Two tribes – one water cycle
When we were children, one of the first science projects we ever did at primary school was the water cycle. Rain fell from clouds, trickled along streams into rivers, out into the sea, and back up into the air. All over the world, there are pictures of the water cycle in crayon held in place with fridge magnets in the kitchen.
And 20 years later, with our degrees in engineering, environmental science, we choose a tribe.
The clean-water tribe ensures that homes and businesses have access to potable water – even if as consumers we choose to use it to shower or wash our socks.The waste water tribe disposes of it, carrying away brown water, processing and feeding it back into the water cycle and producing biogas when possible.
These are self-evidently part of the same process but split by tradition, by plant and network specialties, and by organization. It’s not that surprising either: if, for example, you are managing a water purification plant, you are paid to ensure that safety and purity standards are met within budget. Even if a significant proportion of your product is lost through leaking pipes, or wasted by consumers– plant teams have no direct incentive to drive customer change.
Who cares about joining up the cycle?
Business is business, and the two tribes care about what affects their ability to deliver the specified service to the agreed quality standards, and in a profitable manner.
There are, however, stakeholders with a clear interest in the bigger picture. Local authorities, for example, are keen promoters of environmental standards, and are keen to manage pumped ground water responsibly.
Urbanization is one of the dominant movements of our age. The municipalities and government agencies which award contracts need to ensure that growing urban populations get the services. They need to implement socially responsible strategies and need to be seen to do so. They are also under continuous pressure to manage limited budgets openly and transparently.
Business consumers also need to demonstrate that they have integrated sustainability into their business strategy. In the 2016 Global Risk Report issued by the World Economic Forum, water crises ranked pretty much top in terms of both impact and likelihood.
Digital transformation and tribal realignment
Would there be any benefits from aggregating the two tribes’ data into a single system? Could a 360° vision of the managed water cycle help us understand how and when this most precious resource is used?
Without such a vision, we can’t evaluate the true environmental impact of water usage and management; we can’t, for example, understand if we are drawing too much water from underground sources, or if fish stocks and flora are affected by treatment and usage.
This 360° vision would enable us to see beyond the environmental and sustainability picture. It is equally essential from a business and operational perspective. Detecting and fixing leaks is expensive, and wholesale renewal projects require major investment. Can it help us optimize and prioritize network intervention?
This 360° vision also takes us outside the confines of the restricted water utility. Just as we need water to produce electricity, , we need electricity to produce water. How would a bigger picture help us balance these relationships from both an operational and commercial perspective? As member of the Atos utility team, I focus on the water industry, and specifically on how to improve operational efficiency through digital innovation.
Water management clients can benefit from affordable new technologies in many areas – from securing mobile applications with wearable devices; through new data analytics for efficient operations; shifting from reactive to predictive maintenance; and the adoption of a consolidated view in SCADA for treatment, distribution and reclamation.
The interest today lies in the way we can shift the focus from a restricted view of operational efficiency to embrace a wider social dialogue – especially at local government level.
Social media can create an extended team, inviting the public to report leaks or signs of contamination with pictures and geo-tags for immediate prioritization, assessment and intervention.
Digitization to improve operational efficiency coupled with data coming from the whole water cycle and from social media open perspectives that have not been explored yet.
This innovation focus doesn’t mean that we have abandoned the practical application of digital technology to water process management. We are convinced of the extended benefits of broadening the discussion.
Wherever the “smart city” is the point of consideration, water management specialists – from both tribes – must be part of the discussion. This is no longer about the provision of a tightly ring-fenced service, but about asking how our combined actions can raise the standards of environmental and economic responsibility in our growing urban environments.