The water sector must adopt the innovation mindset

To meet the challenges of the future, the water sector needs to change its attitude to innovation from being nice-to-have to being business-as-usual. Mark Hodgens explains why.

We have moved away from a time when companies would innovate only when they had the time and resources to do so. Innovation is now key to future success, but as things currently stand water companies have been fairly reluctant to move away from their tried and tested way of doing things. Things have not altered too much since privatisation almost 30 years ago, and companies have enjoyed a good relationship with their customers, certainly compared to that of other utilities – until now.

As the sector faces its biggest wave of changes since then, water companies need to up their game to maintain their positive reputation. With new entrants bringing innovative new ideas, those that can quickly adapt and address the network’s changing demands will be successful.

So, why is innovation important to the future of the network? Given that our water resource is under increasing pressure because of population growth and climate change, it is time for the sector to start investing in the future to provide a sustainable service.

Any attempts to prolong the life-cycle of the system will be useful in improving its long-term performance, and it will position water companies in a better light with their customers. The most effective way to achieve this will be through investing in innovative solutions that are aimed at improving the system’s overall efficiency and delivering true quality and value for money.

This approach will require collaboration between water companies and product suppliers, so both can work together to become better attuned to the challenges faced by the sector, therefore leading to better innovations that deliver greater long-term value. However, the big challenge is recognising opportunities to adopt new technologies when they become available, and knowing how to overcome the challenges that arise from exploring new ways of working.

Some of the main challenges revolve around the issues of ageing networks and rising demand. These issues are not helped by the huge amount of drinkable water lost every day through leakages and non-revenue water.

When it comes to tackling these problems, there are lots of new products and systems being developed that could provide inspiration to the water sector. In particular, smart, cloud-based technologies and solutions are growing in availability, claiming to hold the answer to a more efficient water network. The aim of these systems is to enable water companies to monitor usage and to help detect and reduce water loss.

These solutions will work alongside water companies’ existing infrastructures, allowing information to be collected immediately from products such as valves to show what is happening in the network in real time. Alongside this, solutions will also allow companies to access and update individual valves both on-site or remotely, saving valuable time, effort and resources.

One innovation that is gaining global recognition the use of smart software systems, which integrate with multiple solutions to help water companies optimise their asset management. One example is Tagua, which not only allows water companies to efficiently manage products such as valves and hydrants on or off site, it also allows them to save valuable time as resources and maintenance efforts can be focused and targeted. A water company can use this technology to pinpoint where a hydrant is and view individual records.

With the help of a smartphone applications, data can then be uploaded to the cloud, allowing companies to immediately spot if there are any issues with their products. As data can be accessed remotely, this also helps to reduce labour and operation costs.

Not only this, but these systems can be used to plan maintenance and operation checks. The data collected will be collated automatically into reports and these can then be sent automatically to those involved in the network, such as water companies or fire service departments.

In order for the entire network to become smart-connected, products and solutions are being developed that can integrate with each other. For example, there are fire hydrant products that have been created to be controlled via a dedicated smart card, making it quicker for users to access the water and also easier for water companies to monitor users and consumption. This helps to protect the network, reducing unauthorised water draw, potential damage and financial losses.

This system helps to protect the water source from theft so that only those with a valid smart card can gain access.

In order to address the challenges the industry is currently facing, all those involved in the sector, from water companies to product manufacturers, must engage with each other in order to secure the future of our precious resource.

Water companies need to lose the fear of innovation and change, and must be open to new ways of doing things. Technology providers must understand water companies’ reasonable fears and demonstrate how their solutions can provide the answer to a more sustainable network, focusing on diligence, care and performance. The sector needs to sit up and take notice of innovation, and steps need to be taken to ensure the industry can quickly adapt and address the network’s changing demands.
Mark Hodgens, managing director, Talis UK