Developing the digital water toolbox

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Digital technologies are reshaping the water sector, and the implications and opportunities around this are the focus of this year’s IWA Digital Water Summit. The Source spoke to Dragan Savic, chair of the steering committee of IWA’s Digital Water Programme.


The diversity and potential of digital technologies in the water sphere is enormous. Asked to mention some of the opportunities that lie ahead for the sector, Professor Dragan Savic, CEO of KWR Water Research Institute, and professor of hydroinformatics at the University of Exeter, points for example to the development and integration of better water quality sensors as an opportunity in the case of centralised supply systems.

Current microbiological, culture-based testing involves a substantial wait for results. More rapid solutions are progressing and becoming more widely available. Savic notes, for example, the potential of genetic analysis based on real-time polymerase chain reaction testing. “In 10 years’ time, why couldn’t we expect this to be almost instantaneous, so that we could have real-time information about the chemistry and biology of the water?” he asks. He sees this would bring the potential to transform how the sector approaches use of chlorination to provide disinfection, which carries the risk of producing carcinogenic trihalomethanes. “Why can’t we eliminate chlorination with the help of this type of technology?” he adds.

There are also opportunities away from centralised systems, especially use of digital technologies in decentralised solutions in developing countries, where there are currently huge unmet needs. Savic sees there is the potential for more widespread use, and further development, of water kiosks or water ATMs, for example. These may incorporate treatment technologies such as reverse osmosis or be connected to a centralised supply, but are connected to the cloud in terms of data and monitoring of the system performance.

“I see digitalisation as a key integrator within the utility”

“People pay using their mobile phone, getting guaranteed clean water,” says Savic, adding: “For me that is one of the key digital links in the context of the developing world.”

Digital standard practice

Across this array of expanding and emerging digital activities, it is possible to think in terms of what water utility standard practice might be in future.

Savic highlights demand prediction in particular.

“Demand is the key driver for the existence and operation of utilities,” says Savic. “Having a good handle on demand is huge for any operator. We’re talking about anything from a prediction a few minutes ahead to a forecast of weeks, months, years and decades ahead. For long-term master planning and strategic decisions, you need to know where the demand is going,” he adds, noting the case of Japan as an example of where utilities may in fact face a decline in demand, and various consequences for water quality and service financial sustainability that are potentially associated with demand decline.

This demand prediction covers aspects such as operational planning for water treatment works, with perhaps a weekly schedule of daily demand. Demand prediction links with energy demand, connecting therefore to any efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“All of those will be improved by the use of new digital means,” says Savic. This will include digital technologies deployed directly by utilities, such as data analytics and updated simulation techniques, combining with improved traditional process models.

“Also, in future I think there will be more use of data that is not generated by utilities,” he adds. This can include sources such as satellite imagery, weather information, even traffic information. “Digitalisation of traffic services now relies quite a lot on recognising where the pressure on the transport is. If we knew, for example, through the cellular telephone network where people are during the day, we would know where the water demand is,” says Savic. Broadly speaking, this means increased use of data from more widespread IoT and sensors. “We are getting into an area where water utilities haven’t been working in the past,” he says. However, this will also mean that data privacy, data protection, and data ownership will have to be considered and resolved in the process of pooling data from different sources.

“There will be more use of data that is not generated by utilities”

Another use of digital technologies that will be common across utilities is the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools, says Savic. For example, field technicians will be able to point a tablet at the site they are visiting and see superimposed on that an image of the parts of the network there. “Imagine technicians walking around with VR goggles and having AI suggestions where the potential faults in the system are,” he says. “They can go into a pumping station and identify which of the elements there need replacing or need attention.

“Real-time operation will be much more common – what I would call augmented intelligence, where the human is in the centre of the loop, and the artificial intelligence is supporting making decisions on how to operate the system,” says Savic.

He also anticipates wider use of digital technologies in connection with customers. “We, as customers, require more information about our own health, about the environment, about energy, and what the situation with water quality is,” he says. “There will be more openness about that and, again, digital technologies will help.” Savic also sees the potential for “serious gaming and VR applications”, to give a better understanding of how utilities work and the issues they face.

The digital journey

Thinking about the journey ahead to this digital future, one important point is the fact that water utilities have progressed to differing degrees. “Utilities are at different points on the timeline in that digitalisation process,” says Savic. “Some are in the very early stages; some are well on the way to achieving digitalisation and integration across their businesses.”

Whatever stage they are at, they still share the same relationship with digital technologies. “Digital water, Water 4.0, Smart Water, or whatever you want to call it, is not the goal by itself,” says Savic. “All of these digital technologies should be seen as a potential integrator of data analytics and a means for making informed decisions across different areas of what are normally silos within a utility. I see digitalisation as a key integrator within the utility.”

A typical approach to working with this outlook and making progress on the digital journey would be to trial technologies, pilot them, and then move to more widespread implementation, explains Savic. However, utilities can find themselves having to move more rapidly than this, especially in response to drought or limitations on water availability. This can mean, for example, expanding smart metering programmes to help manage demand and water loss if a utility can see it is not on a sustainable trajectory. Or even if water loss is low, such as is the case for Dutch water utilities, heightened sensitivity to drought and growing customer expectation for openness can drive a need for real-time insight into demand.

All of this creates an opportunity for IWA to contribute to the digital space, including through the IWA Digital Water Summit in December. “With utilities at different levels of digitalisation, they can learn from each other so that they do not make the same mistakes. Also, by pooling knowledge and resources, they can get more out than if they just do it themselves,” says Savic, who is chair of the steering committee of IWA’s Digital Water Programme. “I see the leadership of IWA as being a key – there is a trust in IWA as an honest broker.” He notes also the importance of input from solutions providers to the process. “That is why the Summit is a brokerage event, for utility to utility, and utility to supply chain, discussions.”

The task ahead for utilities is to set their goals and ambitions in a way that draws on what digital technologies offer. The integration of these technologies can work both in a top-down and a bottom-up sense, says Savic. A water utility CEO, for example, might wish to see a dashboard of key performance indicators, on anything from financial performance to customer satisfaction. Equally, technical decisions can be informed about detailed performance of systems by a richer supply of digital information.

“This is why we are having a Digital Water Summit. Digital unites utilities or can focus minds on how they can use these digital tools. I see it as a toolbox that is helping all professionals better manage the whole water cycle – from resources, to water treatment, distribution and delivery, to sewage networks, wastewater treatment and either reuse and recycling or release into the environment.”


More information

IWA Digital Water Summit

30 November-3 December 2020, Bilbao, Spain

IWA Digital Water Programme