Glasgow, Scotland hosted the 13th Annual SWAN Conference in May 2023. Over 400 participants, representing 42 countries and 73 utilities joined in-person and virtually over the course of three days to discuss this year’s theme of “Making Smart Water Mainstream.” The event included various formats such as workshops, panels, interactive roundtables, masterclasses, and networking opportunities. As volunteers, we summarise below our key takeaways into three recurring themes: Data, People, and Innovation.
From the very first day, there was an evident focus on people within the water industry. During his introductory talk, Richard Millar, Interim CEO at Scottish Canals highlighted the power of Digital Twins in bringing communities together. Glasgow’s smart canals not only monitor water levels hourly, they have also changed the health dynamics of the local community, helping to create new homes and jobs, improve access to hospitals, and increase community engagement.
People were also the focus across discussions relating to continuing the smart water journey. During a productive roundtable activity, good PR management for water utilities, continuous training, and adequate remuneration were said to be critical factors in attracting and retaining new talent. As such, utilities can implement young professional initiatives, which build strong communities and train young staff. Utilities can also learn from each other via international and knowledge transfer programmes.
Excellent points on solid business strategies were made during the Operationalising Digital Twins – Global Case Studies panel and “Embracing Brilliant Failures” Masterclass. One can take a people-centric approach by building with people, not just for them. For optimum digital twin adoption, it’s essential to ask people (stakeholders, communities, utilities, and end-users) what their problems are and work from there, rather than just try to sell a product. Dr. Paul Iske from the Institute of Brilliant Failures reminded us that failures are just your “First Attempt in Learning” and recognising failures as such helps to avoid some common pitfalls that can occur early on in the innovation process.
We must uphold the importance of data in decision-making. Rob Mustard, Director of Digital and Transformation at Scottish Water stated the utility currently adds 40 gigabytes of data daily to the 14 terabytes existing in their databases. The move from small data to big data was also highlighted during the “Easing the Smart Metering Journey” talk. Canal de Isabel II in Spain shared that data is being received by the hour, rather than once a month, as was the case just a few years ago. In Malta, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is helping to build a clear line of communication between providers and users, and in Cape Town following a severe drought period, data from smart metering is helping to build trust within communities.
Within utilities, there is an urgent need to circulate data between teams and adapt it to fit the end user’s needs. As mentioned during the “Remote Monitoring to Drive Conditional Assessment” talk by Syrinix and Atkins Global communicating the correct information between all stakeholders, such as operating rooms and data science teams, is crucial to avoid an overflow of information and, more importantly, to highlight real dangers.
After collecting vast volumes of data over the years, utilities have realised that data is only as good as the insights that it provides . When sharing his work with Northumbrian Water, Dr. John Gaffney from Siemens stressed the importance of being insight-minded, not data-minded. Being cognisant of a project’s end goals and not staying stuck with the choice of tools was also one of the key lessons that Stephanie Leblanc, Sr. Manager at Halifax Water, and Michael Allen, CTO of TeamSolve, shared during the waterside session “AI & Water – Hype or Reality?” One of the overarching takeaways was the need to invest in data skills to support the new influx of data and gain insights from it. As Louise Meadows from Greater Western Water said, “Our people, not our pipes, are our biggest asset.”
One of the main themes of the second day was “Organising for Digital Innovation.” The speakers shared examples of how utilities around the world have made innovation a core part of their organisations. The water sector is facing complicated and complex challenges, with the former having a linear logic. Water operators have the skills and methods to deal with complicated challenges, those of which can be overcome by following standard procedures. However, complex challenges are non-linear and unpredictable, often with disproportionate impacts requiring adaptive and flexible responses.
To organise for innovation means to instil a culture that fosters innovation — to build an organisation where everybody thrives, people are held accountable, and make a difference. Such an organisation is built upon care, commitment, and pride, where employees should focus on what matters, collaborate and challenge.
One of the biggest drivers of digital innovation is the ability to collaborate. Sourav Daspatnaik, Managing Director of Swach Environment, India, highlighted the role of working with other utilities, both nationally and internationally. He discussed how he has worked with other experts and solution providers while sharing the impressive digital progress that his utility has made. Echoing this sentiment, Stephane Gervais from LACROIX Group added that collaboration has to come from a singular, shared goal, and that separate agendas only get in the way of innovation.
Digital and innovative utilities require three things: digital mindsets, new ways of working, and the workforce of the future.
Overall, it was evident that utilities have come a long way from exploring the benefits of making their water network smart, to sharing tangible takeaways from their smart networks and systems. Of course, the extent of progress made across different aspects of the smart water stages varies from utility to utility. SWAN is an interactive ecosystem where they bring together their diverse experiences and learn from each other. Making smart water mainstream takes deliberate and dedicated effort, and it helps to keep people, data, and innovation at the focus of all smart initiatives.