Ben Tam believes there are a few examples of companies that are capturing the zeitgeist of artificial intelligence (AI). Here he speaks to Tom Freyberg about the need for digital disruption.
"Disruption is possible in the Kenyan market and a certain amount of ‘leapfrogging' can occur, especially by harnessing digital technologies."
From the lab to setting up shop at Anglian
Benjamin Tam didn’t immediately start his now fruitful career in water. He started in life sciences with a PhD looking at how intra cell signalling can alter cancer cells.
After four years of laboratory work associated with the PhD, he then had the urge to “bridge out of academia and follow a passion for the environment”. There was a second driving motivation: Tam wanted to prove wrong the accusation that the “water sector isn’t innovative”.
This led him to a graduate programme at UK utility, Anglian Water. After enjoying operational roles in water treatment and water quality, Tam was instrumental in helping to establish what could be called a feather in fairly new water career cap: the Innovation Show Window programme.
Of course, setting up what would become one of the leading hubs for adopting new technologies didn’t fall to one man; it was a team effort. He describes it as “being in a forward-looking company at the right time” and that it “already had a strong innovation programme for a long time”.
Anglian’s executive team had conceived a concept of setting up an area of the business that could look 30 years ahead and be a centre point for innovation in the Anglian region.
Bringing water technology to life
Following this project, Tam then moved into a consultancy role, harnessing the hands-on operational, as well as the innovation project management experience. He joined Isle Utilities, which today as 90 staff with offices in London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Milan and representatives in Australia, US, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, South Africa and the Philippines.
To summarise what the company does, the managing director references a statement on the wall of the office: ‘We bring technology to life’. Rather than investing or owning any technology, instead, Isle plays a role in the innovation ecosystem to accelerate the adoption of innovative technologies.
Below is a summary of a full-length interview with Tam.
Tom Freyberg (TF): Anglian’s Innovation Shop Window project is referenced globally. Why the name?
Benjamin Tam, managing director, UK – Isle utilities (BT): The name ‘Shop Window’ came from the idea that it is the place you present your new or most exciting products for customers and the world to see. It started as a working title and the fact you have to explain it means that it probably wasn’t the best choice, but like lots of these projects, it just stuck. Now I think it’s worked as it stands out from the crowd.
TF: What did you learn from this experience?
BT: We designed it not just a trial site but a real operating area with customers. This would offer a compelling base for new technology to be trialled before scaling up and out to the rest of the business…The biggest learning in the start-up phase was selling the benefit of taking this approach – why make an effort? It pushed the business to be more ambitious, and it is a visual way of engaging all stakeholders in the challenges Anglian Water faces. Water companies cannot tackle innovation without collaboration; they don't have all the skills or resources internally.
TF: In your role at Isle Utilities, what does digitalisation in water mean to you?
BT: When Isle first started scouring the globe for technologies and evaluating how water utilities would work with them, we predominantly saw water and wastewater treatment technologies. The drive in the past five years to add ‘smart' to the water network was also the time at which digital technologies and data-led approaches moved higher onto the agenda. Digitalisation for me is about taking advantage of the now abundant data provided by the systems in water utilities; the technologies that will thrive are the ones that can improve the holistic thinking of an organisation and accelerate difficult decision making.
TF: Which examples of companies in the digital water space have caught your eye recently with the potential to disrupt?
BT: There are lots of examples of technologies that have entered the market in the past few years. If there is one company that captures the artificial intelligence (AI) zeitgeist, it is Emagin, which is one Isle were excited to engage with early on and bring through the Technology Approval Groups (TAG) globally. They stand out as having an AI solution that they openly went out to apply across different water utility challenges to understand where they could add real value. What makes them different is the willingness to stand back and analyse the issues with a strong team behind it.
TF: We covered the Emagin-United Utilities AI project, which is interesting. What about outside of traditional ‘developed' markets?
BT: We are working with African utilities to identify innovative technology that will allow them to meet some of the challenges they face. Disruption is possible in this market, and a certain amount of ‘leapfrogging' can occur, especially by harnessing digital technologies. A company that is transforming access to water is City Taps. They have a pre-payment meter and digital bill payment software. It is leading the way in opening up households to a clean and safe water supply by allowing customers to pay easily and water utilities to secure revenues. It sounds simple, but there are many elements, including digital ones, that have to work and be robust for the complete system to come together.
TF: Which water utilities, globally, really stand out and why when it comes to being progressive in a broader digital water strategy?
BT: There is so much going on in this space and something we will explore during the Innovation Forum in November. A recent example that stands outcomes from the US and the Kansa City smart sewer project. This is a huge 25-year asset programme in the region of $4.5 billion to essentially protect the environment. They are embedding an array of sensors and using condition assessment tools to plan and upgrade to the sewer network. Multiple data sets are then integrated that include weather to operate efficiently.
TF: Closer to home, there is another project you're watching closely as well?
BT: Another example is UK water utility Severn Trent where they have focussed innovation on model areas and water and wastewater. They are applying a factory manufacturing approach at Spernal wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), to ultimately automate the treatment of wastewater to the influent from the network. This requires an overarching data centred approach starting matched with precise operational control. Such an ambitious approach is where digitalisation of water utilities shows its benefits and transforms the way utilities operate.
TF: One of the greatest hurdles to the adoption of digital solutions is ‘human-driven resistance'. Do you agree and if so, how can this be overcome?
BT: I don't see much evidence of direct blocking of digital projects and human resistance to the potential benefits. On the contrary, most people get excited by the potential of digital solutions. The blocker is usually due to the complexity, the requirement for multiple business units to be aligned and challenge to get a compelling business case in place. This can be overcome by putting clear strategies in place by the senior management teams that break down silos. The traditional set up for water companies is to have an IT/IS team that is separate to the innovation and engineering teams. The IT function has had to become more integrated or the platform more open to allowing digital technologies to be adopted.
TF: Great to hear you disagree with this statement! You're moderating the opening session of the Innovation Forum. What are you most looking forward to about the event?
BT: The event has been structured to be engaging and interactive. This is to create moments throughout the day for everyone to connect with new idea and people, whether an unstructured session to allow group insights to surface or tailored 1:1 speed meetings. It's all based in a bespoke area that has sections for small group chats in a ‘fireside’ style opposed to big lecture-style presentations and massive message board that will capture delegates sentiments. I can't wait to see how all of these conference innovations work to help move the global discussion on digital water forward.
- Ben Tam will be moderating the opening keynote session on digital innovation in water at the Aquatech Innovation Forum, taking place on November 4 in Amsterdam. He is the managing director, UK, for Isle Utilities. Tom Freyberg is the content director of Aquatech Global Events.