DIGITAL – Key take-aways from an “unconferenced” Innovation Forum

Water 2040: Future Leaders, Insights & Technologies


Key take-aways from an “unconferenced” Innovation Forum


Have you ever attended an “unconference”?  No ‘Death by PowerPoints’, no hierarchical panels and praises, but vibrancy created by participant driven interaction, digital audience engagement and brainstorming. That’s how I experienced my first attendance at an ‘unconference’ last week 4 November 2019: the Aquatech Innovation Forum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


The Forum is a place for water professionals to discuss and share experiences around the digital transformation in the water sector. The format of this meeting showed how real-time digital tools are already improving our activities and collective actions within such events. “We really wanted to create something original with the Innovation Forum – a fresh alternative and antidote to ‘Conference fatigue’” said Tom Freyberg, Content Director of Aquatech Global Events. “We fostered two-way interaction, with the audience actively involved in the agenda, voting and communicating digitally, as well as physically voting and moving around the Colosseum”.


Digital technologies are changing the way we interact and manage systems, including in the water sector which is increasingly taking up digital tools. Efforts are made to better understand how the adoption of  such technologies can be accelerated to solve global water challenges.


How can digital innovations improve water and wastewater services?

Advances in digital technologies can vastly improve data collection and data quality. This information is the basis for optimized network operation and decision-making., which increasingly includes automation of processes. Already today, modern utilities require reduced on-site human capacity to operate. Through increasingly reliable digital twins of networks, and in combination with blockchain technology, utility systems can be operated autonomously in the future and this can mean the ability to redeploy personnel for more demanding tasks that require human interaction, emotion, decision making and complex skill sets.



So who is leading or should be involved in this transition?

Experienced and top leaders in the sector are crucial to convey the interest and resources towards the realization of a water-wise and digital future, but even more essential are the leaders of tomorrow, our #FutureWaterLeaders. They – or better we – have a double role.

First, being born in the digital era, we can easily integrate and adapt to evolving digital tools in our daily lives. Secondly, since we will take the lead in few years when the current generation of utility leaders will retire, we have the duty to understand the current changes around us, and make the most of them to achieve our sustainable development goals.

The session “Water 2040: Future Leaders, Insights & Technologies” seemed to be an interesting and intense topic.

I took part in this session which was organised in conjunction with IWA. Here, it was meant to hear directly from the younger generation of innovators that are prepping today to solve the water challenges of tomorrow.

Now, close your eyes and imagine the water sector in 2040, what is it like? What has changed? What have we solved? Randolf Webb, Global Branding & Partnerships Director, Xylem Inc., and moderator of the session invited the audience to reflect.

The panelists engaged immediately in the envisioning process. “Digital revolution will help to target the limited resources more effectively and to better cope with the challenges that the changing climate will bring” said Tomi Lukkarinen, Development Engineer, Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority (HSY).

“Along with digital transformation, we need a cultural transformation, policy and governance revolutions that underpin digital transformation are key” added Emma Weisbord, Digital Water Consultant, Royal HaskoningDHV, “The water sector needs to create future proof enabling frameworks that support safe and effective technologies. We don’t have the luxury of adopting the tech sector’s mantra of move fast and break things. We need the next human on the moon, but for every country in the world. Our knowledge and lessons learned need to be shared equitably to ensure that progress isn’t limited to affluent countries and that we truly aim for no one left behind. Our sector needs change managers as much as it needs engineers. We young water professionals have the skills needed to achieve this”.

From the utility perspective, it is clear that customers will have a central role, “We need to build stronger connections with our communities, and customers are, and should be, at the heart of everything we do. We need to help them understand how we operate now and how we might in the future so they can understand the role they can play within that.” stated Fionn Boyle, Shop Window Manager, Anglian Water Services, “our water resources are going to be stretched further in the future, so we need to encourage customers to join our efforts to protect the natural environment and ensure a healthy water supply for future generations.”

The future will also require more organic intersectoral collaboration to apply digital solutions. “Working together is essential because challenges are complex”, concluded Kimberly Solon, Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University, “we need to be aware that solutions might be found when you look at other sectors, and the future workforce will need to be trained on ‘how’ the solutions should be adapted, ‘how’ they work, and ‘why’ they will behave as such. People are indispensable”.

As Prof Dragan Savic, CEO of KWR Water Research Institute, pointed out, “we are talking about Augmented Intelligence (AI): we are not replacing humans, but we are augmenting what they can do”. This creates a perspective shift, or change in the paradigm: innovations are to be assessed on the capacity of end users to embed them, utilities will necessarily be customer centric and invest on workforce training, cyber security and data privacy will aim at increased water safety for people, and finally being able to see the problems as a whole will require active listening and sharing of experience, as we are all learning together.


What should then be the role of Young Professionals in this transition?

Kimberly Solon, along with the opinion of the other panelists, covered this very well. “It is not about age, rather about inspiration… Future water leaders will be the ones who will be champions in inspiring the workforce in being innovative and risk-takers”, she asserted.

I cannot disagree: we need to take the risks and need to take them now, because the digital revolution has already started.


Example of question to the audience using Slido online tool, and answers.

How do we overcome the culture-based barriers to digital adoption?

  • Co-designing with communities
  • Need to have people-driven digitalisation. Put people benefit first before process optimisation and resource savings
  • By clearly demonstrating the benefits, exchanging knowledge and share experiences
  • Inter-utility collaboration initiatives.
  • Fewer engineers!
  • Mapping capacity gaps
  • Education to mitigate the fears
  • Educational programs at schools
  • Show the value of the technology – don’t force the adoption without an explanation
  • Explain the value and the effect
  • Diversity on teams to represent the concerns / barriers earlier
  • Taking people on the journey through early or small wins. Slow and steady but the emphasis on steady, not on slow.
  • Evidence-based approach
  • Empathy for employees and customers.
  • Training
  • Sharing good examples
  • Accessibility, education, diverse language
  • Trial and prove the tangible/intangible benefits


About the IWA Digital Water Programme

The IWA Digital Water Programme aims to act as a catalyst for innovation, knowledge and best practices around digitalisation for the water sector, provide a platform to share experiences and promote leadership in transitioning to digital water solutions, and consolidate lessons to guide the natural evolution from the ‘business as usual’ to achieving a digital water utility. More information here >>


About Aquatech Amsterdam

With over 1000+ exhibitors, 25,000+ water experts from 140 countries and 1000+ Amsterdam International Water Week (AIWW) conference delegates, Aquatech underlines its position as the world’s leading platform for process, drinking and waste water.  During 4 days filled with inspiration and innovation, Aquatech Amsterdam provides the perfect platform to network, exchange ideas and do business.  More information, here >>