Louise DudleyBy Louise Dudley, CEO, Queensland Urban Utilities

It’s the key to good public health and essential to the prosperity of communities. But while water and wastewater services sometimes hum along in the background – with little to no consideration from users as to how they works – Queensland Urban Utilities is aiming to shift this paradigm, working to become a trusted supplier for people, rather than simply a background entity.

Safe drinking water and adequate hygiene and sanitation facilities are essential to the health and wellbeing of our communities. Just as the human body cannot survive without water, communities cannot thrive without the effective management of water supply and sewerage services.

Here at Queensland Urban Utilities, we understand the fundamental role water plays in fostering healthy, liveable communities, which is reflected in our vision: to enrich quality of life.

We strive to make our water and sewerage services sustainable, affordable, reliable and resilient for the generations of today and tomorrow, which is why we have embarked on a journey to become a utility of the future.

It’s about the people, not the pipes

Today’s customers are more sophisticated and knowledgeable than ever before and, as a result, they have higher expectations when it comes to product and service quality and reliability.

In addition, the dramatic shift to a digital lifestyle has given customers unprecedented influence and connectivity.

The pervasiveness of smartphones means customers can access information anywhere, anytime, and use social media as a platform for sharing opinions and making expectations widely known.

These factors require utilities to find new ways to meet evolving customer expectations, and it starts by shifting the focus from pipes to people.

For example, in the past, a burst water main may only have been addressed in terms of the fastest, most cost-effective way to repair the pipe.

Now, we’re looking at it through a customer-impact lens, asking questions like: who relies on that pipe? How will losing water affect them? And most importantly, what can we do to minimise disruption?

At Queensland Urban Utilities, we’re striving to be proactive, engage our customers in two-way discussions, involve them in our decision making, and also understand the social impact of the way people use our water and sewerage services.

We’re working to become a trusted supplier for people, rather than a background entity that only filters into consciousness when something goes awry. We want to develop strong customer relationships that will encourage long-term loyalty.

Like any organisational change, it needs to start within. Queensland Urban Utilities has around 1,000 direct employees, and while the shift to become more customer-connected can be gradual one, it’s necessary.

We cannot ignore the changing customer landscape if we’re to become a utility of the future.

04_QUU_Horizon GraphGet with the trend

Pick up an industry journal or investment magazine today and you’ll see articles on megatrends and microtrends.

It’s essential for businesses to consider the potential impacts of these trends so they can plan for success and play a significant role in shaping their own futures.

For us in South East Queensland, a growing urban population is an underlying trend in planning for services to the community.

By 2044, there will be around eight million people in Queensland, and by 2050, a quarter of all Australians will be over 65. We’ll also see a greater proportion of migrants and more inner-city apartment-style living.

We must also be cognisant of environmental trends, such as climate variability. We need to consider how temperature, rainfall and natural disasters can impact water demand, sewer flows, service reliability and capital investment.

We also need to prioritise our responsibility as an environmental leader. Already, Queensland Urban Utilities has demonstrated how nutrient offsets projects can work. In an Australian-first, we revegetated an eroded riverbank preventing five tonnes of nitrogen and 11,000 tonnes of soil from entering the Logan River.

By stabilising sediment loads in the waterway, we avoided an $8million upgrade to the Beaudesert Sewage Treatment Plant, and this is something we’re looking to replicate.

Sustainability is another big trend. Around the home, there’s a move towards more water-efficient appliances, meaning there will be less water in our sewers, but more sewage.

This is an issue being examined at our Innovation Centre at the Luggage Point Sewage Treatment Plant, where world-leading research is being conducted in collaboration with the University of Queensland’s Advanced Water Management Centre.

We’re also investigating ways to convert waste to valuable resources. For example, we’re pumping by-products from alcohol and soft drinks into the digesters at two of our sewage treatment plants, which results in the increased production of biogas.

Cogeneration units then capture this gas and produce up the 40 per cent of the plants’ energy needs, thereby decreasing our reliance on the electricity grid.

This feeds into the changing economic landscape. The ecological services sector, which includes commodities like solar, biogas and fertiliser, is growing.

The way revenue is generated is changing. For example, crowdfunding has injected more than $US65 billion into the global economy. And of course, as our operating costs rise, the pressure to reduce our cost to serve remains.

A utility of the future will also be expected to exemplify social responsibility. Despite access to water being a human right, it’s predicted that by 2030, almost half the global population will be affected by water scarcity, and right now it’s estimated more than 900 children die each day from diarrhoea due to drinking contaminated water.

The immense capability and capacity in the Australian water sector could be mobilised to address global issues and create more sustainable and liveable communities. Innovations such as biogas, waterless urinals and bio-fertilisers are just some of the new technologies that could benefit the poorest parts of the world.

The responsibility applies here at home, too, where some parts of society cannot afford water and sewerage services.

Go digital

Our lifestyles are changing, and largely going digital. In Queensland, 2.5 million people will be using digital social media by 2017. This trend is arguably the most critical and all industries, including water and sewerage, need to go digital or risk failing.

While digital disruption is the new buzzword, it shouldn’t be underestimated. We need to evolve into a digitally proficient business centred on the community so we’re not left behind in a ‘digital disruption’.

We envisage a digital water utility of the future will manage the tangible water and sewerage networks in its service territory, but also provide value to future customers and communities globally.

This is only possible if we bring digital disruption and community value together.

Queensland Urban Utilities has identified three core functions that a digital water steward could have in the future: management of intelligent water networks; integrated planning for people, places, products and profit; and management of ‘digital ecosystems’ that are ‘customerised’ (custom made for customers).

In addition to this, the collection, analysis and use of data is critical to business success. Whether it is information about customer water use or pump station energy use, data is essential for our business to operate effectively and efficiently – and technology, such as smart metering, is paramount.

Excellence in customer service is underpinned by timely and accurate information accessible in near real-time. This means data and digital assets will be as important as built infrastructure.

We’ll see data becoming the currency for the digital economy and the digital system itself becoming the asset. While the pipes and pumps are important, the digital systems that run those pipes and pumps become the real strength.

Innovate and collaborate to grow

Strategic partnerships with external providers, investors, and other utility providers will be critical to our future success. When the right partnerships are forged, organisations can leverage skills, capability, technology and finance, and this makes managing risks and opportunities far easier, especially when it comes to innovation.

Solving today’s complex problems, navigating tomorrow’s technology-driven operating environment, and elevating our performance to the next level demands that we adopt innovation and technology.

This is not optional to our success, it’s critical, and something Queensland Urban Utilities has wholeheartedly embraced. By introducing and fostering a dedicated Innovation Program, we have encouraged our employees to think creatively, follow their ideas through to delivery, and inspire others to be creative and inventive.

As a result of this cultural shift, we’ve been able to realise over $5million in operational savings in just two years, as well as deliver safer work practices, improved environmental outcomes, and better customer service.

Water and sewerage service providers are the key to good public health and, therefore, essential to the prosperity of communities.

While there is a need to innovate, we must always be true to our purpose – to effectively and efficiently deliver clean drinking water and reliable sewerage services.

If we can get this right and build on it, there are no boundaries to what a utility of the future can achieve.

Jessica Dickers

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