PUB’s global search for game-changing ideas

PUB’s water quality laboratory © PUB

Singapore’s water utility recently selected the first solutions under its Global Innovation Challenge, and is planning its next round, writes Gurdev Singh.

For PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, innovation is key to solving its current and future challenges. Given its small land size of just 728 km², Singapore has always been constrained by the amount of water it can collect and store to meet its demand, especially given the uneven distribution of rain throughout the year. These and other constraints of being a highly dense and urbanised city have pushed it to leverage technology and find innovative ways to overcome its water challenges.

Looking ahead, to meet increasing water demand, PUB will need to continue to source new ideas and technologies to squeeze more from every drop, while reducing its energy and waste footprint and contending with the impacts of climate change, and doing all of this with a shrinking workforce. This will require game-changing ideas from anywhere in the world, to be validated and implemented at the earliest possible opportunity.

Over the past decade, we have developed various mechanisms and initiatives to grow good ideas and technologies in Singapore. Besides supporting these projects through funding, we open our facilities and work together with solution providers from all over the world to test and validate their proposed solutions so that they have the best chance of being implemented. Our universities, NUS and NTU, which rank among the top in the world in water research, ensure there is a pipeline of talent that can be tapped into to help grow these ideas and enterprises.

Today, an ecosystem of more than 200 water companies, accelerators and incubators continue to grow their presence in Singapore, spanning research, design, development, deployment and subsequent diffusion of these technologies across the world. We aim to continue to be a water hub where great ideas and technologies are developed, demonstrated and deployed.

Crowdsourcing ideas globally

To improve our sourcing of game-changing ideas, we launched the Global Innovation Challenge Programme in September 2020 to crowdsource ideas globally. The idea was simple – identify challenges and reach out to collaborate on the solutions with the best potential for testing and demonstration.

The starting point was to seek from within PUB like-minded individuals, called champions, with an interest in finding new solutions to their challenges. Champions were required to be the face and voice of the challenge. Walking through each challenge with the champion, the information was packaged so that it would give potential providers of solutions a clear idea of the challenge. Sharing sessions with the champions were arranged for potential solution providers to allow them to understand the situation better.

As engineers, it was important to resist the urge to start defining solutions for the challenge immediately, and instead focus conversations on painting what the future will be if solved. This helped ensure that alignment on the outcomes wanted and established a clearer idea of what success would look like for the stakeholders. Eventually, six challenges under Global Innovation Challenge 2020 (GIC 2020) were put out and publicised widely through various channels for greater outreach.

By the time of the launch, COVID-19 was shutting down most of the world, and traditional technology sourcing platforms such as conferences and exhibitions were starting to dry up or had morphed into limited online sharing sessions. Internally, with restrictions on staff travel, study trips to explore new technologies stopped. The launch of GIC 2020 proved timely. In a little more than a month, we had reached out to more than 800,000 people in 80 countries and received more than 100 unique solutions to the challenges. A significant proportion, nearly 80%, were proposed by partners that PUB had not worked with previously.

Focus areas

For the inaugural challenge, the focus was on the area of smart water technologies. Integration of such technologies into our business is a key pillar of our water resource management, so we were keen to find new ways of tackling challenges in the areas of sensors and monitoring systems and of automation and robotics, to bring about greater efficiencies and faster response times in planning, operations and service delivery.

Online sensors and monitoring systems are the critical backbone of any smart utility, so we were interested in solving issues in a few key areas. First, ensuring the integrity and accuracy of sensors through intelligence – our challenge champion was preoccupied with the accuracy and integrity of the hundreds of sensors under her charge that are used to make important decisions. She was keen to identify those that were drifting or inaccurate and provide early guidance on the sensors that needed to be replaced, maintained or repaired.

Another need was to expand our library of sensor platforms to include new and more challenging indicators of water monitoring in real time; our chemist was troubled by the need to quickly and accurately pin-point taste and odour compounds at trace levels in water even before the water leaves the treatment facility. While sophisticated laboratory equipment was available, she needed a cost effective and portable way to deploy monitoring across the network.

Under our automation and robotics areas, we were looking for robotic systems to clean our water tanks with no requirements for human entry and without taking the tank out of service. This would help our water network engineers by removing constraints on maintenance scheduling and reduce stress on the rest of the system.

In another challenge, our biologist was overwhelmed whenever there were cases of infestation of midges near our water bodies that affected the public. She wished for real-time information on the numbers as well as the ability to identify the species of midges at different locations, so she could better forecast if midge infestation was likely. This would allow her to take corrective actions sooner, assess the success of the corrective actions, and prevent full-blown infestation incidents.

The submissions to GIC 2020 were evaluated through two internal stages. Stage 1 was an evaluation by the Technology Department, the challenge champions, and representatives from operations departments. In Stage 2, promising solutions were pitched by submitters to a panel chaired by our Chief Engineering and Technology Officer, and consisting of key domain experts in PUB as well as the challenge champions. Following this, 10 solutions have been shortlisted for demonstration at PUB. We are currently working with the 10 shortlisted solutions to kick-start their projects, which will take between six-18 months to validate.

More details on the challenges and the shortlisted solutions can be found on our challenge website. We are excited to put these solutions into action and resolve any implementation issues early on.

Buoyed by the response to GIC 2020, we aim to do more and to reach out more widely through future challenges. Still in the planning stages, GIC 2021 aims to focus on game-changing ideas targeted at solving our long-term challenges. Set to launch in the second half of 2021, we will be seeking partners who are keen to collaborate with us on this endeavour. •

Dr Gurdev Singh is Deputy Director, Technology Department at PUB, Singapore

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