Pang Chee Meng: Creating Singapore’s digital water utility of the future
Dr Pang Chee Meng is the chief engineering and technology at PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency. We check in on PUB’s latest digital developments.
Transformation to meet future requirements
PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency is renowned for being progressive when it comes to adopting new technologies and innovations.
Winner of GWI’s past ‘Resilient Water Agency of the Year’ award for offering a robust response to the unique challenges of 2020, PUB is responsible for the entire water supply, drainage and sewerage system in Singapore.
It has developed a “Four National Taps” strategy to ensure a robust and diversified water supply, that includes water from local catchments, imported water, high-grade reclaimed water and desalination, PUB sees the adoption of digital as part of its future.
This is a future where its responsibilities go beyond providing water and wastewater services. While originally named the national water agency, PUB Singapore is also now the coastal protection agency, in charge of protecting Singapore’s coastlines from the impact of rising sea levels.
To find out more about where PUB sees digital as part of its changing responsibilities, Tom Freyberg sat down with Dr Chee Meng Pang, the chief engineering technology officer at PUB, during the Singapore International Water Week
Tom Freyberg (TF): Where do you sort of see the potential for digital solutions, particularly more granular data, as part of your network and infrastructure?
Dr Pang Chee Meng, chief engineering technology officer at PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency (PCM): We cannot do without digital. There is a confluence of factors facing us now. On one hand, we have a series of business drivers, such as those coming from increasing water demand. Concurrently, we are facing the impact of climate change and how it will change our weather patterns leading to prolonged dry weather and more intense rainfall which in turn may lead to an increase in flooding. There are also other factors related to land scarcity in Singapore, manpower crunch with an ageing population etc. Moreover, we have to continue to deliver our mission in the context of rising public expectations for better services from us. We therefore need to transform ourselves to better meet future requirements. However, due to Singapore’s inherent limitations, we are unable to expand water sources or hire more manpower. That’s really the context of why we want to move towards becoming a digital utility.
TF: The phrase “digital utility” is often used, but what does this mean to you?
PCM: A digital utility means a few things. One, it has to be digital throughout the entire water loop. We have progressively made plans to digitalize the five critical parts of our business . And that is in the form of smart drainage grid that takes care of drainage as well as reservoir management. Smart plants for our water works and water reclamation plants. Smart water grid and the Smart sewer grid for our water pipes and sewers. And lastly, digital operations support to integrate the various smart technologies across Singapore’s water management system.
“We are using fish to see if there are contaminants coming into our waters.”
TF: That’s a lot of smart infrastructure. Can you talk about where you see digital playing a role on water quality, particularly the potential for real time data on water entering your treatment works?
PCM: We are very interested to use sensors for real-time monitoring of our water quality. One of our major concerns is to better monitor and understand contaminants that give acute effects. We have been working with a vendor to use fish as a type of a surrogate to “alert” us if there are contaminants coming into our source water. Over the years, we have developed a video analytics type of algorithm to monitor fish behaviour when they are exposed to different types of water quality.
TF: That’s interesting – and new to me. So “smart fish” to act as a visual indicator if there’s a change to water quality?
PCM: Yes, it would detect if there's a contaminant in the water. This particular sensor has been commercialized by a company called ZWEEC. This is one of the areas that we would be implementing throughout our distribution system to have an idea of whether there are changes in the water quality in our treated water. We are also trying to deploy this in our raw water as well. This would give us early warning so that we can respond quickly to any possible contamination.
The sensors are supported by corresponding IOT technologies in terms of wireless transmission to collect data on a more pervasive scale for us to have greater situation awareness of what is going on in our entire water system. This is one example of how we are using sensors.
“The integrated water management system is similar to a digital twin in that it pulls data from not just the sensors.”
TF: You could say that these different developments, sensors and data points are building towards a digital twin of the water network? This phrase is often used, and unfortunately, misused.
PCM: These are just two examples of data streams that's coming to us. But we have a lot more data streams with different information in each substream. What we are working on is a centralised system that can be used to monitor information for at least 12, or 13 of such substreams that allows us to have an integrated overview of the entire water cycle. We are calling that the integrated water management system. The idea is for it to be similar to a digital twin. It pulls data from not just the sensors, but also from the plants and possibly even our field crew when they attend to customer feedback. It will function as the nerve centre that will know what is happening in the overall water system.
TF: So a digital twin, also influenced by field data, without calling it a digital twin! You mentioned customer complaints – perhaps you could reflect on people side of digitalization. We often talk about the technology and the data but you need to make sure workforces are open to new ways of working. How are you seeing this in PUB?
PCM: I’m glad you asked this question. Despite all the digital transformation projects mentioned earlier, the digital journey is about change management and a business transformation process. At the heart of all these things, it is really the people. If I may offer an analogy, as we transform, sometimes the staff may feel that they are in a car that is being driven, but they are also attempting to change the car’s wheels at the same time to ensure that it can keep running. This means they are stretched on both ends. On one hand, they must continue to maintain the high standards and ensure good quality water and service to the people. On the other, they have to ensure they stay on top of changes and also spend time and energy to adjust to using the new systems. It's very important then that we communicate the imperative to transform, to our people. And towards this end, we always emphasise that in all projects we will try to achieve one or more of four outcomes.
“It’s really about bringing our staff along on this [digital] journey with us.”
TF: What are the four outcomes?
PCM: - They are: (1) value creation because some of these digital tools will enhance our capabilities, and we will be able to create greater value from our existing assets . (2) To improve or become more efficient in our operations, (3) create better experiences for our customers, through improved customer service. (4) Finally, for the benefit of the staff, all these outcomes should also improve their work-life balance.
TF: So it’s involving the PUB teams into the digital decision making?
PCM: The truth of the matter is that even if you communicate the rationale for change, people may or may not appreciate what you're doing. We don't want our staff to treat the whole digital transformation journey as an entirely management-led initiative. Instead, we try to co-create a solution with them. It is really about bringing our staff on this [digital] journey together and securing their buy-in. If we are able to convey effectively that we are also doing this to benefit them – better work-life balance being one of them, they become more forthcoming in their constructive critique of the technologies being developed. With this buy-in, they also offer suggestions on the type of changes that they see would be beneficial.
“Data as a Service has been increasingly something we are open to exploring.”
TF: So you’re essentially empowering people by involving them from the start. Finally, I want to get your thoughts on business model innovation. We’re starting to hear of the shift from CAPEX (capital expenditure sales) and equipment sales, towards subscription-based OPEX (operational expenditure) models including servicing based on the amount of water being treatment (water as a service).
PCM: Data as a Service (DaaS) is something we are keen to explore further. That means paying for the data or the insights from the data that help us with our work. We recognize that PUB is a water company, and while we can identify and leverage the digital technologies, the question is how far we want to go and how big a team of data analysts or machine learning experts we want to maintain to do everything on our own. In my view, we would want to maintain a team to allow us to have this capability at an organisational level to understand these technologies, and keep abreast of them. But in terms of maintaining a huge team and sending them out into the field to maintain every single digital system, that is not likely to happen for now. So, from that perspective, DaaS or maybe even getting the insights as a service is something that we can consider.
TF: Insights as a service would definitely be an innovative new business model to add into the mix! Thanks for your time, Dr Pang. As always, it’s interesting to see how Singapore is keeping ahead of the curve on water developments.
(Image credit: PUB, Singapore's National Water Agency)
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