Published on in Energy & UtilitiesInnovation

Water often fades into the background of our daily lives. Turn on a tap, run the shower or even fill a bucket, and you can easily forget how vital this precious substance is to life on earth.

But ensuring that water can be delivered to homes and businesses reliably and sustainably is a huge logistical feat.

Water is a resource that’s under threat. Two of the UN’s sustainable development goals centre on delivering clean water and sanitation for all and preserving marine life.

Our water companies will be central to meeting the challenges ahead, but are facing significant disruption. Technology can play a key role in evolving these utilities’ services and securing this vital resource.

That’s why I was thrilled to give a keynote speech at last week’s Institute of Water conference, exploring what the water companies of the future could look like – and how we’ll get there.

A wave of disruption

Water companies in the UK are currently in the midst of PR19, setting out their five-year plans for approval by the regulator Ofwat – and this process has crystallised many of the issues facing the sector.

Securing water resources for the future is a pressing priority. Areas of the UK are currently facing drought conditions, while there are concerns about pollution from wastewater entering rivers and harming the natural environment.

This has shone a spotlight on the need for water companies to ensure we can protect water resources in the years ahead, through an improvement in operational efficiency and resilience. Across the UK, nearly a quarter of all processed water is lost through leaks before it reaches the customer.

Like the technology sector, water companies also face the broader issue of public trust. Currently, consumers only tend to engage with water providers over billing or problems with their supply, making it difficult for companies to build a positive customer relationship. Building trust and engagement will be critical for the future of the industry.

Ofwat is pushing water companies for significant change and there is the possibility of industry-wide disruption if provision is opened out to competition, like the retail market.

The need for water companies to evolve is clear, and technology is part of the answer.

The potential of tech

With technology advancing rapidly, water companies can realise significant benefits with an ambitious, forward-thinking digital strategy.

The Internet of Things (IoT) could enhance one of the most inefficient and resource intensive operations in the sector, the maintenance of assets. With sensors across the water network, companies can identify leaks and equipment failures more quickly and despatch repair teams accordingly.

By collecting data over time and applying machine learning, water companies can also undertake predictive maintenance – fixing or replacing parts before they fail.

Tools like augmented reality can also grow expertise throughout the business. For example, the Metawater platform enables engineers to access learning resources and external support while in the field, helping less experienced staff  tackle more challenging problems in the field.

Technology can also improve relationships with their customers. We’re still in the early stages of smart meter adoption, but as their sophistication grows water companies will be able to use real-time data to engage with customers about their water consumption. This can create a more positive, proactive relationship, while improving consumer behaviour.

Finally, the collection of data can even enable water companies to realise new sources of revenue. Information on water usage could be extremely valuable for partners such as local government groups planning smart cities, or even insurance providers, enabling water companies to design entirely new services.

Plotting a route forward

Digital technologies can undoubtedly help the water companies of the future become more efficient, more profitable – and more trusted. However, to get there, there are clearly challenges to overcome, starting with culture change.

Many employees have worked in the water sector for a long time, and may not be confident with digital technology – or even willing to use it.

To successfully digitally transform, water companies will need to engage with staff and upskill them as needed, to make them partners in the future of the business. Recruiting new talent will also be important but challenging, owing to the competition from other companies and even sectors.

This highlights another issue. With the rate of transformation needed in the water industry, no one company can be an expert in everything. It’s through cross-industry collaboration that we’ll create services fit for the future.

This is something that we’ve embraced ourselves at Fujitsu. We’ve formed an alliance with Sweco and Deloitte, to bring together our water sector expertise and best serve our utilities companies.

The challenges ahead are bigger than any one business. By working together to form wider ecosystems, share learnings and co-create new solutions, the water industry can evolve and meet the challenges ahead.

An ongoing evolution

Water is a vital part of life, but long-term trends are creating significant challenges for the sector that provides it.

While contending with these issues presents challenges today, however, it’s also the perfect opportunity for water companies to evolve and create a new approach to technology that will enable them to thrive in the years ahead.

Technology is continuing to evolve and create new capabilities. Advances like using machine learning to analyse satellite imagery of water leakage – or deploying listening tools that can detect imminent part failures – will continue to create a more resilient sector.

By working collaboratively and embracing change, water companies can better serve their customers and contribute to a more sustainable world.

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