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Smart utility readiness: Are you prepared to become a digital water or wastewater utility?

June 07, 2024

By Katie Doody and Kevin Johnson

Intelligent water systems can help tackle big challenges, but it’s vital to have upfront conversations to see if you’re ready to go digital

The water sector is getting smarter. Across the US, water utilities expect to invest $8.3 billion in smart infrastructure by 2027 to meet the need for modernization, according to a study by Northeast Group.

Water and wastewater utilities can use digital technologies to support traditional water infrastructure. Smart tools give utilities greater awareness and control over their operations. Looking to reduce operational costs, boost efficiency, and detect problems early? Smart tools can help with that. Not to mention they can enhance decision-making, regulatory compliance, security, and more.

Simply put: these digital tools can set utilities up for success.

An intelligent water system is a set of interconnected pieces of technology that collect and analyze datasets. Utilities can use that data to support automation or decisions. Intelligent water system elements, like smart meters and other sensors with two-way communications, can help utilities improve their management and operations.

When assessing your smart utility readiness, look at what you’ve already modernized. What components are working well?

But some water and wastewater utilities may feel overwhelmed by intelligent water systems. Where do you start? What do you focus on? How do you set your scope?

Well, that’s why it’s important to have upfront conversations. We’ve spent years working with utilities and other clients implementing digital tools. We recognize the overwhelming feelings that naturally come with the change. We think it’s important to analyze your readiness for intelligent water systems early on. Are you ready for a smart utility transformation now? If not, how do you get ready?

We know it’s not simple. Even the definitions may confuse people. We worked on a report for the Water Research Foundation, Integrating Intelligent Water Systems and Utility Management, that will give you a good start. Using agreed-upon definitions can help avoid a communication barrier breakdown. Our research will help in the early stages of building your intelligent system.

For now, let’s explore three ways to assess your smart utility readiness. It helps us to see if you’re prepared to become a digital water or wastewater utility.

1. Identify the goal of your smart utility transformation

During our years working with clients on their utility management, we’ve noticed two common approaches when they’re considering smart tools.

  • First: Some utilities declare that they’re going to become a smart utility—and that everything they do from now on must feature smart water infrastructure. Take a step back. Are you aware of the considerable cost, time, and commitment for that goal? Plus, we’ve yet to see a full smart transformation. So, it might not even be possible.
  • Second: Some clients say they’d like to incorporate principles of a smart utility. These utilities want to focus on a particular problem or set of problems instead of a full transformation.

An intelligent water system is a set of interconnected pieces of technology that collect and analyze datasets.

For example, just because you’ve taken a digital approach to your collection system doesn’t mean that you’re a smart utility. It just means that you’ve likely improved your collection system operations.

If you want to become a smart utility in everything you do, that could be a major effort. Especially compared with transforming just one part of your operation, like becoming a smart utility in chemical management.

So, at the outset, utility managers need to establish their scope of work. What’s your goal? Why do you want to incorporate intelligent water systems? Once you ask those questions, the logistics will follow. It drives your behavior and defines your commitment, resources, and cost.

If you don’t take the time to define your goals, it could lead to confusion, frustration, and a lack of direction. You’ll likely waste money and time, and potentially abandon your project.

So, make sure to establish a clearly defined objective.

2. Create a sense of urgency and form a team that supports your smart utility transformation

Once you’ve established the goal of your smart utility transformation, it’s time to excite people in your organization. Create a sense of urgency. Have transparent conversations—with management and other people at the utility. Ask questions like, “How can this help you in your work? How can we get ready for change?”

If there’s no sense of urgency to do something, and no team to support it, then you could be wasting your time. 

At the outset, utility managers need to establish their scope of work. What’s your goal? Why do you want to incorporate intelligent water systems?

We like to refer to change management expert John Kotter, who detailed an eight-step change process in his 1995 book Leading Change. His early steps are particularly relevant here.

  • Step one: develop urgency, which can lead to motivation to start your transition. Define why you need to bring in smart elements. Consider what other utilities have done. Have lots of discussions. Look at key opportunities or threats that could emerge if you don’t start to implement technology. Develop your vision.
  • Step two: form a powerful coalition. Bring together a team of leaders and influential people who can build momentum toward this need for change. You need to convince people that change is essential.

It’s important to perform these Kotter-inspired steps up front. Don’t just jump into smart utility implementation right away. They’re vital to assess your readiness before you dive into “do” mode.

While working for a utility, it’s easy to get lost in an “everything is an emergency” view. Change can be fed from either top-down or bottom-up approaches. One of us (Katie) spent time working at a water and wastewater utility in the US before joining our team. At that utility, transformations came from the bottom up. The operations team encouraged the need for a smart utility transformation as existing infrastructure consistently failed.

For example, the utility experienced a stressful week while incorporating new water filters. The filters were needed because of water loss during the water production process. But the update came with minimal automation, or smart technology. At some point, the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system locked and the town lost control over the plant. After a few hours, the utility discovered that an employee set up the SCADA system with a work-around Gmail address, as a quick fix. But when Google updated a security patch, it locked the utility’s program because the patch was incompatible.

This incident led to urgency from all stakeholders at the utility, as they recognized the high consequences of failure. The utility pulled together champions to support the necessary shift to more smart technology.

Some water and wastewater utilities may feel overwhelmed by intelligent water systems. Where do you start?

3. Focus on the positive parts of your smart utility transformation

The more we work with clients on their smart utility transformation, the more we value a positive approach. For example, you may already be using smart technology in parts of your operation. And while that tech could probably be updated or improved, it’s important to celebrate what you’re doing. You’re likely on the right track.

When assessing your readiness, look at what you’ve already modernized. What components are working well?

Avoid looking at your operations with a negative perspective. Usually, you don’t need to change everything. Notice the positive elements and build on them. Manage your weaknesses and amplify your strengths.

Set up milestones to celebrate the current state of the organization, as true transformation takes time. For example, conduct business process flow workshops, so you can understand what it takes to integrate multiple software platforms into one.

A modern approach to water and wastewater utility challenges

We know that water and wastewater utilities face challenges on many fronts: Effective planning for their infrastructure to meet demand. Complex supply chains. Affordability of services. Compliance with regulations. Adapting to climate change. And many more.

As utilities strive to meet these challenges, they should consider intelligent water systems and smart utility approaches. But they need to have vital, upfront conversations to establish readiness and lay the right foundation. Identify goals, create a sense of urgency, form a support team, and focus on the positive aspects of what’s already been accomplished.

We wish you good luck in your smart utility transformation. Change isn’t easy. But if you’re ready for it, the future is waiting.

  • Katie Doody

    Working primarily with the government and utility sectors, Katie is focused on identifying and improving processes to increase organizational efficiency centered on customer requirements.

    Contact Katie
  • Kevin Johnson

    Passionate about solving complex challenges with new and innovative approaches, Kevin leads sales and business development efforts for our automation and operational technology group.

    Contact Kevin
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