With ageing assets, a climate emergency and increasing water scarcity, digital solutions will play a key role in the water sector’s response – but the human touch could be the final piece of the puzzle, says Lila Thompson, chief executive of British Water.

The UK water sector is already looking ahead to the 2025-2030 asset management period and recognising that there needs to be a fundamental change in the way utilities deliver their services.

Digital technologies are already being introduced at pace and water companies and the supply chain need to fully embrace their potential, especially during these challenging and financially constrained times. The next phase is expected to be further travel down the road to digital transformation, but what does that really mean?

Simply put, digital transformation is the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements. There are four main areas of digital transformation:

  • Data
  • Technology
  • People
  • Processes

Embracing digital technologies in any or all of these areas helps keeps an organisation competitive and adaptable. In water, that means future-proofing against the challenges of climate change, population growth, maintaining asset health and increasing environmental targets.

Growing market

With interest in data-driven solutions at an all-time high in water, systems such as digital twins, intelligent asset management, geographical information systems (GIS) and artificial intelligence (AI) are helping utilities around the world gain insight, make informed decisions and improve services at an unprecedented rate. They also represent a rapidly growing market.

According to statista.com, businesses worldwide will spend US$3.4 trillion on their transition to becoming digital enterprises. Looking specifically at the water sector – Bluefield Research’s global digital water forecast 2022-2030, states emerging and developing markets will account for roughly 30% of the US$387.5 billion in total global digital water spend expected over the next decade.

In addition, digital water expenditure in emerging markets is projected to scale at an annual rate of 11.4%, compared to 7.7% for advanced economies.

Frustratingly slow

Even with the demonstrable ability of digital technologies to transform water and wastewater, compared with other sectors, the pace of adoption is still slow. For example, key findings from British Water’s most recent survey found innovation and digital scores continue to be low across the sector, despite increased investment.

British Water‘s annual UK Water Company Performance Survey asks contractors, consultants and suppliers to rate their clients’ performance in 11 areas, including innovation and working digitally. Two water companies – Northumbrian Water and Anglian Water- were identified by respondents as demonstrating excellence in these areas.

The high scores of these two companies reflect the fact that both organisations have endeavored to embrace digital transformation and innovation across every level of the business and strive to “get people in a room” through Northumbrian’s Innovation Festival and Anglian’s Water Innovation Network.

Integrated technologies

No individual technology can tackle all the water sector’s problems. The key is the ability of companies to take a number of different technologies and integrate them effectively to achieve better outcomes – ensuring good data quality is key to this

Mark Enzer is strategic advisor at consultancy Mott MacDonald. In his keynote speech at British Water’s most recent data conference in London, he explained how boosting data and analytics collaboration can help the sector to meet future challenges.

Presently the data is often split across multiple platforms such as SCADA, GIS mapping, remote sensors and maintenance systems, but by bringing these datasets together they can be fed into a digital twin model, he argued.

Before digital transformation can meaningfully happen, companies must invest the time and money to build robust data management processes and governance models so data can be captured correctly and consistently across the entire organisation.

Working together

The view from the supply chain is that some water companies approach innovation in a transactional way. They will use innovations they are comfortable with or because something is needed urgently.

This creates a narrow route and specific outcomes with regard to innovation. This is why we are pleased to see Ofwat’s recent announcement of a Water Discovery Challenge aimed at supporting early-stage innovation, and that will be open to entries from anyone, with no requirement for organisations to partner with a water company to enter.

So how can innovation be better facilitated?

It is the responsibility of everyone involved in providing water and wastewater services to come together – including water companies, the supply chain, government bodies, NGOs and other key stakeholders. They need to discuss, debate, exchange and disseminate information on the latest solutions and innovations using new platforms such as SPRING which aims to accelerate water sector transformation

It could be that the key to unlocking this virtual world is harnessing the power of very real human collaboration. Upcoming British Water events like ‘creating a more sustainable water sector’ taking place in London in March, and our Spring reception at the Houses of Parliament, in April, seeks to do just this- by bringing people together from across the sector and supply chain for timely, future-focused discussions and networking opportunities.