Water’s AI and machine learning opportunities


With the latest IWA Digital Water Summit taking place in November, Prabhushankar Chandrasekeran explains why AI and machine learning are essential tools for the water sector. By Erika Yarrow-Soden

IWA’s Digital Water Summit shines a spotlight on the latest developments in digital water, providing the opportunity for suppliers and utilities to share how digital tools are being utilised by the water sector and provide a rich environment for the discussion of where digitalisation may take the industry, what skills will be required in the future, and what the world of water may come to look like.

Co-organised by IWA with the water utility of the region, Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, and IWA’s Governing Member in Spain, AEAS, the latest summit, held for the second time in Bilbao, will be an inspirational event, ensuring that water professionals are at the forefront of shaping the water sector’s evolution. As well as demonstrating the practical applications of digital solutions for the water sector and showcasing the latest innovations, delegates will have the opportunity to network and share knowledge, with the aim of finding out how we can use the tools at hand to work better, smarter, and more sustainably.

The artificial intelligence expansion

We are at an exciting time in the digital journey as Artificial Intelligence (AI) makes huge bounds, with daily media reports on new developments and applications for AI and machine learning technologies. We are at the cusp of a new era that will see dramatic change across sectors and create a world very different from the one we know now. As governments around the globe struggle to consider how AI may be regulated, the water sector is alive to the new transformative possibilities of this multifaceted, world-changing technology, which couldn’t be flourishing at a better time. With the challenges of climate change ever more evident across the globe, we now have the technology for the water sector to seize the multiple opportunities to work more sustainably, respond to fluctuating water resources with greater agility, and protect our people and planet by future-proofing our systems and building resilience. We have a growing box of tricks like never before and it couldn’t be more timely or necessary.

Prabhushankar Chandrasekeran, VP Intelligent Water National Practice Leader for sustainable engineering consultancy Arcadis, in the USA, says: “There is so much going on in the water industry globally. We’ve had the first UN Water Congress after 46 years, where we talked about how important it is for us to focus on the sustainability of water resources. Water connects us all and drives economic prosperity and uplifts societies. When it comes to sustainability, it comes back to making better decisions, making better use of the resources that we have, being able to apply principles like circular water, and finding ways to tackle climate change.”

Though the challenge is great, Chandrasekeran has faith in the water sector’s ability to use digital technology to make more informed decisions, run better systems, invest more wisely, improve customer experience, deliver greater affordability, and reach those currently unserved. “Digital technology is playing a critical role. The power of computing and advancements in AI and machine learning technologies have grown exponentially in just the last two years,” he says. “Generative AI is gaining momentum and will democratise AI for everyone. The potential benefits of these technologies are numerous.

“The Digital Water Summit is bringing everyone together to talk about these things, helping create plans about what these technologies can do to help us meet our goals. At the end of the day, it’s about people. It’s about raising awareness and educating people about how all these things can help us do our work. We need to think about how we can create digital champions, who can educate others in their organisation and spread the word. That’s why I think the Digital Water Summit is going to be key in helping us to address the challenges we are facing and find answers to both our short- and long-term needs.”

So, as we prepare for take-off, what environment must we create to accelerate progress? “Again, it’s people,” says Chandrasekeran, “Not just the workforce but also leadership. People need to have an understanding of how we can leverage solutions. We will also need to educate people working from a regulatory perspective. They need to be educated on how these technologies can be applied.

“There is always a hesitation in applying new technologies. The sector can be pretty conservative, so we need to own this technology. Once that’s done, we will be better able to find funding for digital projects, get approval for these projects, and customers will come to understand how these technologies are benefiting their community.”

Embracing change

The extent to which we excel in negotiating these transformative technologies in the short-term will come down to how the water sector manages change. With the pace at which digital technology is advancing – almost too fast for us to keep up with – it will be necessary for organisations to have a mindset for change. Chandrasekeran says: “We need to have a conversation about how we can keep up with this technology while it is constantly evolving. Industry is continually experimenting with things. But it is fundamental and foundational for the water sector to ensure these technologies are picked up. Otherwise, we will get stuck in pilot programmes which we will never see rolled out.”

With AI set to revolutionise the way all of us live, there are understandable fears that it may take us to places we don’t want to go, driven by a technology that has the power to learn from every type of use and data that it is applied to. Although the use of AI is pretty much in its infancy, some organisations are already working to make AI ethical and explainable, says Chandrasekeran. “From a water company perspective, the general concern comes from the lack of trust in these technologies and their ability to continue to meet the needs of water utilities, along with concerns that people will be replaced by machines,” he says. “I think we can demonstrate that AI is not going to replace people. Instead, it is going to give people more power to do their job better. It’s going to be your personal assistant.

“When Microsoft launched Microsoft Copilot, they explained that with this technology now everyone will have a co-pilot. That’s the main thing that we need to communicate and to demonstrate. We need to show that AI is helping people and not replacing them in any way. It allows us to be nimbler in how we do our tasks and allows us to use our faculties for improving existing operations and automating the mundane things. It’s there to do what you are asking, but you still need to come up with the ideas.”

The power and cost of cloud computing has made it possible to quickly apply and test solutions, making innovation more accessible than ever before. Chandrasekeran says: “We have lots of good case studies that demonstrate the potential for AI technologies and automation in the water sector. When I think about digital water, I think about advancing automation and analytics augmented by the appropriate use of AI. Automation helps improve workflows including data integration which in turn helps with data analytics, enabling better informed decision-making. Then we can apply machine learning and other AI technologies for better predictions of future situations. We have all the tools that we need, we just need the will to embrace these technologies.”

The Digital Water Summit will provide the opportunity for water professionals to roadmap the future of digital water. And there are important questions to consider. What is the future of work? What skills does the future workforce need? How do we prepare organisations and their workforce to use these technologies to the greatest benefit? Chandrasekeran says: “I think that utilities will accept that there needs to be investment in upskilling. We are facing a labour shortage. It’s hard to find people with specific talents. Instead of finding new talent I think we should focus on upskilling and reskilling existing talent. That’s a more sustainable approach.

“We now need to focus on roles and think about the new roles there are going to be in the future. How can we build data engineering and data science concepts into general engineering education? To be an engineer you will need to be data savvy, so we need to incorporate those skills. Optimisation is going to become increasingly important, so in the future we might have to think about new roles such as chief of optimisation, chief of decision science, chief of predictions. We need to think about the policies that we will need in place to support this reorganisation. This is something that we should be having discussions about. Generative AI is going to be everywhere. It is going to be a good thing that we will continue to think and talk about.”

More information

Find out more about IWA’s Digital Water Summit, 14-16 November 2023, Bilbao, Spain, at digitalwatersummit.org/