Recently, water regulator Ofwat established a £200 million Innovation Fund. This project aims to grow the water sector’s capacity to innovate and meet the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment. At the same time, PR19 challenges the water sector to safeguard affordability and boost resilience to meet the UK’s net-zero carbon aims by 2030 while continuing to support over 50 million household and non-household consumers in the UK.
Therefore, the water sector requires new thinking and greater collaboration than ever before. Data, and digital technology has the power to unlock this opportunity. It can also unlock new approaches and processes that can support consumers, create a new universal system, and help us reach our collective net-zero goals. At a recent roundtable with Utility Week, we discussed how the water sector can transform sustainably. We talked about how sharing data can transform the water sector. As a result, we created a graphic of our main outcomes from the roundtable discussion.
Open data platforms and data sharing in the water sector
A centralised, accessible universal system can help water organisations better manage demand and unlock new insights. However, to do this we need to get the basics right. Water organisations need to ensure they are collecting the right data and that data needs to be of good quality. You need to reduce silos internally before looking outwards. By taking advantage of apps such as Microsoft Dynamics 365, you can start taking steps to reduce business silos.
We also need unified data standards and governance. This is easier said than done, as there’s no national body leading this and no means of enforcing standards. Also, organisations could risk spending too much time and effort deciding on what standards to use instead of focussing on immediate priorities. A practical approach could be to choose a non-competitive aspect you can collaborate on. This will establish de facto standards that can be adopted further as collaboration progresses. For example, Azure Data Share helps organisations securely share data in a common standard, while taking advantage of AI and machine learning to drive new insights. This data can be used to create a digital twin of the UK’s water network to help plan for the future, run scenarios, and gain even more insight.
Fostering and accelerating water sector partnerships and ecosystems
Sharing data helps drive new partnerships and relationships. It will also help us collectively manage water supply demands, sustainability goals, and support consumers. As previously mentioned, there’s no national body. This means the onus is on organisations to communicate and collaborate with each other and regulators. For example, we’re working with Accenture on a five-point plan for utilities that aims to speed up the UK’s mission to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
A good way to start, is to focus locally. Connect with other organisations who are geographically close and then start building out towards a national approach. By sharing environmental data, water supply information, and other types of data, you can build more resilient systems, react with agility to demand periods, and even identify and support vulnerable customers.
Digital technology in ecosystems and the water supply chain will help deliver insights and data. Using IoT across water networks can help detect leaks, plan predictive maintenance or adapt to demand. For example, Anglian Water introduced smart meters to consumers. This gives consumers the ability to monitor their own water-saving journey. At the same time, it also gives Anglian Water the insights to better plan water supply and respond to demands. As a result, they’ve delivered an eleven percent reduction in demands across households.
Building digital skills in the water sector
The PR19 stresses the importance of ‘resilience in the round’. This focus is not just on infrastructure resilience but operational, financial and corporate resilience. This means as water organisations look to use digital technology such as AI, IoT, and machine learning to optimise and support operations, they need to ensure their employees can use these technologies effectively.
This can also help them attract new talent and retain current talent. According to Energy and Utility Skills, English/Welsh water organisations will have needed to replace (by volume) their entire workforce by 2024. Despite that, the water industry had the lowest number of utility apprenticeship starts and completions in 2013/14.
By ensuring you have a culture that focusses on learning, you can open up innovation and new value chains, become more resilient, and empower the next generation of employees.
Accelerating sustainability in the water sector
The water sector relies on a healthy environment. Therefore, it’s important for water organisations to have robust plans on how they are supporting and improving the ecosystem. PR19 commits water companies to reduce water leakage by 16 percent and empower customers to use 13 percent less water by 2025. At the same time, Microsoft has committed to reach net-zero.
Data and digital tech will help us build sustainability. By sharing data across the industry, introducing smart meters and even connecting with other industries such as energy, we can better manage demand, fix leaks, and support the maintenance of water treatment centres.
Building sustainable water systems
The time is now for water organisations to start working together, with regulators and other industries to build cross-collaboration. By creating an open data system, organisations will be in the right spot to help support the UK’s transition to net-zero. At the same time, they will build resilience, agility and innovation. Also important to this is ensuring your employees have the digital skills and tools to support this move.
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About the author
Rik leads Microsoft’s industry strategy across manufacturing, energy and resources in the UK. Responsibilities include working with the government and regulators, industry bodies, industry partners, and largest customers to ensure Microsoft enables sectoral needs. Rik is a board member in techUK’s Smart Energy & Utilities working group, techUK’s Digital Twin steering board, UK Research & Innovation Manufacturing Made Smarter, and a member of the BIM4Water Digital Skills steering group. His focus areas are the energy transition, cyber security and digital technologies for operational environments. He is also an independent technology strategy advisor to a super major.
Prior to Microsoft, Rik worked at Cisco for 13 years, with global lead roles in energy and resource industries, IoT and security, and digital transformation. He has an MBA in international leadership.
Carrie works with Energy and Utilities customers and partners in the UK. She aligns industry needs to digital capabilities to drive innovation with business leaders. Passionate about learning, she has spent the last four years at Microsoft empowering organisations to upskill employees to adapt to new ways of working with digital technology. In order to inspire the next generation, Carrie volunteers as a STEM Ambassador and has guided others to realise and exceed their potential through mentoring schemes.