Smart water underpins the evolution of smart cities

Liveable cities are built on a foundation of available and healthy water. Adopting digital technologies is critical to help cities build a more resilient future in the face of climate change, rising customer and community expectations and the need to conserve water.

Liveable cities are built on a foundation of available and healthy water. Adopting digital technologies is critical to help cities build a more resilient future in the face of climate change, rising customer and community expectations and the need to conserve water.

From increasingly severe storms to less overall rainfall and hotter temperatures, the effects of climate change are being felt across cities globally. According to the United Nations, climate change is primarily a water crisis. “Sustainable water management is central to building the resilience of societies and ecosystems and to reducing carbon emissions.”

To help build resilience, cities are becoming more intelligent and embracing innovation in how they manage water. It is a fundamental resource and a critical factor in urban growth and liveability.

The gap between global water supply and demand is projected to reach 40 per cent by 2030 if current practices continue (World Economic Forum, Sep 2022). The World Bank has globally estimated leakage to be 30 per cent of the urban water supply. Water authorities are turning to technology to support a water-secure future.

What are smart cities?

An important element of being a smart city is understanding how the built environment operates. It also seeks to ensure that citizens feel empowered to improve how their city works.  A key enabler of smart cities is the Internet of Things (IoT). They are sensors, smart meters, lights and other devices connected to the Internet. The data can be used to manage assets, resources and services more efficiently.

While IoT technology has a range of applications, research firm IDC suggests local councils and utilities are among the top industries spending on IoT technologies. Together, they’re responsible for a combined 17.2 per cent of total market spend in Asia-Pacific. IDC predicts IoT spending in the region is estimated to reach $437 billion by 2025. The benefits of smart infrastructure are expected to come to the fore by the middle of the decade.

Rethinking data with IoT

“In many Phase 1 projects, enterprises focused on a single use case and on acquiring the data streams from single sources,” said Bill Rojas, Adjunct Research Director at IDC Asia Pacific. “But as organisations gain a deeper data-driven understanding of their operations, they can start to use other data sources (such as geolocation, machine maintenance data, weather, transactions activity, vehicular telemetric traffic data, and so on) to improve their analytics and expand beyond the original use case.”

It’s a trend Daniel Sullivan has noticed in the water sector. The CEO of Australian smart water specialists Iota says customers often experience a ‘lightbulb moment’ after using IoT technologies such as smart meters for the first time.

“Take one of our customers, a large council in Queensland. Suddenly, they’ve got this data they’ve never had before from digital meters,” he said. “They share more broadly within the council and now know when people are using offices in the city. That feeds into other major planning decisions. It was not considered in the original business case, but now you have valuable and useful insights”.

Innovation in the water sector

“It’s not just clean drinking water, which is often taken for granted. During the Millennium drought, widely recognised as the worst on record, many parks and sports fields were brown and unplayable. There’s a well-being impact in having green, healthy spaces for communities,” said Sullivan. He believes that the water sector is hungry for innovation and as water underpins liveability in cities, it can have a huge impact on communities and people’s lives.

Like many water industry leaders, Sullivan believes climate change impacts the industry differently. Melbourne’s catchments rely heavily on rainfall, but it has been steadily declining for the past 50 years. With Melbourne’s population predicted to double by 2070, there is an understanding across the sector that there needs to be a change in how we use water.

South East Water fielded strong industry interest in innovations it developed in response to the Millennium drought. As a result, it established a wholly owned subsidiary – Iota to incubate, develop and commercialise a portfolio of technologies for the global water sector.

“Digital metering is a great example of how customers react to smart technology,” he said. “South East Water has over 65,000 smart meters deployed with customers, and they are alerted when there is a leak on their property. As part of that, we tell them how much money it will cost them if they do not fix the leak. We are also doing a lot of work around gamifying water conservation at the street and neighbourhood level, which has the potential to drive competition around water conservation.”

Sullivan said that financial and environmental sustainability benefits from the amount of granular data that smart water infrastructure collects.

“We’re talking potential savings of thousands of dollars on their bills and happier customers.”

Water-sensitive precincts realised through IoT technologies

South East Water’s Aquarevo residential precinct project might be the most water-sensitive development in the world. The project’s integrated rain-to-hot water systems, smart water tanks, sensors and a pressure sewer system are all designed to reduce the reliance on drinking water where it is not required.

“Integrated water management needs IoT technology to realise its potential. If you can’t monitor the flow or control the quality of water, and if you can’ predict what’s going to happen and adapt, it’s difficult to make integrated water management work. In terms of smart cities, they work best when they’re built off the back of smart utilities because the business case is really robust,” said Sullivan.

This joint venture with Villawood Properties supported other government initiatives to help secure current and future water supplies. Aquarevo’s innovation drive is being replicated at Fishermans Bend, an ambitious 480 hectare urban renewal project. By 2050, it will be home to 80,000 people and over 80,000 jobs across multiple sectors, and is set to become Australia’s largest Green Star Community.

“South East Water wants to create a water-sensitive precinct that accounts for residents living there, students studying there and people working there,” said Sullivan.

Future-proofing technology to underpin water security

The issue of water security is not unique to Australia. Water utilities worldwide are exploring smart sensors to reduce bursts and leaks, prevent sewer spills, realise integrated water management projects and provide greater insight into customer behaviour.

Sullivan highlighted the critical importance of presenting a positive business case, given the significant upfront investment.  “It can cost a bit more today to future-proof yourself for tomorrow,” he said. “And if you have a tight budget, it can be hard to look over the horizon. We’re fortunate in the water sector. We have a strong business case around IoT and digital metering that we can build on.”

With global cities at various stages of their smart trajectories, Sullivan is particularly excited about the potential for customers who embrace open standards. Doing so prevents customers from being locked into a particular ecosystem. Open standards tend to attract more innovation.

“You’re preserving that freedom should new technologies develop down the track.”

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