by Paul Plowman, General Manager – Liveable City Solutions, Sydney Water

As Australia’s largest water and wastewater services provider, Sydney Water manages about $60 billion worth of assets. Between 2016 and 2020, almost $2.2 billion will be invested in upgrading these and building new assets as the city grows. Sydney will welcome another 1.3 million people in the next two decades – and Sydney Water plays a critical role in Sydney’s future. We have already started working with key agencies, industry and our customers to develop smart, sustainable water, wastewater and recycled water solutions for Sydney for generations to come.

Successful strategies of the past are not always indicators of what’s needed for the future. Those of us who have been in the water sector for a number of years have noticed changes to our community’s expectations and norms. We’ve also noticed the advancement of technology and contemplated the opportunities that they can bring to the way we do our work.

I have listened to asset managers in the latter years of their careers reflecting on how their jobs are fundamentally different from when they started. It’s not hard to imagine the pace of change is going to accelerate and undoubtedly the role of the Asset Manager will evolve and look quite different in the years to come.

However, in the short to medium term there are some enduring themes that will influence direction for Asset Managers in water utilities and that will significantly change the way we work.

The ‘age of the customer’ is upon us

Customers depend on many services everyday – whether it be banks, telecommunications or energy, and for the most part they have choice. These customers are more informed and more connected than ever before. Competition means that if they don’t believe they are getting value for money, they vote with their feet.

While Sydney Water’s customers may not have the same levels of choice, it is not unreasonable for them to expect the same levels of service and value. So, within our organisation a cultural transformation has been underway, where we imagine ourselves as a service business, not a utility or asset management entity.

But, without assets there is no service to provide. Customer-driven asset management means that our fleet of assets are tailored to deliver value to our customers. Customers drive our asset strategies, not the other way around.

Success requires commitment and resolve to really understand what our customers value and involving them in our decisions – an outward perspective rather than an introspective one. This adds complexity to asset management practice as we translate customer preference into action and service delivery.

A whole-of-water-cycle approach will change the types of assets we build and manage

Our city faces a growing trend of increasing net migration, as people continue to move to Sydney from interstate, attracted by our enviable climate, strong economy and jobs. In the same length of time since Sydney hosted the Olympic Games in 2000 more than one million extra people will call Sydney home. This presents both challenges and opportunities.

Sydney has always enjoyed the reputation of being one of the world’s most liveable cities, giving us a competitive advantage. We must innovate to maintain our position in the context of our quickly growing city. From a water infrastructure perspective, this means we must re-think the role of urban water and its contribution to vibrant and prosperous communities.

Our thinking will need to evolve from traditional product lines of potable water and sanitation, involving pumps, pipes and treatment plants, to catchment-based solutions and systems thinking. Water infrastructure will be a valued and integrated part of our urban landscape, not just under it and out of sight.

An integrated water-cycle approach will no doubt see the emergence of alternative solutions such as decentralised systems, ‘green and blue infrastructure’ and opportunities for closer links between water, energy and waste management.

Our traditional asset base has and will continue to underpin the liveability of our cities – imagine what life would be like without a wastewater system and dependable water supply. However, we will need to grow our capabilities to plan, build, operate and maintain these next generation assets.

Technology will enable a greater customer experience at a lower cost

Sensor technology, the Internet of Things, Big Data and increased access to third party information, either formally or informally through social media, provide great opportunity to improve the way we manage and operate our assets, and provide the best possible service for our customers.

The increasing accessibility and affordability of sensor technology, data analytics tools and computing power allows water utilities like Sydney Water to think about our information differently.

In the next few years, we will have the ability to cross reference real-time operational performance data with customer insights, rich spatial information layers, live traffic feeds, multi-faceted asset data, social media inputs and financial information. The insights and patterns derived from this data, when linked to dynamic hydraulic models enables us to plan scenarios for Sydney’s future that balance cost, risk and customer needs.

To leverage these possibilities, we must be open to what the information tells us and allow our traditional assumptions to be challenged. Technology will enable the uptake of alternative servicing solutions that will ultimately be designed to meet the needs and preferences of our customers.

Our ultimate ambition is to know about problems well before our customers ever do. Necessary, timely and planned preventative maintenance is always safer, more efficient and a better experience for our customers than reactively fixing something that’s gone wrong. In the future we see our customer contact as predominantly positive and outbound.

None of these emerging themes can be seen as mutually exclusive. The possibilities are exciting and full of challenge and opportunity. One thing is for certain – the future will be very different from the past. At Sydney Water, we are eagerly leaning into this future where we are an essential part of Sydney’s communities for generations to come.

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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