‘Infobesity’ and human driven resistance: two roadblocks in the digital utility journey

 

Water utilities came together in Miami for the annual SWAN Forum to share their experience on the adoption of smart water technologies. Human driven resistance continues to be a challenge.

Conservative culture continues to slow technology adoption

Conservative cultures and generating unnecessary data continue to plague the adoption of smart water technologies.

Carla Reid, general manager and CEO of the Washing Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) coined the phrase “human driven resistance” to summarise an ongoing dilemma in the water sector.

This refers to technological solutions having evolved at a faster pace than they can be understood, appreciated, adopted and implemented by water utility workforces.

Delivering the keynote address at the SWAN Forum in Miami, US, she said there are three reasons why human resistance can happen:

  • Emphasis of the cost of projects over the benefits
  • Inaccurate information being spread
  • A distrust of data and a distrust of the utility in general.

Reid said advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) underpins a “data driven utility and we need it” but that WSSC has been “looking into it forever due to human driven resistance”.

One of the reasons for this, the CEO said, was because of inaccurate information being spread: people think WSCC will be using AMI to monitor them, which isn’t the case.

As a result, she added that there continues to be a need to educate, collaborate and advocate across the water market.

Avoiding “infobesity”

Delivering the welcome remarks, Hardeep Anand, deputy director of the capital improvement program for Miami-Dade Water & Sewer department reminded the audience of new phrases and challenges being created from the digitalisation of water assets: “infobesity” and “infophobia”.

“The smart water journey will be slow progress but it’s very important that we need to look back at our progress,” he said.

Former DC Water manager George Hawkins echoed the sentiments about human driven resistance.

“It’s not a question of technologies when it comes to delivering smart water – this is not the problem,” said the founder and executive director of Moonshot LLC. “The problem is how they are adopted.”

Meanwhile Kishia Powell, commissioner for the City of Atlanta watershed management gave a dose of reality on the state of the utility’s workforce: 1400 employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years.

She said you cannot “become a smart water utility without people, process and policy”.

Powell cited a project where 19 devices were installed to augment smart water metres, helping the City of Atlanta to save $1 million in the process. This money was then used to roll out further sensors.

Creating behavioural competition on water

Singapore water agency PUB is looking into how data can help overcome some of these challenges.

“We have generated a lot of data but the question is how can we use this to increase our the relationship with our customers?” asked Ridzuan Ismail, director – water supply network department at PUB.

He added that another challenge is getting a mixed demographic to download and engage with an app, despite offering the technology. PUB tried gamification, creating behavioural competition in neighbourhoods to try and increase engagement.

The need for digital collaboration in water utilities

Others believe in-house collaboration, avoiding digital skillset separation, is vital to improve the implementation of smart water technologies.

“As an industry we need to recognise digital and non-digital people and make sure they are on the same team to help break down paradigms,” said Cynthia Mason, digitalisation transformation & operational consulting – water industry, Siemens.

The SWAN Forum was attended by 340 attendees from 20 countries, including 48 unique utilities.

An audience poll also shed further light on the industry’s increasing challenge of accepting new technologies.

Asking the question of ‘What is the biggest obstacle for the adoption of smart water?’, 65 percent of audience respondents said it was a ‘Conservative Culture – aversion to risk’.


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