How much important is digitization today in the water industry? The water and utilities sector, understood in its entirety as a supply chain, has a very high strategic value. The water crisis, linked to an acceleration of climate change, has been indicated as one of the main global risks for some years now (World Economic Forum, 2015). The huge and unresolved environmental issue is not the only thing that complicates this already complex and sensitive sector. It is also complicated by consumers, who are immersed in constantly evolving social and technological environments that change behaviors in sometimes unpredictable ways.
Companies that deal with water management and its supply, which are also subject to strict regulations, find themselves having to constantly invest in new technologies and treatment processes in order to be able to guarantee both the continuity and quality of the service to citizens-customers, and the security – cybersecurity – of their systems and plants and the achievement of their business objectives.
The answer to all these needs seems to pass invariably through a digital transformation.
The current situation: A necessary digitalization
More than a year ago, before COVID-19 caused the global crisis we are still experiencing, the conference “Schemi idrici 4.0: confrontarsi per innovare” held in Milan on February 8, 2019, was organized to reflect on the needs of the market and the opportunity to create added value for the business and the country system. The conference ended with this significant stance:
“moving from a purely product-based culture to the provision of a service based on process and automation know-how, the players involved in the water supply chain must become true innovation partners by first developing targeted digital solutions that create value and support the sustainable development of the sector.”
Digitization in the water industry seemed to already be a top-of-mind topic for experts in the field. In the survey conducted and presented by Fabrizio Masia, General Manager of EMG Acqua, and presented on that occasion, about 65% of Italians considered digital services useful resolving problems in a timely manner and effective in keeping bills and contracts under control. The survey highlighted a reality made of misinformation and digitalization that had not yet been internalized. Many of the people interviewed admitted to not having an in-depth knowledge of digital tools and not using them on a daily basis, and three out of four Italians declared that they were not informed about water-related issues. (Source: scienzaegoverno.org).
Digitization in the water industry starts with data
While the average level of digital literacy was still low just over a year ago, the huge amounts of data produced, extracted, and processed every day by water companies — as well as energy, waste management, and gas companies — was accompanied by an increased need for planning, which is essential to drive business decisions, both short and long term.
In order to build a resilient and sustainable water future, identifying potential impacts and developing adaptation plans, now as then, it seems necessary not only to have adequate infrastructure in place, but also to develop domain-specific knowledge that will enable water operators to deliver timely, accurate, satisfactory services to consumers.
Advanced digitization in the water industry cannot start if you are unable to extract useful insights for the decision-making process, both that of plant operators, managers and end customers from the large volumes of data available. Today’s end customers are increasingly called upon to take part in a real conversation and no longer to witness a simple one-way communication.
Data collection and interpretation is therefore an important preliminary phase and it concerns all of the processes that make up the water cycle. Water companies can now optimize the efficiency, profitability, and resilience of their plants and improve the quality of their customer care by setting up truly personalized initiatives, thanks to integrated solutions that provide real-time information, proactive recommendations, and even predictions about the behaviors of the various elements of the supply chain.
Translating data into truly useful information
The quality and success of digitization projects in the water sector are closely linked to the attention and investment on the collection, management, and classification of data, which must be structured and stored in order to then be able to identify correlations and knowledge, to be used to optimize operations and discover new processes. Data is transformed into useful information. This is the case with advanced meters, which can automatically collect data in real time, or communication systems, which utility managers can analyze and use to make critical decisions in a proactive way.
Data collection is only the first step. For it to be useful, these big data streams must be translated into useful information, enabling end users to understand and act quickly. Utilities and water companies must move to a way of operating that data-centric, fully transparent, and interoperable.
Digitizing the water sector: Coping with the emergency, creating value, and supporting sustainable development
In a previous post about the news and trends in the water sector in Italy, the water supply chain during the global pandemic has shown that it has been able to withstand the impact better than others. And if it succeeded, the credit goes, perhaps, also to the farsightedness of those managers, entities, and companies, who equipped themselves with the most sophisticated digital technologies available, to face a situation of absolute emergency while maintaining operational continuity.
They were able to:
- Remotely monitor and manage resources
- Optimize operating costs in the face of unforeseen events
- Rationalize and efficiently organize field work
- Develop transparent and comprehensive customer services
Digitizing the management of water resources means, first of all, saving money, both at the operational level and at the investment level. Automating previously manual processes means, in essence, generating greater efficiencies at a lower cost, increasing the ROI of past investments, and modernizing existing technology infrastructures by implementing more secure and flexible digital solutions.
How digitization can transform water industry infrastructure and services
Digitization has profoundly impacted both infrastructure and services in the water sector, and in the latter case, it’s been especially impactful on the services developed and offered by marketing departments.
- Impact of digitization on infrastructure. Digitization in the water industry has helped to make investments in IT and Asset Management projects more efficient and it has made it easier to set up data-driven strategies. The use of data has supported the innovation of internal processes, increasing their efficiency, in terms of:
- Reduced resource consumption thanks to plant automation and remote control initiatives, capable of optimizing production cycles by improving maintenance response and thus decreasing, often drastically, water dispersion
- Reduced site impacts thanks to techniques that make it possible to carry out low impact restoration interventions, minimizing the occupied areas, the intervention times, the emission of dust and noise, and the inconvenience to the road system.
- Impact of digitalization on services. Digital water, through an increasingly active marketing strategy, is destined to profoundly change the relationship with customers both in terms of greater mobility and omnichannel marketing and in terms of a different type of communication that is more inclusive and service-oriented, and in the entertainment potential offered by different formats and platforms. Companies in the water sector are beginning to establish innovative strategies to engage consumers through:
- High-level administrative services that ensure timeliness and quality in relations with customers (management of paperwork, billing/invoicing)
- Customer care services that promote brand values (such as sustainable water use) using innovative tools such as microsites or personalized videos, creating reports using real-time data from smart sensors, and allowing users to easily access information about their usage.
A customer-centric approach
An approach that is truly consumer-centric requires that water resources must be provided in a sustainable manner and that the tools used are able to create meaningful connections for customers that offer them concrete assistance in terms of helping them solve their problems. The information that comes from IoT, as well as the possibility of detailed insights into consumption habits, if used correctly, provides value-added services, reducing complaints, for example. Where companies and institutions propose themselves as managers of a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce and therefore precious, digital transformation is also charged with aspects of social responsibility, taking on the mission of increasing transparency.
How are digital technologies transforming the customer experience? Below are the four most promising ways.
- Performing analytics and implementing automation
Predictive analytics and modeling, where data from a variety of sources, such as weather and temperature data, is combined and interpreted, can encourage preventive actions by customers.
- Influencing behavioural change
While we should all be using less water, changing ingrained behaviors is often very difficult. Digitization in the water industry, however, makes it possible to use data to identify peaks in household usage, helping people understand consumption trends and change their habits.
- Create and engage communities
Digital tools are meeting a need for greater consumer / user engagement and creating the conditions for establishing a relationship that goes beyond the functional contact of customer service and problem solving. New online platforms are making it easier for customers in the same community, whether defined locally or along lines, to interact with the company and with each other, and the data from these conversations are used to improve the service itself.
- Gain autonomy (and freedom)
The ability to perform some important user management tasks autonomously, in a way that could be defined as “digital self-service,” contributes to making organizations more cost-efficient and also gives customers greater control over their spending. As a result, customers are more engaged and aware of the water service and their role within it, and the company can operate more quickly and effectively.
In all four of the digitization developments we’ve briefly described, we’re not so much talking about transformations related to the specific use of a tool, but rather the construction of a new conversational framework in which customers and firms can experience different – and more balanced – forms of interaction. In other words, what these technologies enable, both as a whole and individually, is a more informed and effective dialogue.
The document experience: Intelligent systems for customer communication
We have stated several times throughout this article that data are an invaluable source of value, even for a company that operates in the water cycle: every interaction with the customer produces information that can be used to better understand consumption routines, communicate even more effectively and offer the right product at the right time. Every day, in the various ganglia of the integrated water cycle, a considerable amount of documents is generated, and to manage this potentially boundless library, digital technology solutions are needed that have been developed to offer an efficient document experience.
For almost 20 years, Doxee has been designing targeted digitization strategies for its clients and helping them extract value from data to transform it into communications and relationships: From the processing and enrichment of complex data, to the administration of articulated workflows to generate documents and distribute them to recipients through digital and paper channels, in a way that is personalized and through an omnichannel mode. Doxee offers expertise and technological excellence to support the digital transformation path through specific functionalities:
- Data processing to optimize document production and distribution processes
- Dematerialization of processes for invoicing and storage
- Transformation of every transactional document into a formidable tool for developing relationships with customers, laying the foundation for lasting business growth
A new conversational framework for the water sector
Whether we’re talking about modes of use that allow for autonomy in managing users, products or tools for enhancing IT management, or innovative solutions for document management, we want to emphasize that we’re not just talking about transformation linked to the specific use of a tool, but rather the construction of a new conversational framework where all the parties involved can experiment with different and more balanced forms of interaction.
In other words, digital technologies increasingly allow, both as a whole and individually, the possibility of establishing a true, more informed and effective dialog.
Innovative technologies are transforming organizations operating in the water sector, both in their industrial and organizational structure and in the way they approach their customers.