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Smart digital water management - sustainability’s future weaponry

Adam Cambridge | 06 Oct 2016 | Comments

The water and environment sector is transforming, largely, in my view, due to the role that digital services are increasingly playing in our day to day life. The increased use of digital services is profoundly influencing society daily, so it’s little wonder that it’s now also affecting the water industry, which is a powerful journey to be starting. 

The power of digital services is best visualised if you think back to the Arab Spring revolutions where governments were toppled for transformation - essentially through the use of online social media galvanising societal views. This showed that digital services can be the platform for citizens to make more informed and collective decisions for governance, or services, but may not necessarily be the enduring pieces of infrastructure that we need over the longer term due to the pace of technological advancement and disruption that can follow. What is clear, however, is that we are entering a digital age.

What’s fuelling the drive towards a digital age?

In the water and environment sector, we are already seeing the benefits of easier data access in the projects we undertake. For example, we can now freely access the whole LiDAR archive (a dataset that represents land surfaces) which allows engineering designs to achieve a high level of accuracy and more quickly than ever before. This enables growth, whilst embedding resilience to our new infrastructure, and supporting long term sustainability due to improved accuracy. So, we should not fear entering this new age.

Another aspect I believe is driving us towards a digital age is “generation Y” who are now either influential business leaders from setting up entrepreneurial ventures or surfacing through existing organisations to positions of influence. This generation are typically perceived as increasingly familiar with digital and electronic technology, and are therefore more open to a digital trajectory than previous generations. This poses serious challenges to existing processes in all levels of daily life and why the term “digital disruption” is in frequent use. However, for me being a part of “generation Y”, it makes me think that this could be the greatest journey to go on from a resource sustainability perspective.

What does the future hold?

With a more connected government, and a citizen based system (which has people in places of influence that value longer term sustainable outcomes), you can start to see how water and environment becomes an enabler for an enduring way of life, rather than a means to encourage the next wave of linear growth.  

However, what this does mean is that the UK economy, and every developed economy around the world, should be re-measuring the way growth is identified. This means that in the near future, if not now, we should be looking at how goods, services, and resources are provided, consumed, and importantly re-used to stimulate growth. An example of this in the water sector would be converting wastewater treatment sludge to biogas for powering businesses. A form of resource optimisation for circular economics, if you like.

While the conversion of waste to a useful societal resource is a very basic example, it demonstrates that our economic cycle is changing and will continue to do so as we increasingly enter a digital age and societal views shift towards supporting sustainability. The question is whether you will be disrupted, support disruption, and/or contribute to disruption? The future will be digital, greener, and more connected!

For Atkins, we see and understand the digital journey that we are on and in partnership with the Science Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are leading an industry event to ensure it delivers sustainable outcomes for water, the environment, and the communities that will rely on it.  We call it smart digital water management and we will ensure it delivers on its promise.