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Many Australian water utilities are embracing digital to create better outcomes for their customers, networks, operations and the environment. Globally, a number of industries are significantly advanced when it comes to their digital journey – here are the critical lessons that water utilities can learn from the industries that have come before and the biggest mistakes to avoid on the digital utility journey.

It’s a transformative time for the water sector, as utilities implement digital meters, sensors, IoT platforms and other technologies to gain more visibility of their networks and provide an improved customer experience.

In 2022, as these efforts are set to scale up even further, one utility at the forefront is South East Water. It’s established itself as one of the most active digitally-focused utilities in the industry with the ability to not only install digital meters at scale, but it’s in-house research and development and operational technology teams have conceived, developed, manufactured and licensed data-driven technologies that predict issues like water leaks before they impact the community – saving money and water.

Prior to her appointment as South East Water’s Managing Director, Lara Olsen worked extensively in the energy sector, with roles at CitiPower Powercor, ARENA and Tesla Energy in the US and Australia, as well as co-founding an energy platform, Billcap, that looks at energy data using smart meters.

Ms Olsen has seen firsthand the way the global energy industry has digitised assets and given customers more information on energy usage. This gave her a unique perspective when moving over to the water sector in 2020.

“At Billcap, our customers would log into our energy portal on maybe day one, have a play around, and then stop. We realised that customers really only cared when their energy usage went up by more than 20 per cent. That taught me that we needed to think about the information differently,” Ms Olsen said.

“The impact actually comes from understanding how a customer wants to use that information and what information they want. When you provide the information that is useful to the customer – that’s where you get to that holy grail of really having a great digital asset.”

Improving the customer experience

There are also industries outside of utilities that are showcasing best practice when it comes to a seamless transition to digital, including the retail and banking sectors.

Ms Olsen said that the retail sector stands out for her when thinking about who has implemented digital technologies well for their customers. This is due to online ordering, recommending what other like-minded people may have bought, and the processes in the back-end.

“Notwithstanding the current supply chain issues, the whole fulfilment and digitisation process, where you can track where your parcel is at any stage, has been a fantastic example of digitisation done well from a customer experience perspective.”

Similarly, water utilities can also learn a lot from how the banking sector has approached the data that their customers have access to. With banking, customers can log on at any time and see how much money they’ve got and their transaction history. Ms Olsen said water customers should also be able to have the same level of information about their usage at any stage and then make changes based on that information.

“If you think about digital water meters, that’s what we want to replicate. If were encouraging our customers to limit water usage to 155 litres per person per day, then we need to help them understand how much they’re using today to help them get there, rather than asking them to wait three months for their next bill,” she said.

Implementing these lessons in the water sector

South East Water has undertaken one of Australia’s largest digital meter rollouts with over 35,000 digital meters already installed across its network. With numbers set to grow significantly as it focusses on increasing its digital footprint, the utility has found that customers with a digital meter check their water usage regularly, and these meters have enabled about five per cent of homes to identify a leak they weren’t aware ofsaving them around $150 off their next quarterly bill.

Ms Olsen said South East Water’s own digital journey is focused on three main areas: expanding digital options for customers, the network, and internal processes.

At the heart of the digital utility is the IoT platform, Lentic, a platform developed by South East Water engineers. The platform operationalises the data gathered and integrates with enterprise systems to guide decision-making, help customers, and make operations more efficient and cost-effective.

“It allows us to ingest data from our digital meters and manage the alarms and associated business processes. We’ve built it from the ground up for water, and through its integration with enterprise systems, it’s already enabling us to automate various functions such as billing meter exchanges and customer leak notifications,” Ms Olsen said.

The other major digital technology developed is the Sotto® network leak detection sensor – also conceived by South East Water, which finds leaks on the network side, to reduce non-revenue water and realise significant advantages for proactive asset management.

“It’s really exciting for us when we can measure the vibrations, see that a leak is about to occur and fix it proactively. I think that’s also one of the most exciting areas that will change customers’ experience without being a technology that gets delivered directly to them.”

And the results from these in-house leak detection technologies have been exciting, with over 200 million litres of water saved since May last year.

The biggest mistakes water utilities should avoid

Across different industries, Ms Olsen has found there are two common mistakes that organisations make when it comes to digital transformation.

Firstly, she said that you need to be very clear on what you are trying to achieve and what success looks like, as it’s easy to get excited by a specific technology and lose focus on the end goal.

Secondly, don’t forget about the people and collaborating with industry inside and outside of the water sector.

“I think you can get excited about what technology can do and not about how people will interact with it. We need to think about what information customers want and how frequently they want it, rather than just what the technology can provide.

“Similarly, how is your team going to interact with that technology? Always thinking about people at the core when it comes to digital transformation is key.

“We pride ourselves on our level of world-leading innovation and encourage this across all of our teams. We also make sure to develop technology, not just for ourselves, but that can work for others in the water sector,” Ms Olsen said.

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