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Global Universities Shaping the Future of Smart Water

Part of the SWAN Member Spotlight series


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.

Raziyeh Farmani
University of Exeter (UK)
Ted Smith
University of Louisville (US)
Günter Müller-Czygan
Hof University (Germany)

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.

Q: Has your university formed any industry partnerships and if so, what have been the outcomes?

Prof. Farmani: The Centre for Water Systems (CWS) at University of Exeter, UK is an internationally renowned research centre for excellence in urban water management and digital water technologies. We work closely with many research institutions, consultancies and technology providers such as Veolia, Atkins, IBM, HR Wallingford, ARUP and many UK water companies. Our research has been mainly funded by the UK research councils, InnovateUK, Ofwat, Defra, water utilities and the European Commission. Some ongoing projects include leakage detection and localisation, water digital twins, UAVs for flood management, hydraulic modelling, groundwater modelling, and water resources management. These projects allow us to co-develop and engage our research towards understanding how to implement and benefit from smart water solutions in practice.

Prof. Smith: We are academics and that means we may know a lot about a scientific frontier in molecular biology but would not know a lift station from a pump station. For boots on the ground work, we partner with firms like AECOM and Arcadis. These firms know the infrastructure and have professionals who are trusted by our utility partners to work with the infrastructure. I like to think we have taught each other a few things over the years.

Prof. Müller-Czygan: As a university of applied sciences, cooperation with industrial partners is the focus of almost all research and knowledge transfer projects. These partnerships range from direct research commission to participation in national and international research networks up to organisational consulting for companies in their own innovation development. Of particular importance is cooperation with companies in the area of bachelor’s and master’s theses. Here, the students support the companies with special topics and develop approaches to solutions in order to carry out important basic research, which can then evolve into larger scale projects such as product development or new joint research projects within the university. At the same time, the students have the opportunity to work with potential future employers and build their professional networks.

Q: What opportunities are available for your current students and recent graduates looking to break into the smart water sector?

Prof. Farmani: Central to our activities is development of skills, knowledge, competence and leadership of water professionals and researchers. Many of our PhD research projects have been in close collaboration or co-supervision with industry which creates excellent opportunities for the students to be embedded in the water industry for some parts of their research. We are working closely with the Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence within the University and the Alan Turing Institute. Students and young professionals will join our large alumni network which include many industry leaders.

Prof. Smith: With the growth in wastewater-based epidemiology, this is a great time for students to work across disciplines. Environmental engineering students have a lot to offer to public health and toxicology students and vice versa. We are building that kind of experiential learning here at the University of Louisville Envirome Institute right now.

Prof. Müller-Czygan: The university helps students and companies connect with employment possibilities after graduation. The companies can also present themselves to students at various events. However, since water companies are increasingly looking for graduates who have both water expertise and IT skills, targeted communication between companies and students about research activities is encouraged. The students receive special training in Hof, as the research activities on the human factor and digitalisation are also part of the teaching and thus become particularly interesting for companies.

Q: How has being a SWAN Member helped to further your university’s research goals?

Prof. Farmani: As a member of SWAN we have access to world leading smart water experts, resources (reports, case studies, interactive tools) and events that are for members only. These provide great opportunities for knowledge sharing, networking, and potential collaboration. These contribute to our university’s global strategy, to support our overarching research and education aspirations, including the discovery of new knowledge linked to international collaborations.

Prof. Smith: SWAN is an excellent convener and clearing house for us. We are lost in the larger water industry organisations and find the membership of SWAN to be “our people” – they can work with technology and data which gives us a lot of common ground.

Prof. Müller-Czygan: SWAN provides a good overview, especially for research work on the state of the art and science for smart water management. Participation in working groups also opens up the perspective for new ideas, which can fall short when focusing solely on what is happening in one’s own country. In a next step, it is planned to make students more familiar with the SWAN activities, as this will give our students more international contacts and better orientation about international market trends and career opportunities.

SWAN’s Role

SWAN’s Rising Smart Water Professionals Group (RiSWP) is composed of students, young professionals, and universities passionate about connecting smart, data-driven solutions to pressing water challenges. RiSWP seeks to create an open space for collaboration and growth between aspiring smart water professionals and the industry through a global Ambassador programme, a monthly Mentorship series, professional training courses, and numerous networking opportunities.

As a University Member, all faculty, researchers, and students have full access to SWAN Membership benefits.

Want to learn more about each university programme? Reach out below:

Featured SWAN Members: