The 2018 American Water Summit was held in Philadelphia from October 24th through the 26th with “Inspiring Innovation” as the conference theme. A pre-conference workshop on “Utility Perspectives” got the conference off to a strong start. Chaired by George Hawkins, former CEO of DC Water and Sewer Authority, the workshop gave utility leaders a chance to describe the challenges and opportunities they face in digital systems procurement and operation and to discuss how they are positioning their utilities to adopt smart technology in the future. The group of distinguished utility leaders included Erin Mahoney, Regional Municipality of York, Canada, Andy Kricun, Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, Jason Tucker, Anglian Water Services, UK, Sue Murphy, Water Corporation Australia, Marty Adams, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, David Stanton, Suez North America and Bill Teichmiller, EJ Water Cooperative. Although each utility leader had his or her own unique circumstances, common themes emerged.
Many utility leaders struggle with how to decide on large technology investments. While technology investments are necessary, with constant advancement in capabilities, utility leaders are concerned that large tech investments will become obsolete before the investments are fully installed and or paid for. There is also no clear path on how best to measure the long-term value of a tech investment. Suggestions for how to address these concerns were to ask vendors for case studies demonstrating the technology’s value and even more importantly, asking other utilities about their experience with the technology. As Marty Adams stated and others concurred, “Water is one of the few businesses where there is no room for error.”
Utilities have traditionally been considered cut and dry business models, due in part to rate constraints. It’s clear that the old business model is not sustainable, and a new, more operationally efficient business model must be created. A lot of that improved operational efficiency will come from advances in technology. But beyond operational efficiency, new business models can come from using intuition and ingenuity. Bill Teichmiller cleverly added Wi-Fi service capabilities to EJ Water Cooperative’s rural pipeline, thus opening a profitable new revenue stream, providing a needed service for its customers and rebranding EJ Water Cooperative from a traditional water utility to a provider of “Water and Wi-Fi”. This illustrates how changing one part of the business model can positively impact the rest of the business and potentially inspire others to seek to positive change.
New technology and digital capabilities are only part of the solution. Equal attention must also be given to customers and employees. As Sue Murphy stated, “All the talk about tech is really about culture”. It is critical to help people embrace change by helping them understand the business and personal benefits of technology. Preparing the workforce for digitization and the massive changes coming to the water industry will be essential as the pace of change increases. A related imperative noted by David Stanton was finding a way to match the wisdom and experience of older employees with the tech savvy and spirit of Millennials in order to create a strong and adaptable workforce.
To close out the workshop, utility leaders had plenty of advise for water sector tech providers on how to best work with utilities. A few pieces of advice were that trust between utility and vendor is critical, that vendors must stand behind their products and that vendors should “do their homework” in order to truly understand what utilities need versus what vendors want to sell. And finally, while every utility has its own unique circumstances, they all face similar issues and should look toward each other for solutions as much as toward vendors.