Productive, sustainable, liveable: How the water industry contributes to cities of the future

Posted 17 May 2017
Lucy Turnbull
Our water issues continue to become more complex, which means the industry needs to stay agile to keep its feet steady on shaky ground. However, as Wednesday’s keynote speakers discussed, the water industry is quickly adapting to uncertain environments, and this is being facilitated by big data. 

Sydney will see exponential growth in the coming decades, and will expand to 8 million people by 2056 – almost twice its current size. 

This jump in population will stress the cities water supplies like never before, but the looming challenge is also an opportunity to find and trial innovative solutions, said Lucy Turnbull, Chief Commissioner for the Greater Sydney Commission.

During her keynote session at Ozwater’17, Turnbull took delegates through the history of Sydney’s water needs, from the First Fleet Tank Stream to its present-day system of dams and catchments. 

She said that water systems are a crucial ingredient to creating greater resilience in an era of climate change, especially in a highly urbanised country such as Australia. However, the sprawl of Sydney presents additional challenges for water planners. 

One way that the Greater Sydney Commission is approaching this issue is reimagine Sydney as three smaller cities within a greater Sydney area. This requires breaking down silos and using a more integrated, collaborative approach. After all, cities themselves operate as a collection of systems working in tandem to meet the needs of its residents.

“How we will meet these challenges is through more innovative system management,” Turnbull said.

“We need to source a good drinking water supply, be smart about how we use recycled water to create resilience in our cities and mitigate the effects of climate change by creating more green spaces.” 

A good complement to this is the proliferation of data in recent years, which the water industry can use to understand these pain points and work towards solutions. Dr Sander Klous, partner-in-charge of data and analytics at KPMG in the Netherlands, said that customers and residents all have different expectations from 15 years ago.

The water industry can leverage big data to understand those expectations, as well as the customer behaviours that determine how people interact with their services. 

He described the “barbed wire” effect of algorithms, which illustrates that the virtual data around us has very real-world consequences. Anyone who has followed their car’s GPS the wrong way down a one-way street can attest to this fact. 

“People have growing expectations, and to understand big data we need to understand the barbed wire that dictates our behaviour,” Klous said.

“From there you can start to fulfill those high expectations.”

He outlined key ways that organisations can tackle the behemoth of big data to pull out the useful bits. First is establishing algorithmic reliability – an important element in differentiating correlation from causality.

Second is accepting that occasionally it is about quantity rather than quality.

“Sometimes we don’t need better quality data – we just need more data,” he said. 

“You don’t always need to improve the measurement method, you just need to measure more people. You can try to improve the quality of the measurements, but it won’t help unless you include additional data sources.”

And finally, he discussed the value of open source networks. He said that there is a misplaced notion that ‘open source’ means ‘untrustworthy’, as “why would anyone give away something good for free?”. But the reality is that open source networks provide transparency, and they remove redundancies because organisations don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. 

All together, effective use of big data and collaboration on data networks mean organisations can be more agile, flexible and adaptable – something that will help them address whatever future challenges get thrown their way.