Professor Dragan Savic, CEO of KWR Water Research Institute, a member of the Netherlands Water Partnership, introduces the increasing trend towards digitalisation in the water sector, and the sharing of experiences by the Dutch water sector.
“Digital water is everything that has to do with the application of information and communication technologies in the water sector – both water and waste water,” says Professor Dragan Savic, an expert in the field. Digital technology is “penetrating every pore of our society”, he adds, noting that, although digitalisation of the water sector is much discussed, it is not always fully understood.
In the past, the water sector had a tendency to operate in different parts of the sector separately, he observes – most obviously, the separation of drinking water and waste water. He sees digital water as an integrator, with technology offering the ability to bring together those things that are artificially separated; for example, operations, modelling and production departments. “If they share data in digital form, that is where integration happens,” he says.
The future, he predicts, will be one of more technological penetration into the water industry, with utilities at different levels of integration. “Digitalisation is progressing everywhere – it’s unstoppable. We have to find the best way to use it, to leverage water company data and data from society.” Professor Savic notes, for example, that weather is a good indicator of demand, and freezing and thawing have an influence on pipe breaks . “All data combined will result in improved operations and asset management information that is decision based,” he adds.
The Dutch water sector is at the heart of the current wave of innovation. At KWR, for example, Professor Savic says its Hydroinformatics Committee is looking at developments in the digital world. KWR has developed Gondwana, a software platform to optimise drinking water distribution systems.
Another important aspect of digitalisation is the prospect of real-time operations of systems. “There are more and more real-time sensors. One person in a control room of a water or waste water utility can receive from a few thousand to tens of thousands of pieces of information a day,” he says. Artificial Intelligence tools augment the ability of the human operator to make sense of it all.
Digitalisation provides a way to make difficult decisions in a complex situation, he says: “There are always competing needs. Digitalisation provides the tools to find the best compromise between cost and consequence on the performance of the system – the biggest bang for the buck.”
Looking at KWR’s work, Professor Savic sees the role of research to progress digital water transformation as essential. “The tools are there to help [utilities], and we are researching new ways to do that. KWR has developed a fast digital technique for recognising microbiological pollutants in water – we are now using it to detect the coronavirus in waste water. Without the research being done in time, we would always be behind what happens in the system. The research needs time, and is needed upfront to be able to react to rapid changes in our systems; that is the point of KWR.”
As well as representing a threat, Professor Savic notes that the pandemic presents an opportunity to embrace new technology. “For example, organisations have moved to remote working and operation control at a level that was not envisaged before this situation with the coronavirus,” he says. The coronavirus detection example illustrates how new opportunities can open up. “The ultimate goal of the prototype tool developed is to be able to raise an early alarm for infected areas, to help distribute resources (both human and material) to the most affected regions and to monitor the evolution of the pandemic when the entire population cannot be individually tested,” he says.
Professor Savic notes that much of the progress with digital technologies to date has occurred in isolation, without exchange of experiences among early adopters. “Inevitably, that led to some solutions that were not future-proof.” He sees that is changing. “I believe that the level of cooperation and exchange of information among water utilities about what works well and what has not worked will help in achieving faster progress towards a digital water utility.”
International cooperation has a part of play in this, and Professor Savic also chairs the steering committee of the Digital Water Programme of the International Water Association. Professor Savic notes that the message around IWA’s Digital Water Summit, due to be held at the end of the year in Bilbao, Spain, is that “digital water is already here”, and that it is not an option but an imperative.
The move to greater cooperation opens the way for progress with digital technology’s opportunity for integration and linking of activities across organisations. “The digital transformation is happening already and will not stop. Therefore, all organisations will have to embrace this process,” says Professor Savic. “There are potentially big gains, but also some pitfalls that have to be avoided if possible. The collaboration and information exchange among the NWP network organisations is one of the key areas to pay attention to.”