“Well, there’s certainly a lot going on” was a comment I heard between a couple of delegates as we walked towards the coffee station during the morning break at one of the conferences I attended in the early part of this year. It was a simple comment made in passing, but it really struck a chord with me on multiple levels. Firstly, at a more socio-economic level, we are in the midst of troubling and unpredictable times; as we carefully tread forwards to navigate our way out of the pandemic and into the ‘new normal’ we all wondered about. Rather than living through it, we’re now beginning to look back on its impact and how it has changed our industry and our daily lives. And, like everyone else, we continue to be hugely troubled by the situation in Ukraine – our thoughts are with everyone affected by the abhorrent actions perpetrated by the invading forces and we continue to hope for a swift and peaceful resolution.

Closer to home, we’ve all felt the impact of these situations, not least most recently in rising energy and fuel prices. The water sector is not immune, in fact it’s probably never been more apparent to those outside of the industry quite what a critical role water and the professionals working in, with and for it, play in every aspect of daily life. The impact of water supply, stewardship and quality and its direct connections to costs and availability across agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and even investment, means water is now a leading part of consciousness from the shop floors to the boardrooms. This takes me back to that passing comment that originally started my train of thought, as I started to think more specifically about what is now going on across the water sector, and it is as the guy said “a lot”. This was a welcome revelation to me, and probably the shot of energy and adrenalin I needed more than the coffee. For a very brief period prior to joining Specific Energy I actually left the water industry in 2019 after 20+ years, and the major driver of that decision was just incredible frustration at the general inertia that existed within much of the sector. I felt I had spent the last 5, 10, even 15 years going to conferences, meetings and events and hearing the same challenges get raised and hearing the same cast of characters talk about how “we need to start thinking about this” or “we need to do more to address that” but at best it had become and echo chamber, because nothing was ever really getting done, at least not at the pace required. There was a really interesting article just this month in the New York Times by Dr Andrew Schwartz, addressing how a history of inaction is now resulting with California in the grips of crippling aridification. In the article, he used the metaphor that “rather than investing in body armor, we’ve just been hoping that the trigger won’t be pulled” which I think hits home with many of us long term water folks, even beyond California. But there are signs of hope to suggest that is changing.

In particular, digital technologies are a major catalyst for that change. Over the course of the conferences and events I have attended so far in 2022, I would estimate that at least 70-80% of the agenda topics and themes have focussed on digital technologies and data-driven solutions. Whether it’s the drive to Net Zero Carbon, increased collaboration or people and culture, digital technologies are now imbedded into the mindset as the key enabler to progress. Marco Achilea of ABB gave a fascinating talk at World Water Tech 2022 in London, where he discussed the need for a progressive approach to people and technology in order to achieve optimisation, before joining a panel to discuss ‘Analytics on the Edge – Optimising Water and Wastewater Operations’ – this was a particularly enlightening discussion given our focus at Specific Energy; combining the power of edge analytics and digital twins to drive down the cost of ownership of pump systems and ensure resilience of supply. It was my first time back at World Water Tech in-person since 2019 and it was great to connect with so many people once again in an open and energising environment. Other highlights of the event for me were hearing from the ever-engaging Art Umble of Stantec talk about the need for updated water reuse and stewardship policy making to bring down barriers to drought resilience. Gavin Van Tonder of NEOM gave an update on how they are evaluating technology potential, feasibility and integration for driving circularity in water production, treatment and transmission. Jon McClean of Evoqua and Karsten Lumbye of Aarhus Vand also held a really insightful session discussing their organisations current approach and focus areas around resource recovery – “waste as an opportunity” in action at last.

I was also fortunate enough to participate in Water Innovation Network’s Water Connect 2022 where we were able to spend the morning as supply chain partners with Anglian Water’s technical and innovation leaders, hearing directly from them on their progress to date with key current priorities and future direction. The afternoon consisted of two parallel workshop sessions, focussed on ‘A Resilient and Intelligent Water Supply’ and ‘Unpacking Anglian Water’s Net-Zero Ecosystem’. Both highly informative and interactive sessions where the need for digital optimisation, data, analytics and collaboration were again a common thread of necessity throughout.

The Future of Utilities: Water 2022 event in London was another where the themes of Net-Zero, data and analytics, digital transformation, people and culture made up almost the entirety of the agenda, which once again provided some great insights and lively discussions with UK utilities on their respective journeys. A lot of progress is being made, but it was evident that as a sector we still have a lot more that can and needs to be done. It was also enlightening to hear from one UK water utility CEO, who advised the audience that for the first time in his career his shareholders are now more focussed on their ESG performance than their EBITDA! Now, I’m not sure if this is 100% true, but even if ESG is now elbowing its way up towards the top of board agendas, then it is a sign of its increasing importance at the higher levels of industry and policy making. Which can only be a good thing for the sector moving forwards, as it is critical we raise this level of awareness in order to educate and expand understanding of the value of water. There was also recognition of the need for a little more agility and flexibility in regulation, in relation to utility business plans, to react and deal with unforeseen or unplanned issues; whether that’s climate change causing extreme flooding events for example, or rising energy costs accelerating the need to adopt energy efficiency technologies. The advantages of digital technologies to be able to prepare, mitigate and rapidly and efficiently react to such emergency measures, as well as the more ‘traditional’ challenges associated with water security and resilience, means it is essential that the collaboration required to accelerate their adoption is undertaken as a matter of urgency. So, it has been encouraging to see it dominate agendas and discussions at industry events so far this year, which is why at last we can say that “there is a lot going on” in the water sector, and now mean it!

At Specific Energy we’re proud to play our part in helping to accelerate the digital transformation, and we’re excited to grow our footprint with utility customers, operators and other digital providers to collaborate and address challenges to deliver value as a trusted partner. We’ll continue to be in attendance either as delegates, speakers or exhibitors at several key industry events throughout Q2, April highlights include Singapore International Water Week 2022 and Florida Water Resources Conference in Daytona Beach, then onto the SWAN 12th Annual Conference in Washington D.C. in May and AWWA ACE 22 in San Antonio, TX in June. It’s clear that collaboration and openness is key to accelerating the changes required, so please feel free to send an email or LinkedIn message to connect with myself or any of the team at these events, we’d love the opportunity to meet, have a drink and exchange ideas to see where we can help each other.

Matt Rolls serves as Specific Energy's Vice President of Business Development in EMEA and is based in the UK. Matt has 25 years of experience in the water and wastewater sector.

Matt Rolls
Vice President Business Development, EMEA