Digital Innovation in Water: Creating Value and Resilience in a Changing World
The irony is not lost on me. As I sit here in my home office I’m reviewing a draft of an upcoming white paper we are contributing towards, focussed on how our digital twin platform supported water utilities in Texas to maintain supply and operations during the ‘big freeze’ winter storm of February 2021. On this particular day however, I’m in the UK and it’s currently 40.2°C (~104.4°F) – the highest temperatures we have seen here since records began! Ice storms in Texas. Melting infrastructure in the U.K. Go figure?
I’m struck immediately by two overwhelming thoughts; the first one, as I sit here in the extreme heat, being what an excruciatingly poor choice a leather desk chair was for the home office. But secondly it’s a heightened sense of urgency; the impacts of a changing climate are no longer just articles I read about in the media, or applicable only to certain far flung regions of the planet. It’s here on my doorstep, and the doorsteps of my friends and colleagues, not just in Texas but practically everywhere you can think of is facing its own set of challenges brought about by the changing climatic conditions. It’s a sobering realisation, that the time to act has long since passed – we are now very much in damage control mode, and cannot afford to kick the can down the road any longer. We must use all the tools are resources available to fight back.
For those that had the fortitude to read through my previous blog, you’ll know that my view is that those resources are largely already available; the will is there amongst the vast majority of professionals working in the many and varied roles across the water industry and those related industries where water is so critical to their existence. The technology is there, both established and emerging technologies developing at pace to address an ever-changing set of challenges, and the ability of digital platforms to both combine and accelerate the efficiency of those technologies. In simplistic terms, as in to avoid getting into the weeds of the complex financial and political gymnastics that entangle start-up raises, M&A, project funding and legislation, the biggest bridge to cross in connecting needs to the solutions has been a combination of apathy and competing priorities. Change is inevitable, but true transformation has to be a conscious choice. Many utilities are stifled by their own internal policies and procedures, that act as a barrier to adoption for innovation – and that’s not limited to innovation solely in terms of new technology; it’s also alternative business models, funding mechanisms, data usage, and even culture. Whilst some utilities simply do not have the bandwidth to take a look at what might be coming their way tomorrow, as they’re too busy just trying to get through what’s in front of them today.
As solution providers, as frustrating as it is, we have to understand that there will always be those late adopters and laggards, and we accept that they will have to get there, but at their own pace. But the beacons of hope, as always, are the innovators and the early adopters. Those that realise they must adapt or die, those that aren’t afraid to take risks, to try new things, to take a proactive approach to balancing the challenges of today with those of tomorrow. The ‘doers’. And wow, thank goodness for the doers. The doers are awesome. I feel energised every day that I work in an industry that has an impact on the everyday lives of so many. Those energy levels go up even more when I’m around the doers, which I have had the good fortune to have been on several occasions over the past few months.
In April I attended Singapore International Water Week 2022, my first time at the event and its first time back in-person following its pandemic enforced virtual hiatus. And firstly, I must extend my thanks and congratulations to Ryan Yuen and his team for putting on the event in what must have been very extremely challenging circumstances. However, an incredibly high calibre event with a great mix of regional and international attendees made for a highly engaging and valuable week – and from the outset the theme was clear. “Climate change is a looming global challenge that threatens the existence of humanity. We don’t have a lot of time left…there’s an urgent need for collective action” is how Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and Environment framed the scale of the issue, before proceeding to explain some of the measures being implemented as part of the Singapore Green Plan. A notable evolution in what many would regard as the traditional remit for a water and wastewater utility, Singapore PUB is now tasked with the responsibility of coastal protection as part of the plans’ vision to tackle sea level rise. Unsurprisingly, energy reduction associated with water and wastewater treatment and conveyance also plays a dominant role – with a stated ambition to reduce energy consumption associated with seawater desalination to less than 2 kWh/m³ (from around 3.5 kWh/m³ at present) and a call to action for technologies and solutions to reduce energy consumption across their water and wastewater infrastructure. Singapore PUB are perhaps the ultimate doers and it was exciting to get a first-hand insight into their near and longer term visions, comforted by the knowledge that it will get done, and with the required alacrity.
Not long after Singapore, it was time to pack my bags again and head out to Washington D.C. for the SWAN 12th Annual Conference, the theme of which was ‘connecting innovation to impact’. And this is what sets SWAN apart as a member organisation; with its singular focus on increasing the awareness and acceleration of smart, data-driven solutions across the water sector. It brings together like-minded people and organisations, with the common goal of using innovation to solve challenges and provide value. And the conference did not disappoint, I must also praise Amir Cahn, Shayna Ramboz and the entire team for putting together an awesome set of workshops, visits, panel discussions, keynotes and networking opportunities. Specific Energy are proud to be a member of SWAN and active contributors to its rich eco-system; as we like to say, “these are our kind of people”. Of many highlights was the launch of the Digital Twin Readiness Guide, a culmination of 3 years of hard work from the Digital Twin Working Group in advancing the conversation around Digital Twins in the water sector, to the point of delivering a guide for utilities to best leverage this technology and the steps to successful implementation – if you haven’t already, I recommend you download a copy from the SWAN website. Elsewhere throughout the course of the conference, we heard from George Hawkins of Moonshot Missions, who excellently set the scene with some scale to the climate challenge across water, highlighting that despite the $55bn dedicated water and wastewater infrastructure spend of the Federal Infrastructure Bill to be deployed over 5 years, the U.S. is already facing $81bn capital shortfall each year, which does not include the additional impacts being driven by climate change. Joao Pitta of NEOM co-delivered the keynote presentation of the Digital Twin Workshop, giving a fascinating insight into how NEOM are applying a digital thread through the entire asset life cycle, from strategic planning, through design, project delivery and O&M. Notable from the presentation was the critical role of people in that process, and the importance of sharing the learnings from each digital journey, exploring partnerships to break down silos and further accelerate at the pace required. This was a common theme throughout the conference. Again, referring back to my previous blog post, where I highlighted the content of nearly every conference to date had been on the need for digital solutions – it was interesting to be at the pre-eminent event for smart and digital water solutions, and hear how much the role of people is critical to success. Further emphasising that technology alone is not the silver bullet, but our challenges must be faced through collaboration and knowledge sharing to drive the innovation through to real impact.
Integrated smart city/region initiatives such as NEOM are creating showcase project opportunities that can be used to educate and drive that knowledge sharing across both mature and emerging economies, which is what makes them so exciting when looking beyond just their scale and technological advancement. The more ‘mature’ digital markets such as North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific all still have a long way to go as we know; the doers are still in the minority, and many, particularly smaller utilities, are just starting or still wondering where to start on their digital transformation journey. And so the resources, thought leadership and knowledge transfer is as important here as it is to the less digitally mature markets. Which is actually where the majority of accelerated growth is forecast to come from. In their recently published Global Digital Water Forecast Report, Bluefield Research suggest emerging and developing markets will account for approximately 30% of the estimated US$387.5bn of total global spend on digital water technologies over the next decade. Furthermore, this expenditure in developing markets is expected to scale at an annual rate of 11.4%, compared to 7.7% over the same period in advanced economies.
That’s a whole lot of money to be spent! In a Water Data Webinar recently, Global Water Intelligence provided their insights into where that money is going to be spent, and what the main drivers are across the utility and industrial markets. Unsurprisingly, the key drivers for utility digital water spend are mitigating climate change, minimising carbon footprint in line with their net-zero targets, and improving asset management. Most industrial end-markets were predicted to have high-single to double-digit CAGR’s over the next 5 years to address a varying set of challenges, but with much commonality to those faced in the municipal sector. Of particular interest, was the highlight of edge computing within both the microelectronics and power generation markets, where it is rapidly emerging as the go-to solution given the advantages is affords in relation to early failure detection and maintenance planning, enabling faster reaction time and reducing risk of single point failure. These same benefits of edge computing are equally applicable to the utility sector, where ensuring resilience of operation is key and the optimisation benefits of real-time data analytics support overall energy and operational efficiency. At Specific Energy, our technology solutions are built on the power of edge computing for this very reason, allowing us to provide the optimum level of analytics and service to our customers on their most critical of assets.
Climate change isn’t going away. Rising energy prices are not going away any time soon. The need to provide a resilient and efficient service to customers is not going away either. And neither are we. Specific Energy will continue supporting our existing customers, bringing our new customers online and advancing the discussions with potential customers and partners to support them on their digital transformation journey. We’ll also be very busy in various capacities at several key conferences over the remainder of the year; September alone sees us at WaterJAM 2022 in Virginia Beach VA, NRWA WaterPro Conference 2022 in National Harbour MD, IWA World Water Congress 2022 in Copenhagen, WETEX 2022 in Dubai, and World Water Tech North America in Los Angeles CA. Then in October we’re exhibiting at WEFTEC 2022 in New Orleans, LA (booth No. 6213 in the Intelligent Water & Cybersecurity Pavilion). We’d love to have those discussions with you too, so come and find us if you’re at one of the shows, or send us an email, and let’s keep the conversations moving forward. In the meantime, I’m off to buy a new chair and a bigger fan!