My automation wish-list for 2024

As the year draws to a close, a Utility Week roundtable in association with NTT DATA asked participants to consider the ways automation might change business for the better in 2024.

If the last few years have been a story of societal and economic upheaval, from a technological point of view, there’s only one winner for the prize of top disruptor. AI has been both feted and feared – a source of potential huge good, but also of considerable consternation, depending on whose view of the future you believe.

When even dedicated free marketeers and laissez-faire capitalists at the world’s biggest tech companies are suggesting it’s time to think about applying the brakes when it comes to the development of artificial intelligence, klaxons blare.

Is AI devil, or angel? The debate will run and run.

In the meantime, utilities, along with everyone else, are thinking through the implications. With our partner NTT DATA, we sat down with a number of senior industry figures at a roundtable to canvass their views on digital tech and what they’d like to see happen when it comes to automation in their industry over the next few months.

Here’s what they had to say.

Automation presents an opportunity to create a breathing space. “It feels like we are constantly firefighting.” So said the innovation manager at a gas network. They argue that global events from the financial crisis to Covid and beyond have meant that for the last 15 years the industry has been incessantly “playing catch-up”. Viewed through the angel lens, automation represents an opportunity to pause for breath and “streamline processes to allow us to stop and think about making the best use of the resources we have”. “It could allow us to deal with legacy assets with aplomb,” they pointed out.

Dealing with legacy assets requires greater connectivity. “We are looking at connecting and automating most of our network, so we have more live data,” added the operations manager at a major power network. “We are building more and more models, but it will take time to make sure they are robust enough to forecast demand, forecast failure, and react to it for better customer service.” By now the notion that this is something new is… well, old hat.

“We are just driving through a strategy that is long-established.”

Automation should improve governance and make it easier for the industry to work together. Automation is partly about increasing security and decreasing the cost of the balancing mechanism, said an AI expert at a transmission network. “It should enable more fluid interaction with the rest of the industry.” Automation should also be used to drive, speed up and improve governance, they explained. “As soon as we can do that, there’s going to be a huge productivity dividend in our business among the data science community, who are currently spending an awful lot of time doing manual workarounds.

“If I take that off their plate, we will have an incredibly empowered workforce that can get into this backlog of ambitious stuff we want to do over the next year.”

Automation can improve data, as well as create reams of it. The chief data officer at a power network is definitely of the glass half-full school when it comes to AI. “To me this conversation is about data quality. Automation and AI is a virtuous circle, and we should be asking ourselves what we need to employ to improve data quality.”

Code management can be transformed using AI. Managing code is an important part of the strategy when it comes to artificial intelligence, says the chief solutions architect at a balancing company. This has the potential to revolutionise its operations. “Part of our strategy is transforming code management. We see generative AI and automation helping us with that change.

“We want to speed up the process of software development using artificial intelligence. That’s our goal for the next 12 months.”

Automation could help identify vulnerable customers. The head of market transformation at a utility says his team is already embarking on a journey into predictive maintenance using AI. The next step may be using it to highlight customers who need special help because they are less digitally-savvy. “We are interested in the potential to of automation to identify those who would otherwise be digitally excluded.”

For good or ill, everyone involved in the Utility Week / NTT DATA roundtable agreed that digital technology is transforming the industry. The trick, they said, is to keep up, and transform for better, rather than for worse.

One participant from a major utility added: “We need to embed data and AI and make them a core part of what our business is doing. It needs to be more widely embedded and more widely known about.

“That is how we will start to develop the skills we are going to need.”

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