Reimagining Smart Water – Reflecting on Ten Years

By Amir Cahn, SWAN CEO

This coming March will be my tenth year at SWAN – the Smart Water Networks Forum, crazy how time flies. I remember excitedly attending my first conference at WATEC in 2015 as a Research Analyst. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I have always been a “water lover,” inspired by protecting wild, endangered salmon. So, what have I learned in 10 years? 

First, organisations like SWAN must constantly evolve to adapt to current industry trends. This is reflected in the augmentation of our mission statement from only drinking water to also wastewater and stormwater challenges and opportunities, our increased focus on Data-as-a-Service and Digital Twins, the impact of young professionals, and our recent rebrand

Second, like any business, smart water is about building trusting personal relationships, which are required now more than ever to ensure a sustainable future. This can be broken down into people, processes, and technology.

PEOPLE: Since I joined SWAN, every year, there is less of a focus on technology and rather how to best integrate these solutions internally. How do you gain top leadership support and operator buy-in? I remember hearing one Water Operator say, “don’t approach me with problems I don’t have.” Technology providers need to properly understand utility challenges and simplify the ROI business case. With my background in limnology (the study of lakes and rivers) and public policy, I am also very excited to see how utilities are building external trust by creating a positive environmental impact and proactively interacting with customers.

PROCESSES: One of the best SWAN Conference keynotes I heard was from Chief Failure Officer, Paul Iske who defined “FAIL” as “First Attempt In Learning.” Clearly, there is a limit to failure (wastewater treatment plants cannot shutdown), however innovation is only possible by trying new things, which may have unexpected outcomes. Thus, the question is what to do at a turning point, abort a project or pivot to find alternative solutions? 

TECHNOLOGY: There is no shortage of innovative, game-changing solutions, but there is a gap in utility uptake. Utilities often ask if they can trust that a new solution won’t eliminate jobs, will do what it promises, be secure, and make financial sense? This helps explain why the technology adoption cycle is so slow, often with individual technology trials. I once heard that the water industry “has more pilots than the airline industry.” Does it have to be this way? 

SWAN booth at WATEC Israel (2015).

Looking Towards the Future

  • What if global utilities could openly share technology trial stories and ratings on a platform like Amazon or Facebook? New solutions based on AI and machine learning can now benefit utilities of all shapes and sizes, digital maturity levels, and budgets – these lessons learned shouldn’t be siloed, but widely shared to accelerate the industry. For instance, a utility from Bangladesh should be able to gain insights from a utility in Madrid or Vancouver.
    • What if the real barrier is not the technology itself, rather the business model in which utilities buy and operate hardware and software? Utilities and vendors can now co-create value with checks and balances on both sides through various partnership models. I believe this topic will have the biggest impact on the industry as witnessed through my PhD research.
    • What if instead of focusing on the “latest and greatest” solutions, we emphasised the practical, “how to” value of smart water, gaining lessons from failures and embracing fresh, new perspectives? This was the theme of the SWAN 2023 Conference (May 9-11 in Glasgow) focused on “Making Smart Water Mainstream.”

    How do we solve these complex challenges? Communication and collaboration are key. We must consistently engage diverse stakeholders including regulators and the public to build mutual trust. The next step in SWAN’s evolution will be to introduce a new, “Workshops-as-a-Service” concept and build off the successful Digital Twin Readiness Guide to develop industry guides on smart metering, Data-as-a-Service, and ways for utilities to organise for digital innovation.

    As stated in the new Avatar movie, “the way of water connects all things.” Unfortunately, the world’s top ten risks are also all linked to water. Now is the time to work together to reinvent our water future.

    1st SWAN DaaS Design Thinking Workshop (2022).