Report May 2023

How Utilities Organize for Digital Innovation

Collaborative report unpacking insights on how utilities organize themselves to effectively embrace digital innovation. Findings are based on the 2022 SWAN Americas Alliance, EPIC and Bluefield Research survey of 34 diverse water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities across 10 countries.


Eric Bindler, Bluefield Research | Reed Van Beveren, EPIC | Jennifer Suttles, Gwinnett County | Tim Medearis, Innovyze/Autodesk | Nishanth Senthilkumar, HR Green/Houston Water | Sandra DiMatteo, Bentley | Shirley Ben-Dak, SWAN Forum


Janelle Boelter, Las Vegas Valley Water District | Matthew Santella, City of Marlborough, MA | Mike Beardslee, Loudoun Water | Flavio Eduardo Soares e Silva, CORSAN | Joukje Keuning, Vitens | Nima Najafi, Metro Vancouver | Alan Tucker, Brown & Caldwell | Adam Tank & Kevin Shipp, Transcend | Jessica Mahr, EPIC | Joel Knight, Optimatics | Christobel Ferguson, WRF | Camilla Braithwaite, Rezatec | Ken Thompson, Jacobs | Aditya Ramamurthy, Kennedy/Jenks | David Rose, Thales Water Advisors | Nina Rossiter, formerly Bluefield Research | Mathilde Guglielmi & Erika Scelfo, formerly SWAN Fourm

With special thanks to over 30 global utility survey respondents and interviewees for sharing their insights.

Executive Summary

Rising population rates, federal and local regulatory demands, deteriorating infrastructure, environmental challenges, increased customer transparency expectations, limited or competing budgets, and poor operational and network performance are among some of the key phenomena sparking the adoption and acceleration of smart water technologies. 

While data-driven technologies remain a critical part of the smart water movement across drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities, the successful uptake of innovative tools remains largely dependent on people and organizations. This ranges from utility management and staff buy-in at the onset of a project, to the extent to which operators are comfortable with the implemented changes following technology roll-out. 

Therefore, the technology itself isn’t the issue. In fact, the market landscape of smart water technologies has been growing steadily, consistently adding to the exciting ecosystem of both startups and mature companies alike. What’s more intriguing and often complex is unpacking the human and organizational factors impacting technology adoption and implementation.

So how do utilities organize themselves to effectively embrace digital innovation? How do utilities address data sharing roadblocks both internally and externally? Is there an optimal organizational structure for utilities to consider when embarking on their smart water journeys? Are utilities fostering a positive environment to promote innovation within their teams to ensure continuity? What can we learn from other utilities on how their institutions position themselves for smart water success? 

In this SWAN Americas Alliance report launched in partnership with the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), we dive into some of the analysis behind these questions to help uncover utility best practices, advice for preventing unexpected outcomes, and practical insights that may shape future smart water implementation. This report follows the release of a 2022 SWAN Americas Alliance survey conducted with EPIC and Bluefield Research, covering responses from 38 utility workers from 34 diverse water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities across 10 countries (ranging in size from 4,000 to more than 4 million people served). In compiling this report, we conducted strategic in-depth interviews with select utility respondents to add further commentary on best practices and lessons learned from practical digital innovation examples.  

We invite you to read on to learn about some of the highlights we uncovered during our research. This includes identifying key factors driving and inhibiting digital innovation, understanding how perceptions of innovativeness can differ from day-to-day reality within a utility organization, noting which key players and stakeholders set the innovation agenda, and highlighting specific structures and practices that utilities can put in place to foster an innovative data-driven culture.

Respondent Demographics

Notable Report Highlights:

Innovation Drivers & Inhibitors (Chapter Two):

  • The top three inhibitors included lack of time/bandwidth, organizational structure/bureaucracy, and unclear business case/ROI for digital technologies.
  • For those utilities facing budget constraints, consider creative ways to fund digital innovation, such as making the business case by connecting project ROI and operational and labor-related savings.

Innovation Perceptions vs. Actions (Chapter Three):

  • The relationship between technology adoption and innovation involves a feedback loop. An organizational commitment to innovate is likely to build momentum over time and have benefits for attracting technology talent and partnering with other organizations.
(Click image to enlarge)

Innovation Influencers & Stakeholders (Chapter Four):

  • While upper management, engineering, and IT often drive technology adoption, no one set of stakeholders should be single-handedly responsible for innovation, and all groups have a role to play in ensuring that innovation is successful at an organizational level.

Institutional Structures & Practices (Chapter Five):

  • Although over 80% of survey participants stated that they have some form of institutionalized innovation, ‘very innovative organizations’ supplied more opportunities for active staff participation.

Start by taking small steps as you embark on your smart water journey, don’t jump ahead to the most beautiful platform or dashboard.

– Joukje Keuning, Vitens (Netherlands)

All security and integration related issues need to be figured out before (or at the latest during) the smart water pilot. Proper vetting is needed to successfully evaluate and move beyond piloting to deployment.

– Mike Beardslee, Loudoun Water (US)

Thank You to Our Report Sponsor!

Access the Full Report

SWAN Members may login to download the full report. Non-Members, please fill-in your details below and then scroll down to the bottom of this page to access the report.