In May 2022, the SWAN 12th Annual Conference took place as a hybrid event in beautiful Washington, DC. After two years of virtual events, attendees were excited to mingle and learn from each other in-person. This year’s theme, “Connecting Innovation to Impact” included three days of informative workshops, high-level and technical panels, keynotes, interactive roundtables, and networking. There were several highlights, but seven key takeaways stuck with me: (1) the need to invest in innovation, (2) smart water is for utilities of all sizes (3) the power of Data-as-a-Service to transform operations (4) the practical benefits of Digital Twins (5) removing lead is a priority, (6) customers can become advocates, and (7) the future must be inclusive.
1. The need to invest in innovation
In the opening panel, George Hawkins, Founder and CEO at Moonshot Missions described how climate change exacerbates the issues that come with ageing infrastructure. As a result, the water sector must innovate in technologies that address extreme weather patterns such as floods and droughts. In her keynote, Kishia L. Powell, COO and Executive Vice President at DC Water expressed that connecting innovation to impact can allow underserved and vulnerable communities to benefit from these investments. She also stated that investing in water can help address some of the most pressing issues of our time: the global pandemic, racial injustice, economic recovery, and the climate crisis.
2. Smart water is for utilities of all sizes
Small utilities serve most of the US and digitalisation can be daunting. Some common barriers include finances, limited employee skills, and a household customer culture of non-payment. Thus, most digitalisation solutions are targeted towards larger utilities. However, this does not mean that smaller utilities cannot shift to a smart water system. Chris Sosnowski, CEO at Waterly & Water Click explained that to convince utilities to implement smart water, it can help to tap into their desire to provide a long-lasting legacy. On that same note, Jose Leon Jr., Director of Operations & Maintenance at Johnson County Wastewater in Kansas emphasised that we need to instil trust in people when engaging in a digital transformation. Although utility staff may have less exposure to digital technologies, it can actually be easier to change the habits of a small organisation. Furthermore, there are movements like regionalisation which can assist small utilities. This involves multiple municipalities and utilities collaborating to share data, information, as well as water infrastructure (e.g. wells and wastewater infrastructure).
3. The power of Data-as-a-Service to transform operations
The Data-as-a-Service (DaaS) Workshop defined DaaS as “a partnership model in which a Technology Supplier operates and maintains certain hardware equipment (e.g., water quality sensor, flow sensor, level sensor) to collect, transmit, and process data where the utility only pays for the delivered results.” DaaS allows water utilities to shift the risks of equipment installation, data collection and transmission, and analysis to an external provider, which delivers outcomes. There are several factors that can help determine whether a utility should implement DaaS such as an organisation’s level of digitalisation, average age, and willingness to try new solutions. Here are further insights from the Workshop, which utilised design thinking.
4. The practical benefits of Digital Twins
Digital Twins enable water utilities to collect various types of data together and understand their system as a whole. A Digital Twin can be defined as “a dynamic digital representation of real-world entities and their behaviours using models with static and dynamic data that enable insights and interactions to drive actionable and improved outcomes.” As new technologies emerge, it is important to properly communicate its advantages to the public. However, the water sector must first encourage a culture that values data. It is also essential to establish standards and best practices, learn from failures, and form industry partnerships. To assist utilities in their Digital Twin journey, SWAN released a Digital Twin Readiness Guide spearheaded by Brown and Caldwell and DHI now available to the public.
5. Removing lead is a priority
Utilities around the world must now test many of their water service lines for lead. However, there is still a high level of uncertainty about where to look. As a result, companies such as BlueConduit, Electro Scan, and Trinnex have developed helpful data analytics solutions using sensors and machine learning to detect high risk zones. It was surprising to hear that even if lead is not present in a city’s water service lines, it can still reside in a customer’s home since plumbers sometimes use lead in soldering to cut costs.
6. Customers can become advocates
The Conference provided several global examples of how utilities can incentivize customers to reduce their water consumption. For example, the Southern Nevada Water Authority pays customers to replace water-intensive turf with drought-resistant native plants. The Brazilian state water utility, CORSAN delivers several digital tools to help increase customer awareness and engagement. Customers can even use IoT technology in their home washing machines to monitor water usage. Bluefield Research also shared that some smart water technology vendors are now partnering with insurance companies to provide free leak detection sensors enabling them to detect leaks before they occur.
7. The future must be inclusive
Water connects everything; therefore, inclusion is fundamental. However, as a people-business, “we tend to discount soft skills and feelings” as stated by Emma Weisbord, Partnerships Lead at Royal HaskoningDHV Digital. Inclusivity is also about equity and diversity. As Ms. Powell explained in her keynote, “It is incumbent upon us to not only innovate, but to do so in a way that closes the divide that ensures that all communities are better for the investments we make.”
Lastly, I will leave you with an inspiring quote from Siya Bashe, Director of Commercial Services at the City of Cape Town:
“Genuinely true smart water is an art, an art that you need to balance your processes, use the data you have to navigate in an appropriate way, and use your processes that are guided by regulation to achieve your ultimate goal, a masterpiece of art.”
The world is becoming smart, it is now time to reinvent our water future. Learn more about the SWAN Conference here. SWAN Members will have access to all session recordings and presentations beginning August 1st, 2022.