We need a sense of urgency and acceleration. We cannot move fast enough considering the impacts of climate change and the precarity of water security. In western societies we only spend on average a meagre 10 minutes per annum thinking of utilities, including water. We need to make an effort in the social dimension – engaging and educating the public to the extreme situation we face with water as a resource and the role of digitisation in proffering solutions.

Prompt and integrated action is required from industries, water utilities and policy makers. Just look at the droughts of 2018 and 2019 that caught the Netherlands and the United Kingdom by surprise. The response of governments to COVID19 shows that we can mobilise resources at scale quickly to combat deterioration of acute events. We could and should apply the same response to water-derived risk and apply it to smart measures such as water re-use for example.

At KWR our goals are directly related to transitioning to a smarter water society in view of the climate crisis and water-derived risk for the next five to ten years. Water is central to all three of these goals, namely Circularity, Sustainable Development and the Water/Food/Energy Nexus. The question is where industry sits on the priority on continuum of water supply as extreme weather and climate events become more extreme.

Water priorities: communities over industry

Pressure on resources is exacerbating the tensions between the Water/Food/Energy Nexus, yet the sense of urgency to mobilise the scale of resources to plan and mitigate the negative impact is missing. Due to pollution, water utilities responsible for a water-secure future all around the world are managing surface water 60% of which is polluted; and even those in water-rich countries are experiencing a decline in renewable water resources per capita.

With 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally used for agriculture and 10% by municipalities, industries will need to prepare for the strong likelihood that community and municipal requirements will have a higher priority than their production and revenue targets. Especially so with droughts threatening food security, constant fresh water supply and inevitable mounting public concern.

Symbiotic industry ecosystem

Large industries are taking steps in the right direction through circularity projects on innovative water, resource and energy solutions. This transition to industrial symbiosis is fraught with challenges and requires rethinking and redesigning workflows, processes and business models. The good news is the reuse of water and wastewater as a reusable resource is now more likely to become mainstream in industry. There are pockets of multinationals beginning to tap the business potential of wastewater for energy and material extraction. This symbiosis will only be a success when industries can create ‘water/energy’ factories that are not only geared for commercial gain, but also for large scale socioeconomic success. ULTIMATE is an EU funded project consortium doing just that on – “Water Smart Industrial Symbiosis”. KWR coordinates 27 project partners building an evidence-base of industrial symbiosis applications of nine large scale demonstration plants. Upscaling and cross-fertilisation between the demos will pave the way for industrial symbiosis and a smart water society.

Horizontal integration of digitised data

To ensure that efforts such as these towards global water security become mainstream, industry and water utilities need to create a solid base of digitised data and knowledge to inform decision-making at scale.

There should also be a horizontal integration through the digitisation of data from all the different players in the water network to promote efficient water administration. Governance is critical to counter a disjointed approach to water management within utilities and between utilities and industry. At KWR the City Blueprint is an example of a tool which allows anyone in the water sector to see progress towards the sustainable development goals quickly in 104 cities. Extending this approach from local city scale to transboundary scale is the next step for a winning situation for cities upstream and downstream of water supply locations.

Digitisation ensures the custodianship of this information remains with the utilities and the communities and cities they serve. We have a greying workforce in utilities who are retiring over the next five to ten years and potentially very valuable knowledge will be lost. The synergistic development of digital tools enables a smarter water society, the preservation of invaluable in-house knowledge and better management of local industrial and utility systems.

Never underestimate the social dimension

Without humans and cultural change, we cannot succeed. Digitisation and innovation can only accelerate if there is a strong social dimension to the process. Never assume social readiness. It is not the most sophisticated solution that is accepted, but the ones that successfully take users on a path that they feel are important. If we consider the case study of JVC licensing its VHS technology compared to Sony’s Beta-Max, VHS gained market dominance because it shared the technology with interested manufacturers. Sony lost an opportunity since it held onto the technology for too long.

Beta-Max was a more sophisticated solution but by not socialising the product, it excluded a key element on which successful innovation hinges.

It is very important to articulate the human needs a technology responds to in the long term, demonstrating the practical outcomes. This is what I call “Augmented Intelligence”, where the human is at the centre of any Artificial Intelligence (AI) application. I had first-hand experience on this when applying Hydroinformatics (water informatics) principles in practice. For example, in implementing AI optimisation to pumping systems the first step is to show how AI is achieving what an operator wants and more - providing optimal scheduling to optimise energy efficiency. It is thus Augmented Intelligence, not merely AI, in that it is not overtaking the human dimension but assisting operators and exceeding their expectations.

The Social Dimension is the winning card for the success of digitisation to accelerate solutions and innovations, as well as mainstreaming a symbiotic ecosystem between industry and utilities, to guarantee a water secure future for all.