We all have desires; we all have wants—the latest smartphone, the newest version of our favorite car brand, the best upgrade on our next international flight. We give a lot of thought to these wants. We dream about them. We write them down. We work out plans—both financial and strategic—to get these wants for our own.
We probably think about our wants at least half of every day, but those of us lucky enough to be distracted by wants hardly ever, ever think about our very basic needs: food, shelter, water. Food’s in the fridge or at the store. Shelter’s all around us all the time. Water comes straight out of the faucet.
Inside the utilities industry, though, we have to think quite a lot about making that water come straight out of the faucet—and how to make it do so on time, with pressure and as clean as possible.
And we’ve been thinking about that basic need for quite a while, in fact. The modern water industry may be one of the oldest industries still up and running, stretching back at least to those Roman aqueducts tourists still gawk at regularly.
As we go strong into the future of this industry and leave the past behind, we’re starting to plan even more, to think even more and to strategize about the best path forward to blend water desires with basic water needs, creating the best of both worlds.
Here’s what’s top-of-mind for water executives today.
1. Keeping it safe to use.
Water helps life grow, but some of that growth runs afoul of keeping water potable—namely in the form of algae and cyanobacteria. It’s a constant fight to stay ahead of those old foes, but, these days, water utilities are also dealing with modern pollutants and micro-pollutants, and the standards of allowable amounts in water continues to become more complicated and more strict. (Europe’s thinking about adding a number of new chemicals to their water monitoring lists in the near future, in fact.)
This is a topic that will always be on the planning table with water utilities. Smaller countries with less extensive infrastructure are starting with the basics, but even the most modern, updated water utility is seeing new entrants in this category.
In Australia, one of the biggest culprits is now microbeads (those small plastic balls put in beauty products to exfoliate). It’s a run-off problem, a waste water plant problem and an environmental problem, with some estimates saying that thousands are released into the water system with each product used. The Australian government has given a cease-and-desist order for microbeads—or else a ban is coming, they say.
2. Securing the source.
Water can’t be made. Just found, cleaned and moved. In many cases, that means a whole lot of sharing as rivers, streams and lakes often cross political, cultural and country boundaries. In Asia, for example, China is the starting point for a number of rivers that go on to feed through a lot of other smaller countries to the southeast. Who owns what and what the expectations are to serve (entitlements), the political environments involved, and growing demand from a burgeoning population and booming industries in these areas are all stressors on this complex topic.
Discussions on regulations and market development with an eye on sourcing will continue, undercut by financing questions and, of course, political volatility. Woven into this discussion will be how to make the most out of what you have in order to put less stress on shared water sources, which leads us to the next hot topic.
3. Working the system efficiently.
Most of the modern global water industry is dealing with aging infrastructure and the problems that creates—namely water leaks. Trying to balance those problems with keeping outages few and far between—plus the growing tide of recycled water concepts—means figuring out how to make it all work together and do so better. Some upgrades are absolutely inevitable, but some won’t happen for a bit. And both the old and the new need to work together, and work together well—perhaps better than ever before. So, how do you get there?
First, you need a more timely view of the system from pipes to pumps to valves. To do so requires a lot of monitoring, some good sensors and an integrated asset performance management plan (with an eye on ISO 55000 compliance). To get that info out to the field, you need a mobile workforce strategy. And to get that information to the customer, it all needs to tie in to your customer care platform.
If you can’t see everything, you can’t plan for everything—and you certainly can’t optimize everything.
4. Going customer first.
This is a new driver of change for the water industry that’s traditionally been focused on the hardware and hard science of the water business. It seems that the culture of retail is reaching all utilities. First the customer-centric focus came to the power utility and now it’s moved to encompass water as well.
Deferred maintenance in this industry has, unfortunately, led to problems, which has led to an increase in customer awareness of those problems. Add to these issues growing water scarcity and non-revenue water concerns (both especially in Southeast Asia), and putting the customer at the forefront of your business discussions now becomes a necessity.
Industry venues from the World Water Conference (set for Tokyo in 2018) to the recent Ozwater in Australia and AWWA ACE have customer sessions and tracks on the agenda. From better billing practices to planning for consumer behavior trends, improving the customer service has become a topic-to-watch with water.
5. Shifting to digital.
All four of the previous topics have one thing in common: They’re all underpinned by a growing reliance on the digital world—whether you are monitoring pollutants or pipelines, whether you are trying to understand pricing or international entitlements, and whether you’re trying to make a happier customer or a happier CEO.
The modern water utility—wherever they are on the globe—is now looking ahead to analytics to track issues, record those issues and even help resolve those issues. They’re looking to move from the traditional mindset of being reactive to the more proactive and prescriptive stance that’s on the horizon.
That means big data and doing lots with that data from clarifiers to the cloud.