WA Conference - Water Security: Technology and Ethics

Thursday 22 June 2017
Written by Peter Spencer and Aisha Chalmers

This year’s conference delved into the latest evolution of technology, the Internet of Things, and what this means for the water industry. Eighty delegates were presented with a full program of speakers spread across four sessions providing a valuable insight into what is only just the beginning of this phenomenon’s impact on the water industry. 

Session 1 – Internet of Things

Tony Wise (Sensus, Xylem) provided some insights into how to navigate through the plethora of protocols at device level and in communications. The utopia of big data and total business integration is so attractive that we risk stumbling into pitfalls and dead ends as we rush to get there and the technology industry continues to evolve at such a fast pace. It brought back memories of one of the original (IT) technology races between Beta and VHS. Thomas Joseph (Mott MacDonald) followed up with some good case studies applied in New Zealand bringing real business improvement, but highlighting the investment (cost) in collecting the data (ie. instrument and communication network) and the need to verify the accuracy of that data. Lindsay Preece (Department of Water) finished of the first session with some staggering facts and figures around the size, breadth and often remoteness of collecting environmental water data across the state of WA. Initially the cost of instrument deployment and data integration seemed a barrier but some novel instrument technology developments that integrate communication capability with long battery life allow for some very simple and cheap instrument deployment (eg. within the bore head) compared with the historically large fenced compound of switchboards, power supply and ancillary infrastructure. Question time again raised the challenge of picking the right protocols, with the water industry likely to take the lead from the large telcos and IT companies. The dilemma of cheap reliable throwaway battery/instruments versus the more labour intensive rechargeable/replaceable battery approach was also discussed with the IT industry favouring the former, but perhaps our environmental conscience favouring the latter.

Session 2 – Risk Vs Reward

Christopher Vains (Siemens) delved further into the IoT and big data promises of business integration and productivity to be gained from this. A key enabler may be the development of open systems so that many vendors and service providers can compete seamlessly, driving innovation and cost effectiveness. However, these benefits will be challenged by the increased risk of data violation, espionage and malware attack. Mark Atkinson (IoT Alliance) outlined our journey through a number of digital revolutions (e.g. the use of information systems to improve processes) to look forward and highlight how cloud, IoT and cognitive systems will disrupt business. We can already see the influence of cloud and IoT in the creation of smart systems, in the disruptions to traditional business through peer to peer networks, in decentralised systems, and a refocus on engagement and customer experience. It’s fair to say the technology is and will be available. The challenge is for business and government to adapt their business models and regulations to facilitate the future. Guenter Hauber-Davidson (WaterGroup Pty Ltd) challenged the notion that smart metering must be applied utility-wide to be effective, which results in all or nothing projects. Scientific studies are regularly completed through the use of representative samples - can we not apply the same thinking to smart metering? Logging a representative sample of meters (~10%) is enough to model the consumption and behaviour of a network. 

Session 3 – Policy & Ethics

Richard Bartholomew (Arup) highlighted the extensive number of digital disruptors we can expect to influence the water sector over the next 25 years. Examples include sensor networks, crowdsourcing, autonomous repair and nanomaterials. The water sector must ensure they have the future technical capability and organisational culture to maximise the benefits of these disruptors. Mike Mouritz (Curtin University) looked to the past to imagine the future of Perth. Cities around the world have seen a shift towards sustainability and towards integrated water management. The question is, from here do we change little, or move towards a centralised, but collaborative sector, a decentralised and competitive sector or autonomous communities that are decentralised with an optimised water / food / energy nexus. Globally, utilities recognise that the future is one where they operate socio-technical systems and that this is going to require different business models and space to innovate (and fail). 

Workshop & Pitch Session

Picking up where Richard Bartholomew (Arup) left off, delegates discussed how a small selection of digital disruptors were or could be relevant to their businesses and provided delegates with an opportunity to link themes from the conference to their business and technical expertise. Taggle, Environmental Engineers International and Oracle highlighted how their businesses were operating in this space, which highlighted the risk of doing nothing. 
Overall, the conference provided a valuable insight into how this tsunami of technology development is both a challenge and an opportunity for the water industry. There is no doubt about the benefits to be gained by data integration across the water industry, as the industry itself integrates water and wastewater back into a water cycle that nature had always intended. The challenge, in a fast moving industry often driven by consumerism, is how to get secure long term investment in infrastructure that matches the secure long term goals of our water services.
Jonathan McKeown (Chief Executive, Australian Water Association) closed the conference with a call for the water sector in Perth to contribute stories of success in diversity, inclusion and empowerment as part of the Association’s Channeling Change Program
Thanks to Trility and Hydramet for supporting the event.
2017 WA Conference Attendees
2017 WA Conference