Why I am doubling down on digital for water
There are, and will continue to be, no shortage of lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. What sticks and transforms society, business and the public sector is up to us.
We can focus on attempting to return to what we believed was "normal" or we can learn to rebuild and redesign society and businesses in a more equitable, sustainable and resilient manner.
One lesson from our current social and business reality is that digital technology solutions have become an even more critical aspect of our lives. Let me expand on what this means for water and why I am doubling down on digital water technologies to ensure access to water, sanitation and hygiene.
More than ever it is clear that access to water is critical for society, businesses and ecosystems.
No water, no anything. And now digital technology solutions are an ever-increasing tool in ensuring access to water for a range of uses — such as drinking water, hand washing, agriculture and manufacturing.
Late last year, I authored "2019, the year analog water solutions died." When this was published, the digital transformation of water was well underway, and I believed that analog solutions were no longer adequate to address water scarcity and quality. This article was followed recently by "Digital Tools Must Help us Address Water Scarcity" during the early days of the pandemic. In the last few weeks, we have seen the importance of digital tools dramatically increase, and now they are a critical component of the water sector.
The importance of the ongoing operation of these utilities can’t be overstated, and the pandemic has strained their workforce.
A recent American Water Works Association survey asked, "What challenges to sustaining business operations is your organization anticipating due to COVID-19?" Of the utilities that responded, 75 percent indicated that "Absenteeism and the Continuity of Operations" was their No. 1 challenge, with impacts on field operations being No. 2 at 46 percent. It has become clear that the water utility workforce needs digital tools such as smart water meters and artificial intelligence to support it not just during these times but also going forward.
The pandemic is a reminder of the critical role that drinking water and wastewater systems play in protecting public health and safety and supporting the social and economic well-being of all communities.
A recent paper, "Coronavirus and Water: Immediate Action to Improve Resiliency Now and in the Future," framed the role of digital technologies in addressing pandemic-related challenges but also in driving significant economic and environmental improvements.
These digital solutions can provide remote monitoring and control of processes and critical infrastructure, ensuring continuity in service when staff are working remotely. Additionally, when absenteeism occurs, digital technologies can augment decreased and strained resources and mitigate the risks of service interruptions.
These technologies also have been used during times when utilities have had challenges with recruitment. Using data analytics and implementing digital water strategies delivers direct operational and environmental benefits to a utility operation, both during a crisis and during its resilient recovery.
The digital transformation of the water sector is driving new business and investment opportunities. For example, Bluefield Research reported in January that "digital water in the U.S. and Canada is forecasted to grow 6.5 percent annually, far outpacing the growth of the broader municipal water and wastewater sector over the next decade." This is an encouraging sign that more and more, utilities are recognizing the potential for digital technologies to transform their operations and mitigate the risk of failure during a crisis event.
Digital solutions to support our utility workforces are the only option. We need to ensure these technologies are deployed by adequately funding our water infrastructure. Neglect of our critical water infrastructure in the U.S. is also no longer an option.