Text by Richard J. Vestner, Member of the GWP Board of Directors
Significant global and cross-industry efforts can be observed to minimize negative outcomes of worldwide challenges such as climate change or loss of biodiversity and resilience. The water sector is not only challenged, but also capable and willing to contribute to improvements. Here, digitalization is increasingly acting as empowerment, which I would like to examine in the context of other strategies for sustainability. Together I call this set of measures: “The four big D’s”.
Efforts to decarbonize resource cycles can be seen worldwide. The water industry has already achieved success in reducing the relative water demand, which has a major impact on the associated carbon emissions. Water-saving components and processes, the reduction of water losses and the reuse of water as well as demand-related water tariffs are examples. There are already numerous approaches to reducing the use of fossil resources in the construction and operation of water management systems.
Decentralized solutions enable local or regional cycles. However, they often only prevail in greenfield developments where no pre-investments in more central systems have to be regarded.
However, a trend towards decentralization can be recognized globally, across technologies and across sectors, from which the water industry can also benefit. This is simply about the agile control of increasing complexity in networks and the timely satisfaction of needs that are far away from production or decision-making. Smaller networks – physically and virtually – can thus represent an intelligent addition to large central systems and convince with faster adaptability.
Like other industries, the water sector is already benefiting from a democratization of technology, information and knowledge. Low-code / no-code applications and open source software also enable many non-experts and individuals to participate in technical developments.
To encourage innovation, new ways of working are being created that encourage a culture of sharing and experimentation. This trend also enables the water industry to offer new job profiles and attract digital talent.
But democratization also includes responsibility for education and training. Workers need to keep pace with and benefit from rapid changes in their workplace. This requires new training and educational opportunities.
Finally, digitalization serves as a cross-sectional competence to enable the aforementioned initiatives. It has become a priority in the water sector. Digital advantages in favor of resource protection are already used during planning. For example, BIM (Building Information Modeling) and visualization using Mixed Reality can enable joint and more efficient planning, building, operation and learning. Real-time monitoring and forecasts allow higher effectiveness and lower energy consumption through demand control, predictive load distribution and automation. Plant-related, preventive maintenance also plays a role, which contributes to data-based decisions to increase operational reliability and reduce operating costs.
The current technological highlight is the Digital Twin, known from the Industry 4.0 approach, which lays the foundation for self-learning, flexible and adaptive water systems using existing IT systems, including Artificial Intelligence and data from the Internet of Things. Decentralized decision-making plays an important role, too (keyword: edge computing). Hence, numerous infrastructure owners and operators here and elsewhere are working on large-scale applications that go far beyond computerization and modeling, such as the municipal water utility of Porto.
The smart connectivity required for this can be created through a Connected Data Environment in which various data sources and applications exist side by side and only the information relevant to problem solving is identified and used safely on a case-by-case basis. This uncovers new correlations and dependencies in use cases.
The so-called “fourth industrial revolution” may be called revolutionary above all because it surpasses all previous levels in terms of speed, scope, depth and complexity and has an overall transformative effect. It includes opportunities and risks for the water industry, which has to face new solutions, business models and actors. With the increasing acceptance of digital technologies in the water sector, large technology companies are taking action – software companies, cloud service providers, electronics manufacturers, etc. – and are building strategic positions in water with tailored products, partnerships and businesses. At the same time, they announce ambitious sustainability goals. A representative of these global big tech companies joined us for the BLUE PLANET Berlin Water Dialogues to explain more about it.
As essential drivers of the digital transformation in the water sector, necessities to increase efficiency, reduce costs and comply with stricter regulation were identified. I believe we have to think bigger and recognize and use important connections between Digitalization, Decarbonization, Decentralization and Democratization, in the sense of this definition of “4D”.
GWP is dealing with Digitalization aspects and how it can create added value in water management applications particularly in the Water 4.0 Working Group – you are cordially invited to participate!