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Guy Horowitz

Black & Veatch's recent Water Utility report - an interesting reading for anyone interested in the state of technology adoption in the US (and the state of the US water networks in general)


Looking back at the Smart Water Networks 2012 conference


The second annual SWAN conference was held on May 8-9 in Utrecht, Netherlands. The 105 delegates represented the full gamut of the SWAN member community - 36 technology companies (from 15 countries), 10 water utilities (from 7 countries), 6 consultancies and analyst groups, 3 venture capital firms, individual experts, members of academia, journalists… the common denominator was sheer interest in promoting the concepts underlying the smart water network, namely data availability, interoperability and sharing of information across systems and processes, enabling water networks to be more efficiently operated.

Throughout the two days of the conference we heard over 30 presentations, held four panel discussions and a round-table session, focusing on some of the most important aspects of smart water network technologies – applications (current and future), benefits (and the quantification of ROI), interoperability, and the adoption cycle the utility. On top of specific technology approaches highlighted by utilities and vendors, smart water network technologies were discussed in the wider contexts of energy efficiency, leakage control, water quality, water security, consumer engagement and finally in the longer-term context of the ‘smart city’. If you haven’t done so yet, you may access all presentations via the SWAN website.

It is extremely hard to summarize 30 presentations or to capture all main takeaways from such a content-rich event. In this summary I have decided to pick six topics which I circled in my notes from the event. This is by no means a complete summary of the conference.

1. The cities of the future are cities of the past – we started the event with a clip showed by Wolter Odding, CFO of Vitens – Arthur C Clarke’s 1964 prediction of the future. In this great clip, Clarke accurately predicted that telepresence will change the way people do business, interact and think, but completely failed in his prediction that as a result, cities will cease to exist in the way we know them (or knew them in 1964). This was actually a great way to start the conference – the gap between where science and technology are, and where water networks are (and will be, in the foreseeable future). Since our cities of the past are not going to disappear, fighting asset ageing through operational efficiency will be even more important in the future.

2. Asset control vs. asset management – one of the first points raised by Mark van Ekeren from Royal Haskoning was the distinction between asset management and asset control. Asset control is focused on the operation rather than the asset. In a way this is the gist of what SWAN is promoting – take smarter decisions based on all data available, rather than doing what the industry has been doing for ages – managing the asset.

3. With a few exceptions, utilities will not be “early-adopters”. An interesting debate arose around the motivations of utilities to adopt innovative technology, and the ‘human factor’. In addition to the slow pace in which the water industry is operating, the perceived risks associated with adoption of ‘unproven’ technologies, coupled with the relative conservatism of many utility stakeholders, makes it hard for the utility to be quick and agile in adopting new classes of solutions. One of the speakers noted that a ‘new generation’ of water utility staff may be a catalyst for a significant change – the question was how long it would be before this new generation makes it to decision-making positions in the utility. As an aside, but not really an aside - only 22 of the 105 delegates in this year’s conference were members of a water utility, and we have got to get more utilities into the discussion – either by finding the early-adopters or by expanding the circle to include the ‘not-yet-converted’ majority. Not an easy task but we have to do it.

4. ROI on smart water technologies is easy to talk about but hard to measure or prove. Each technology by itself, and likewise each vendor, will have a business case associated with, but in many cases the real value is in the integration of data. As noted by one of the participants of the ROI round-table session, large projects in the utility need end-to-end ROI calculations (example being ERP rollouts). The wider the scope, the harder it is to measure the benefits, the more likely you are to double-count, and consequently lose confidence in the business case. The round-table discussion raised additional challenges but also came up with some concrete ideas which SWAN should pursue as an industry group – primarily collate good business cases and create a database of figures used by utilities and vendors for quantifying benefits of the various components – cost of water, energy, repairs, time, service unavailability, insurance, fines and more – and share them with the industry.

5. Gamification is a way to engage consumers, and data can play a key role. Consumers are still not constituents in the smart water network revolution, but this may be changeable. In his presentation, Roeland Nagel from IBM introduced gamification into the discussion, and the idea of getting consumers to engage around data – their own consumption data, peer data and maybe even neighborhood or city-wide information – was brought up by other speakers as well. Eventually it led to the exploration of additional ways to engage the consumers and the role to be played by SWAN technologies to enable them.

6. Data standards require industry-wide action – and some are actually doing it. A 2-hour session was dedicated to data interoperability and data sharing between applications, processes and systems. Several speakers presented ideas and concepts for making this concept a reality, borrowing from other industries and realms. Still, the most striking concept comes from the water space, and was introduced by Finn Asmussen from Copenhagen Water who represented DANVA. The Danish approach to data modeling in the water industry is a great example of how the water industry can mobilize around an agreed format or standard. We are still a long way from realization, but some of the ideas presented by Finn, Laurie Reynolds and James Polden are certainly a great start.

I have not event touched upon other topics such as the key role of energy management in the smart water network, the emerging realm of “smart cities”, and the call by the IWA to SWAN to ‘join forces’ – the topic of a separate article, I presume. I did not mention the 5-star venue, the great atmosphere, the food and the quality of people participating in this year’s event – and maybe I should have. Personally, I cannot wait for the next opportunity to meet with the leaders of the smart water network movement, and the next opportunities will be in ACE, Dallas TX (June 12th) and Singapore (July 1st). I’m sure I will see many of you there.