility digital transformation. Confluency sees an important gap in the digital water space, integrating insights from simulation models together with machine learning to support decisions across a range of timescales – operational, planning, and strategic. Confluency is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the SBIR program to develop AI solutions for water.
In working closely with utilities to integrate traditional modelling tools with analytics, how different have your approaches been based on where they are in their digital transformation journey?
Every utility is at a slightly different place in their digital transformation journey, responding to slightly different pressures and priorities – so we start by focusing on their desired outcomes and the technical capabilities and resources available. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to digital transformation. We specifically focus on value that comes from combining simulation-based models which provide “what-if” insights, together with data-driven machine learning models – but the customer needs to drive the technical approach, not vice versa. For instance, if it’s related to water distribution, the approach we take depends on the engineering models they are currently using, the data that is available, and their planning or operational goals. The utility’s digital transformation maturity and priorities also helps us determine how to help propel transformative solutions.
SWAN is all about collaboration. How do you partner with engineering firms and solution providers in delivering more holistic value to utility customers?
Confluency really values the importance of partnerships and collaboration. Being a small solution provider with an extensive consultancy background, we see how digital transformation transcends system boundaries and involves integrating people and expertise from different backgrounds. Our solutions embed various components like simulation, automation, analytics, sensors and metering, and engineering services, which naturally involves multiple stakeholders. Integrating these multiple perspectives and priorities is one of the biggest challenges – and we believe that better tools and at-a-glance insights can facilitate that alignment. One thing we emphasise is to not go for a one-and-done approach with our partners, but rather always look forward to collaborating beyond a single project or a process.
While working on operationalising a utility’s model, what are steps you take to account for the varying SCADA generations and compatibilities?
Yes, SCADA operations and accessibility are some areas that get tricky. One advantage of our hybrid simulation and data-driven approach is that we often begin to explore solution benefits in an offline context, where managing data privacy is important but security risks are reduced. This helps to establish a business-case and generate buy-in; we then incorporate real-time data to use the model to provide operational insight. Data from monitoring providers can often be accessed directly through their APIs. Accessing the SCADA data involves managing cybersecurity risk; we build security in at the base layer of our software – and we also reduce risk because our solution is advisory guidance, and so does require write-access to the system. This is also an area where partners with a deeper expertise with SCADA systems and network security can help with data acquisition and managing network security protocols.
As a solution provider, how would you address the counterargument that digital transformation is costly and runs people out of their jobs?
That is a question we come across often. Our belief is that software should augment the capabilities of engineers and operators, not replace them. The people who have worked with a system for 5, 10, 20 years have tremendous knowledge in their brains; we want to capture that knowledge in simulation and machine learning models to make it more systematically and broadly available. The great thing is, this then frees up time for the higher-value work that people are better at than machines. Regarding cost, we strongly believe that solutions need to be affordable – and that the costs need to make sense compared to the value provided. We are focused on developing a scalable platform that can be customised, enabling a utility to bring on additional functionality incrementally as the business case is established. In the medium to long term, improved operational efficiency and increased integration with planning objectives lead to improved system management and overall cost reductions.
Any words of advice for young professionals passionate about water and analytics on how they prepare themselves (ex. software development upskilling) to enter the workforce of solution providers like yourself?
The first piece of advice is to raise your hand and put your interests out there – I think all companies in the SWAN forum are looking for motivated talent to help deliver greater value from data, models, and automation. Once you know what you want, you may also need to invest in yourself. Go that extra mile to upskill, even if it requires some evenings or weekends – these skills will open up lots of opportunities for the rest of your career. I’d suggest young engineers spend time in the water workforce and master a particular technical domain (e.g. hydraulic modeling, treatment processes, etc.), so they really deeply understand the problems the industry is trying to solve. Lastly, look for opportunities to improve software development skills by participating in open-source projects, where you can obtain great feedback and further develop your network.