SWAN report: What’s driving innovation at water utilities – and what’s inhibiting it? 

Tim Medearis Tim Medearis June 6, 2023

6 min read

There’s a rising tide of challenges approaching public water utilities. Faced with growing demand, crumbling infrastructure, climate change and a tight labor pool, public utility owners are looking toward smart water technology to help them manage a most precious resource: water.    

SWAN’s 2023 report, How Utilities Organize for Digital Innovation, offers great insights into this process of digital transformation. The membership-based, non-profit organization SWAN, which aims to “make smart water mainstream,” produced the report in partnership with the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC).  

The study includes input from utility workers across unique water agencies around the globe. It identifies key factors that drive, and sometimes inhibit, innovation in the water industry. 

Public utilities are “better together” 

As one of the authors of the study, I’m thrilled to see a growing interest in the benefits of data-driven environments within the water industry.  We can use these findings to help public utilities and their partners realize the numerous benefits of a digital transformation. 

Whether public utilities serve 3,000 customers or 3,000,000, they all manage the same thing. But there are differences in the methods and tools they use.  

Many public utilities need to plan for ongoing change and even rapid growth. Some must replace large swaths of aging infrastructure originally built 50-75 years ago. Some are focused on implementing new innovations in water treatment or meeting new regulatory requirements.  

Commonalities among the broad sample size and diverse utility organizations surveyed exist as well. All are facing issues related to climate change, water scarcity and loss, and the effect on efficiency. Thanks to their passion and high energy for protecting and managing this resource, a common theme surfaced from the report: We’re better together.    

By holistically looking at solutions and tools used around the world, public utilities can share best practices and standards. This way, those (typically larger) utilities that have advanced their digitization process can help smaller ones or those in the nascent stages of adopting data-driven technologies.  

Do you do these things? If you do, your own employees see you as more innovative.

Public utilities as innovation drivers 

The study reveals differences in what drives and enables organizations to innovate. The top drivers of digital innovation overall reflect core principles of maintaining essential water service: 

Whether that means providing safe and affordable drinking water, or reliable water treatment, services must be delivered efficiently and in compliance with regulations. 

For larger utilities that serve one million people or more, climate impacts, organizational commitment to innovation, as well as water scarcity and water loss rose to the top.  

For smaller utilities — such as those that serve less than 100,000 people — customer rate pressure, revenue generation, workplace safety, and a desire to recruit and retain staff figured more prominently in adopting a data-driven environment. 

Inhibitors to going fully digital 

When considering implementing a digital transformation, we found three primary factors inhibiting its adoption:  

Data is the answer 

It’s evident that a digital transformation is coming. It’s inevitable.  

Consider existing related systems that professionals use such as billing software or operational dashboards. Adopting a fully connected data-driven system adds to the efficiency of their work.   

Gone are 100-page PDF reports utility workers must pore over to find an answer. Engineers no longer have to waste time looking for the spreadsheet that is the most up-to-date. And now we can even say goodbye to Power BI dashboards that aren’t built for the water industry, requiring engineers to also be data analytics and coding experts. 

Autodesk, with the incorporation of Innovyze water solutions, has built its reputation helping owner and project teams seamlessly connect data from the plan, design, build, and operate phases of the asset lifecycle. Our portfolio of hydraulic modeling, asset management, and water digital twin solutions provide a one-stop-shop to connect, share, and protect data. The information is there when you need it, how you need it, saving time and money. 

Proven operational results 

One public utility that’s seen results is Wellington Water in New Zealand. Wellington needed to develop a better methodology for their preventive asset maintenance program. While the utility already relied on data, it was raw and not easily shared.   

Using Info360 Insight, they were able to feed SCADA data into a solution to assess operational performance. The utility can now seamlessly share performance data across teams such as operations, planning, modeling, and asset management.  

Read about how one of our earliest Info360 Insight users turned into a power user.

Linking real-time data sensors to the software enabled a standardization of internal pump performance calculations. It also allowed them to include factors like seasonality considerations.  

The optimization of the pumps improves efficiency and maximizes asset life. And those assets cost significant dollars.  Wellington Water estimates the effort saved them 20% in electricity cost.  

Other cost savings come from reduced time spent on maintenance and field tests previously needed to assess pump conditions. 

Proven people results 

One of the most important potential returns on resources from a digital transformation is the human kind. Public utilities find themselves in high competition for engineering and field staff.  As public utilities struggle to attract and hire people, they have to do more with less.  A digital transformation helps bridge the gap between those highly experienced with day-to-day operations and those just starting their careers.   

It’s easy to reduce repetitive and tedious work that is often assigned to more junior staff when you can manage it digitally. This gives employees more ownership in achieving the organization’s overall goals, empowering them and helping with retention.   

It takes a village — and a commitment 

The study also makes it apparent that all groups within an organization have a role to play in ensuring that innovation is successful at an organizational level. It can’t just land in the lap of IT.

We’re better together, right? IT involvement is crucial to the process because they find ways to make things work while maintaining security.   

The best returns on the relationship between technology adoption and innovation involves a feedback loop. Understanding issues up front will inform your digital transformation journey and lead to greater success.

Download the report and dive deeper

Want to read more? You can download the report. You’ll find deeper dives into inhibitors, personal observations from interviews with respondents, and actionable recommendations your water utility can take towards embracing innovation and digitalization.

You can reach out to us to talk about your own utility’s progress towards your own innovation goals.

Fill up on more of the One Water blog

Sign up for the One Water Blog newsletter, and we'll keep you updated about our top stories, along with the best content we find online. We only send out a newsletter when we have something interesting to share.