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Utilities Digital Solutions Europe

Culture is the biggest barrier (and opportunity) to utility digitalisation, finds report

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Large-scale digitalisation will require a “leap of faith” from utility management, with effective communication and pilots key to maintaining momentum.

That’s according to a new white paper co-produced by GWI and Nokia entitled ‘Digital Futures: Creating a roadmap for utility performance’.

The report was produced following the Digital Futures Symposium, a four-part series that brought together 25 utilities from across the world to share experiences and insights on implementing digital solutions. Combined, they serve over 100 million people in more than 15 countries.

“Water utilities are actively exploring the digitisation of water networks through the adoption of industrial internet of things (IIoT) solutions,” said Stephen Major, global energy practice CTO at Nokia.

“These solutions can enable more intelligent assets and a more holistic management approach, which will ease the transition to smarter, more adaptive networks.”

Reframing culture challenges as an opportunity

While every utility globally is unique, they share several of the same challenges, including “legacy systems and data siloes”, which prevent many utilities from fully accessing their data, the report said.

Discussing organisational culture as the “greatest barrier”, the report framed the challenge as also the potential “greatest opportunity” on a utility’s digital journey.

“Sign-off from management is no guarantee of success.”

“Sign-off from management is no guarantee of success. Digital solutions will only succeed if the people who are expected to use them – be it operations or administrative staff, or even customers – are convinced of their value,” the authors noted.

The comments on utility culture echo a recent white paper entitled ‘Digital Twins for Wastewater Infrastructure’ from Royal HaskoningDHV Digital. It highlighted that one of the key drivers for digital twins (DTs) for wastewater infrastructure is to help with one of the biggest challenges looming over the industry: an ageing, skilled workforce retiring.

As an example, some water utilities are expecting to lose up to 50 per cent of their operations staff in the coming 15 years.

Elsewhere, over 100 water utilities across Australia and New Zealand united to create a Technology Roadmap that places humans, not technology, at the centre.

An earlier IWA white paper said we will witness a “hybrid human-and-machine environment”, as utility workforces are being driven to adapt and learn new skills to keep up with digital transformation.

Culture determines success

GWI/Nokia said that if data is made accessible and converted to actionable intelligence, utilities can embrace a wide variety of power tools.

However, outcome-oriented digitalisation requires an organisation-wide culture shift, with utility staff needing to “communicate across departments” to gain buy-in for new digital solutions, the report said.

“As culture determines success, it’s important to prioritise data literacy in training.”

As “culture determines success”, it’s important to prioritise data literacy in training and recruitment, democratise access to data across organisations and foster innovation and interdepartmental collaboration.

Reference utilities

“Water utilities are facing substantial challenges, including changing customer demands and service requirements,” said Nokia’s Stephen Major. “They need new approaches that will help them adapt and grow their businesses, innovate effectively and address current challenges while adding value for customers and other stakeholders.”

The white paper highlighted several notable utility examples of digitalisation, including:

  • Northumbrian Water in the UK is transmitting data from across its network to the cloud every 30 seconds. Operators can create work orders directly from their SCADA systems
  • South East Water in Melbourne, Australia, created a proprietary multi-parameter sensor, ensuring smart metering delivered value across the entire utility
  • York Region Environment Department in Canada is currently working to reimagine how their staff use digital technologies in order to create a ‘single source of truth’ across the utility
  • The National Water Company in Saudi Arabia has created an Uber-style tanker service to streamline delivery of water to off-network customers
  • Idrica in Spain calibrates valve pressure every 15 minutes, using outputs from a digital twin that forecasts water demand.

- For more information and to download the full report, please visit here.

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