Lessons Learned: 2020 World Water-Tech North America Virtual Summit

After seven months of social distancing, I was quite excited to participate in the 2020 World Water-Tech North America Virtual Summit. The online summit provided a welcome opportunity to reconnect with industry leaders, and I am pleased to share some highlights from a panel discussion on the topic of One Water Resilience, which I was privileged to moderate, as well as from the lively and engaging roundtable conversation that preceded it.

World Water-Tech North America – Roundtable Discussion Why Are We So Slow? Looking for Answers to Accelerate Technology Adoption.

As a water sector professional, I’ve long recognized that resilience is a journey rather than a destination. Along this journey, we engage, collaborate, adapt, recover, rebound, and restore services — most importantly, we embark on a path of continuous improvement to our systems. But the industry has reached a critical point where its continuous improvement relies on a continual stream of technological innovation. Are we as an industry ready to make the changes necessary to accelerate the adoption of technology? That was the primary topic during the roundtable discussion. The discussion covered the need for water utilities to effectively communicate the direct relationship between technology investments and capital expenditures they can rate base, as well as how to best address the ongoing need for water sector leaders who can recognize opportunities for implementing new technology. An observation that was shared by all roundtable participants is that the adoption speed for new technologies is currently much too slow. A major concern stemming from this is that if utilities cannot expedite and operationalize new tools, it may result in startups running out of the cash required to continue with other much-needed innovations for the water industry. Likewise, roundtable participants recognized technology innovators’ responsibility to demystify their value proposition by clearly articulating outcomes in dollars saved, inventory held, efficiencies realized, and improved system reliability. One thing was made abundantly clear throughout the discourse: Technological innovation and resilience go hand-in-hand in the water sector.

World Water-Tech North America – Live Panel Discussion
One Water Resilience: Prepare, Respond and Recover 

One Water is an integrated planning and implementation approach to managing finite water resources for long-term resilience and reliability while meeting both community and environmental needs. As the founder of OneWater Academy, I appreciate that the concepts of technological innovation, resilience, and One Water are inextricably linked within the water sector. So, though the panel was poised to highlight successful strategies and powerful, real-world examples of One Water management in practice, it wasn’t a surprise that the conversation was closely related to the roundtable that took place beforehand, brought forward through different expert insights..

The five-member panel included: Cindy Wallis-Lage,Executive Director and President of Water Business for Black & Veatch; Joone Lopez,General Manager, Moulton Niguel Water District; Eva Arnaiz Garcia, Country Manager USA, Aqualia; Robert Puente,President and CEO of San Antonio Water System; and Tony Parrott, Executive Director, Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District.

“True resilience is more far-reaching than simply a water system’s operational strength during times of shock and stress. Rather, it’s about how we plan, invest and maintain our water infrastructure even in the face of ever-present uncertainty,” said Wallis-Lage, capturing the sentiment of the panel. She went on to add, “Strategic resilience — which features the holistic, big-picture approach that is ‘One Water’ — and financial resilience come together to drive the visible operational elasticity that keeps the essential water service functioning throughout the time of challenge and drives long-term sustainable service.”

In light of the current global pandemic, there was talk of the role and responsibilities of utilities and how the water sector has shown that it can pivot rapidly to adapt in unexpected ways to continue to serve its customers.“Even during a global pandemic, utilities have

continued to provide 24/7 service to our communities, and we’ve kept the delivery of safe, clean drinking water our top priority. From deploying state-of-the-art technology to maintain operations and connectivity to reimagining customer engagement programs, utilities have risen to the challenge and responded well. We are transforming our workforce, operations, and industry to come out stronger, smarter, and more resilient,” said Lopez. The conversation made it clear that to adequately prepare, respond, and recover, the water sector will need to continue to leverage data science. As an industry, do we have the Digital Mindset needed to foresee new and valuable solutions made possible through technology? The consensus was that though we are already used to incorporating technology solutions in our daily work, in this Digital Age, we must continue to fight the complacency of “good enough for now.” The discussion covered the fact that through an overabundance of caution, some water sector leaders choose to only play defense and, in so doing, lose sight of the big picture. Although the execution of day-to-day tasks is essential, panelists agreed that leaders must balance this with the type of big-picture, long-term strategy vital when managing systems that last decades built to serve communities of millions. The forecast from the group is that public sector water leaders will increasingly look to public-private partnerships for solutions. These partnerships are a modern approach to procuring public infrastructure wherein the private sector assumes a significant share of the risks in financing and construction, from design and planning to long-term maintenance.

“Looking for creative solutions, public-private partnerships, known as P3, can be the perfect tool to accelerate innovation and resilience in the water sector, in a sustainable way,” said Arnaiz.
Water sector leaders must take advantage of the 30,000-foot view, which technology makes possible, to regularly explore possibilities and potential to see where organizations could or should go. In many cases, they will find that this type of exploration pays off, with technology and analytics allowing leaders to derive more value from physical assets.

“The summit was an excellent opportunity to highlight San Antonio Water System’s use of emerging technologies to more efficiently deploy resources, improve water conservation, and provide an overall better customer experience. We have experienced great success using satellite ima

Balancing energy and budget across both execution and strategy allows water sector leaders to maximize an organization’s available resources and develop its ability to respond to sudden changes quickly. In short, allocating a portion of the budget for innovation can help make an organization more resilient.

During a pandemic, virtual platforms like World Water-Tech North America are vital for expanding knowledge, finding solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with colleagues. For this reason, I am grateful to the team behind the event, Rethink Events Ltd., for extending an opportunity for me to participate. They did a superb job!

In a time when social distancing is the norm, water professionals should continue to look for opportunities to connect with others, and as Stephen R. Covey states in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “sharpen the saw.” For those unfamiliar with the term, sharpening the saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have — you.

The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines. But even more jobs — 97 million — may emerge that are more adapted to a new division of labor among humans, machines, and algorithms. Increased technology adoption will translate into new in-demand workforce skills over the next five years, and skills gaps will continue to be high.

With these facts in mind, I extend a cordial invitation to water industry professionals to sharpen the saw and continue these meaningful conversations — and start new ones — through OneWater Academy. OneWater Academy was founded as a dynamic platform for current and aspiring water professionals, which provides easily accessible, user-friendly, and continuous skill-based learning online.

Share your knowledge to develop the workforce needed for a OneWater Resilient World. How you use OneWater Academy is up to you. Become a OneWater Instructor and share your expertise with others. Or write a OneWater blog post that sparks valuable conversations that inspire change. The important thing is to get involved, stay involved, and keep working toward a sustainable water future.

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