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Is the water sector ready for the next industrial revolution?

From telcos to television, many industries have faced massive digital disruption in recent years – and the water sector is no exception.

Speaking ahead of her presentation on the future of work at the upcoming AWA QWater’18 Conference, GHD Digital Market Leader – Queensland Saskya Hunter said machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) are combining to disrupt the way water businesses operate.

These technologies are part of Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, which, like the ones before it, is changing the face of work.

Water businesses are embracing this revolution in various ways (and with varying amounts of enthusiasm), from using AI to streamline back-office processes, to using data to manage assets and predict problems before they occur.

Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) are also part of Industry 4.0. While these can be gimmicky, Hunter said there is a place for the tech in the water industry, particularly when it comes to design communication and training.

For example, creating a virtual space to train employees before putting them into a real-world, high-risk situation, or using the technology to improve stakeholder engagement.

“It’s much easier to tell a story if you’ve got a great picture or a flythrough – something customers can be immersed in … AR and VR are game changers from that side of things,” Hunter said.

Industry 4.0 has also led to the development of new business models, such as on-demand offerings – think Netflix and food delivery services – and peer-to-peer trading, which is starting to gain traction in the energy sector.

“There are a whole raft of different business models that have come about with the introduction of the digital age and Industry 4.0,” Hunter said.

“As an industry we need to have a good, hard look at the traditional business model and ask what new approaches could be applied to the water sector … The business structures and cultures we’ve developed over time need to change.”

Hunter works with GHD’s clients to solve their digital problems, and said she has seen the conservative nature of the water industry stop businesses from embracing digital disruption. She said while being cautious is a positive when it comes to the vital task of providing safe drinking water, it can also hamper innovation.

“We are not very good at trying out new technology – we prefer things to be tried and tested. Over time this has built a risk-averse culture,” Hunter said.

“We also have a lack of workforce training when it comes to innovation, entrepreneurship and digital technologies. Traditionally these sorts of things haven’t been seen as a natural fit for the industry.”

In order to succeed in the digital age, Hunter said businesses and individual water professionals need to develop “digital DNA” and prepare for the inevitable disruption of the industry.

This includes placing more emphasis on data-driven decision making, sharing information and collaborating with other businesses, and creating a culture of innovation.

“From a business perspective, disruption seems to be a constant source of surprise for people,” Hunter said.

“Somebody, somewhere will come and disrupt you. That could come from anywhere – it’s not necessarily going to be another water business.”

As Industry 4.0 continues to grow, Hunter said water businesses that don’t develop their digital DNA are at risk of being left behind.

“If you’re not using data effectively to manage your business, product and service, then you are going to come under increasing pressure from the regulators, not to mention your customers,” she said.

“Customers will want to know why you’re not keeping up with everything else in their life. Why, when everything’s on an app, their water utility is back in the Dark Ages.”

Saskya Hunter will be presenting on the future of work at QWater’18. To learn more and to register, click here.

If you're in NSW, find out how AR will transform the water industry at this upcoming technical seminar.