Towards a Digital Water Future
The success of the water sector in providing clean drinking water at customer’s taps, keeping sources of water pollution at bay, and minimising water losses is no mean feat. This is particularly true when we consider that the sector operates in an environment that is highly complex, variable and uncertain. A central feature of this environment is of course the acceleration of technological innovation, with its associated challenges and opportunities.
More specifically, over the last decade we have witnessed the explosive growth of a new type of technology, namely: digital technology. The key component of digital technology is data, which represents information collected about practically every conceivable area, from the weather to the water quality at the tap. The amount of data generation annually in the world is estimated to be doubling every year with the overall size expected to reach 44 zettabytes (1021 or 1 sextillion bytes) by 2020.
Digital technology brings with it so-called cyberinfrastructures, consisting of data collection systems (sensors and instrumentation), data storage systems, local and cloud-based computing systems, and data visualisation environments. These elements are all interconnected through software and networks, which improve data utilisation and, ultimately, allow us to better manage a wide range of societal challenges.
These developments are highly relevant to the water sector, both nationally and globally. Indeed, modern digital technology, together with its potential for harnessing and exploiting the rapidly multiplying sources of data, presents some of the greatest challenges as well as opportunities for the business operations and processes at water utilities worldwide. To truly meet the challenge, we need to develop a new vision of a digital water future, and jointly elaborate a roadmap to get us there. Realising this vision will ultimately mean reaping the benefits of the exploitation of integrated and comprehensive water-system knowledge, rapid and proactive identification of infrastructure faults, increased system resilience, improved resource efficiency and support for the circular economy, and greater cost-effectiveness.
Moreover, developments in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning methods, robotics, virtual/augmented reality and serious games will foster the development of new insights into water management. And the trend towards making data more freely available will open the door to increased public participation in water management decisions, while stimulating citizen engagement and understanding of water utility challenges.
On the other hand, open data and Internet-connected physical infrastructure will have to be carefully managed, since they will raise serious privacy and security risks for water utilities. Activities such as the European STOP-IT project aimed at protecting water infrastructures from physical threats and cyberattacks are already making a step toward achieving better security against physical and cyber threats.
We also need more of the right people to help us realise this new vision. Digital technology specialists cannot head the process, since they do not fully master the complexity of the water sector and its challenges. Bringing about the digital water future involves top-end, frontier technologies that require a new breed of professionals trained in both water and informatics sciences – Hydroinformaticians!
The discipline of Hydroinformatics involves a continuous process of developing and using water data, models and tools to understand our environment, engage all stakeholders, and support decisions that lead to a better society. Only with such a group of professionals, who are able to work at the interface of the traditionally separate disciplines of informatics, science and engineering, can the full benefits of the digital water transformation be achieved and the risks effectively managed.
Lastly, the development of a vision for a digital water future is something the new IWA initiative “Digital Water Programme” is aimed at. As a chair of the Steering Committee (SC) for this Programme and on behalf of the SC members (which involves a number of water and digital technologies professionals, academics and interested groups), I encourage you to engage with us by providing ideas for the vision and for various activities that we can organise via IWA over the next few years, join the discussion on IWA Connect.
Upcoming IWA webinars on digital water:
- Digitalisation of water utilities – drivers for transformation – 5 June 2019 @ 10:00h Amsterdam time
- The Digital Journey for Water & Wastewater Utilities – 25 June 2019 @ 16:00h Amsterdam time