It’s time for the water sector to tap into data

  • Posted on November 16, 2021
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes
The Water Sector And Data

There’s no doubt that Ofwat’s last five yearly price reviews (PR19) have put the water sector under immense pressure. Targets set include a 16 percent reduction in leakage, a mains bursts reduction of 12 percent, whilst at the same time customer bills must fall by 12 percent before inflation.

But PR19 also has the potential to act as a positive catalyst within the water sector. Ofwat put innovation at the centre of its price review, which focuses on four themes: resilience; customer service; affordability and vulnerability; and innovation. The regulator sees driving innovation within the sector as an enabler to the other themes and playing a critical role in transforming water company performance.

The UK’s water sector clearly has an appetite for innovation, with 18 water companies joining together to create the UK 2050 water innovation strategy to reinvent and reimagine the UK water sector by 2050. And with Ofwats £200m water innovation fund, the funding is also there.

To reach Ofwat’s targets water companies will have to learn to operate in new ways and employ new technology. Innovation within the sector is going to be driven by thinking outside the box and discovering new ways to tap into, analyse and utilise data.

The UK’s water challenges
Before we look at how data can be used within the water sector to unlock operational insights and drive efficiency and innovation, let’s take a quick look at the challenges the industry faces.

There are two main drivers pushing Ofwat’s targets and its central innovation theme. First there’s the stark warning from the Environment Agency that, if no action is taken between 2025 and 2050, around 3,435 million extra litres of water per day will be needed for public water supply across the UK. Then there’s the ambitious plans to reach net zero carbon by 2050, and net zero operational carbon emissions by 2030.

With around 21% of water supply across England and Wales lost due to leaks and bursts, and with climate change and an ever-increasing population leading to wider spread water stress, the pressure to innovate has never been greater.

Opportunities to innovate
The industry has been tasked with delivering transformational change through better use of data and/or technology. That’s because, to date, across the industry data collection and analysis has largely been a people orientated, time-consuming, labour-intensive and often unfruitful affair.

Technological advances offer exciting new opportunities which the sector must embrace. Automated data collection through the use of sensors, satellite data, virtual and augmented reality, Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and digital twins, combined with the ability to analyse enormous volumes of data through data analytics and machine learning, represent a step change in the sector’s approach to unlocking insights in order to be predictive, proactive and to drive efficiencies.

Digital thinking needs to be applied and impact every aspect of water – from management of sources, treatment technology and efficiency, consumption and customer engagement, through to re-use, collection and recovery.

Thinking outside the box
Collaboration with leading experts within the field will be key to untapping a wealth of new ideas and tools, particularly in the areas of monitoring and maintaining assets, better serving customers, reducing leaks and mains bursts, identifying exposure to flood risk, limiting asset strikes and reducing consumption.

The good news is, faster, cheaper, more powerful computing and cloud adoption means the ability to explore and test potential solutions and scenarios quickly and iteratively, and to discard those that don’t work, means solutions can be reached in terms of weeks, as opposed to months or even years. The ability to ‘fail fast’ prioritises small projects that can be realised and then assessed for effectiveness in a very short timeframes.

What’s more, as solutions are tested and realised, imaginations within and between teams are opened up and exciting opportunities and possibilities for future digital transformation are brought to the fore. Fostering a digital culture will be critical to success as momentum builds.

The digital revolution provides tremendous cause for optimism. Smart technologies, applied intelligently, will transform the sector’s ability to deliver services, enhance capital investment and operational efficiency, and improve customer service, environmental performance, resource sustainability and employee wellbeing.

But to take full advantage of the opportunities, the sector will need to embrace change. The challenge ahead should not be underestimated. Digital transformation within the sector requires strategic planning and execution, not least to successfully integrate new technology into legacy assets and infrastructure. Success also depends on shedding the legacy of dogmatic and asset and people-centric thinking that has historically been a barrier to experimentation. It’s time to get a new perspective through connected data.

Huge volumes of data already exist within water industry infrastructure. The challenge is how best to harvest and analyse it, to produce the insights that inform game-changing operational decisions and improvements in the performance of assets.

By acting now to explore what new technology, tools and solutions can be applied to automate and improve processes and gain intelligent insights, water companies can succeed and have the positive environmental impact that is expected by customers and the regulator.

Where would you like to start? Tell us your top three challenges, and we’ll ‘think outside the box’ to start your digital transformation journey!

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