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THE FUTURE OF SMART WATER NETWORKS

As water increasingly becomes one of the world’s most precious resources, ATi UK’s Executive Director, Garry Tabor, discusses why resilience and sustainability are the hot topics within the water industry and how periodic smart water health checks are a key part of achieving a sustainable future for drinking water.

As we emerge from the first half of 2020, one that has seen some truly unprecedented times, and we move forward into the latter half of the year, now is perhaps the right time to conduct a health check on the current position of smart water, both here in the UK and globally.

At the start of the year, it is safe to say that ATi UK were more excited than ever about the continued growth of smart water, eager to see the changes, opportunities and capabilities that this new technology and alliances are set to bring to the water industry in 2020 and beyond.

Looking back over the previous four years, the topic of smart water has created a real buzz, not only from the water industry itself, but also the investment sector. One of the key reasons for this was because, up until this point, the stresses of increasing populations and lack of infrastructure investment was highlighting that existing water resilience strategies were completely inadequate.  Along with the continued impact of climate change, this has caused investment analysts to predict global investment in the smart water sector to exceed $25B in Europe and North America alone over the next 10 years.

Climate Change, Increasing Population and Aging Infrastructures

If we examine the rationale behind this, it all makes sound economic sense.  Emerging democracies with fast expanding populations are elected on the pretext of a better life for the nation state. Sanitation and safe, readily available drinking water is in the top five demands of voters. If you don’t deliver on election promises you are unlikely to stay in power too long.

Consider also for one second how any emerging nation government, starting today with a clean sheet of paper would plan the development of a new mega city – they might just build in IoT from the very start.

The world’s cities have increased in number and location and according to reports from the United Nations Human Settlements Program, in 2015 there were around 30 megacities across the globe, housing more than 10 million people, compared with just 14 megacities in 1995. This is a growth of 100% in 20 years.  This has placed a huge strain on the demand for clean, safe water and further confirmation of the need for new technology.

Conversel, if we examine the more developed nations of the world Western Europe and North America, we see that repeated governments have failed to maintain the level of infrastructure investment to match population growth. The results are stark.  Many western economies have poorly performing and failing water systems that need urgent attention……or as we in the industry call it, smart water.

The Health of Smart Water

So, what is the health of smart water and how is it developing? In the UK, the water industry has made bold claims and business plans that reach to the year 2050, stating its intention to invest and harness the benefits that smart water delivers, including delivering effective sanitation and sustainable clean water to every member of society. To their credit, every single water company in the UK is on board with these plans, with major pilot programs underway to gather the data that will deliver vital insights, allowing utilities to “up-scale” their technology and make major advances.

Up until this point, many UK water companies viewed smart water as a tool to deal with the growing pressure of leakage performance, however this is a dangerous and narrow path to take.  Smart water’s technological innovation also plays a crucial role in predictive and proactive understanding of pipeline activity, giving operators access to advanced, reliable and actionable insights that will change the future of the water industry.

The challenge has now shifted from the need to develop cutting-edge smart technology, as this has now been well proven.  Instead individual water companies need to break down their own silo management structures that focus on results in defined areas of their operations.  They need to empower their innovation departments to get total company buy-in and embrace innovation by collaboration in order to deliver a truly holistic smart water solution – one that links the optimisation of waste and clean operations with actionable insights.  This source to tap approach creates real-time awareness of water quality throughout the cycle and suggest optimal control. 

Data Rich, Knowledge Smart, Source to Tap Solutions

Put simply, the supply chain can no longer remain technologically isolated; instead multi-layered, strategic alliances, focused on meaningful outcomes for the industry, are a prerequisite.  These alliances need to be transparent collaborations, with shared values to improve the industry. Only then can a strategy be built that delivers true values that the regulator demands from the industry.

Many water companies lack the resources to pull this holistic approach for smart water together in one coherent plan. The role of a water specialist contractor is therefore vital, working with utilities to discuss their aims and aspirations, whilst auditing the whole business and reporting back on the steps necessary to achieve full digital transformation across every silo. This has already been achieved within both the oil and gas industries, which are now fully transformed and squeezing every last drop out of operation efficiency to deliver the best results, while sustaining their limited resource.  Sadly, perhaps our most precious natural resource, the one that sustains life throughout the world, is at risk of being left behind.  However it is not too late.

Advanced Thinking for Long Term Solutions

Up until recently, water companies looked at smart water as a quick fix to the challenge of leakage and over the past three years they have invested millions of pounds installing acoustic leak detection sensors, in the belief that this will solve the problem.  The reality is that on their own, acoustic sensors will only give you part of the solution by identifying the approximate location of a leak. But as a leakage manager within a water company, it is important to look at how you take this information to quantitatively reduce your leakage figures:

  • How big is the leak?
  • What impact is it having on the overall supply?
  • Could the leak cause a public health risk?
  • Are there water quality issues?
  • Will the leak lead to disruption of supply?
  • And more importantly, which leak should we focus the scarce resources we have on fixing?

Holistic smart water would give you all of this information.  You could manage leakage in a less reactive manor and create a more optimised, proactive approach.  With more data insight brought through smart water, you could focus your leakage teams to dig up the correct part of the road, which if not acted upon could cause greater problems, leading to bigger financial costs.

A Holistic Approach to Smart Water

An example of how this approach works better has recently been demonstrated, with a number of UK water companies working with water consultants to collect a broader cluster of data-sets from a collaboration of supply chain providers. One recent pilot study in the North of England involved upward of 14 different supply chain partners, all collaborating to deliver a ‘data lake’ of information, presented on one unified analytics platform.  From pressure, flow, chlorine, turbidity, PRV valves, to consumer smart meters, this project has created a truly smart distribution network.

For the first time, smart water technology is forming part of ATi UK’s framework offers, which is a true indication that this is high on the agendas of water companies.  UK utilities are now firmly committed to investing multiple millions of pounds on a more holistic approach to smart water over the new amp period, with ATi UK being asked by numerous water companies to tender for significant numbers within the contractual, supply chain frameworks.  What is greatly encouraging is that this is just the start – we’re in the foothills of this market.

I believe passionately that true smart water is arriving fast.  Right now, the globe is coping with more fearful and present issues, but smart water is firmly on the right path and it is in all of our interests to keep this topic high on the agenda. As with many other opportunities that have come along, it will be the organisations who are less involved with the ‘now’, but are more visionary in their thinking, that will find themselves at the top of the mountain.

Phase one of smart water is now complete and proven, innovative technology is in place.  It is now time for us all to collectively move into phase two and drive forward with our commitment to delivering the best possible outcome for our most valuable resource. 


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