There’s no denying that the future is already here — and water networks need to catch up. Back in November 2021, I hosted a panel at Aquatech in Amsterdam on the future of water distribution networks. I was lucky enough to be joined by three water experts from around the world to discuss this topic. I spoke with Gavin Van Tonder, Executive Director of Water at NEOM, Darren Coleman, System Performance Manager at Anglian Water Services, and Luke Butler, Director of Innovation at Qatium, about what utilities need to be thinking about now in order to be prepared for the future. Watch the panel here or keep reading for my write-up.

The here and now: The current state of water distribution and digital technology adoption

To kick things off, I asked the panel what the current state of water distribution looks like as it relates to digital technology adoption. Interestingly, both Darren and Luke focused on the fact that we need to be aware that we’re working with a ticking clock when it comes to digital transformation.  Darren began by explaining how we can’t afford to miss the opportunity of the digital transformation of the network, especially when we consider the aging workforce in the industry. The time is now, he said, to be agile and embrace everything from machine learning and algorithm generation to deep learning. However, he also said that we need to be cognizant that we can provide a visualization of exactly what we’re trying to achieve.  Agreeing with Darren, Luke said that we could wait for digital transformation, but it is happening right now and that a lot of these things — especially AI and machine learning — need data. We need to be collecting that data now: The more data we collect, the better the algorithms can work. But, acknowledging the industry’s historical resistance to mass-scale data collection, Darren recognized that we need to be collecting the right data to drive the right kind of value — and that we need to embrace a broader collaborative approach of working with other utilities and providers to be able to drive that value. 

The value proposition of digital water technology: Looking at where we’ve come from to where we’re headed

But, what is the value proposition of the digital transformation of water utilities? I put this question to the panel — and Gavin in particular took us through an interesting background on previous attempts to digitize the sector. He mentioned the fact that, historically, there have been perceived “benefits” of water utilities’ reliance on legacy, proprietary technology. In the past, some utilities rolled out 1 million smart devices that were used only to invoice people rather than intelligently use the information gleaned from them. This is often due to technology providers being unwilling to add other sensors or competitor devices onto their networks. He added that 5G is a complete disruption to this marketplace since it could essentially bring about plug and play rather than a bespoke network — for example, electricity meters could be connected to cellular networks to bring interoperability and competition.  However, he noted that Singapore already has three networks in place for transportation, energy, and water from the same company, and those networks still refuse to talk to each other. This goes to show, he said, that even if you’re in the same company, you still don’t want to share information with anyone else. Commenting on NEOM — a Saudi city being built to incorporate smart city technologies — Gavin said that from the start, they’re looking at customer requirements and what they expect from a distribution network more than anything else. And, he says, this includes more sensors, the connectivity that 5G will give us, and the Digital Twins that will drive that and visualize some of those outputs. Concluding, we spoke about how if we can put pressure sensors, water quality sensors, and temperature sensors on 5G on one network, we could end up with an integrated network that can actually talk to each other. It was mentioned that with Qatium, we’re already at a point where we can intelligently analyze the network and know where best to place critical pressure monitors and pinpoint leakages. 

But what does the digital transformation of water distribution networks actually look like?

Luke, talking about his favorite topic — Digital Twins — mentioned how they provide us with access to much more data on a rapid scale, and that platforms like Qatium can validate the predictions we’re already making about hydraulic models.  Wrapping up the discussion, I claimed that we won’t really know the complete value proposition that digital transformation can deliver until the technologies are actually changing business models and driving creativity in terms of value creation — which remains to be seen, as of yet, on a large scale. Will Sarni is one of the experts we are working with to co-create Qatium. Check out his profile — and other experts we work with — here.

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