WHEN we came up with the idea of finding water leaks using AI, people said we were mad. “You should go into oil and gas,” they said. “It will happen faster.”
What they meant was if we wanted to get rich or live to see our amazing tech reach its potential then we had probably backed the wrong industry horse.
There’s a reason that clean tech venture capital hasn’t tended to spend big on water projects. It’s not for lack of ideas. It’s just that the sector does not have a good track record on adoption. So far, there has never been a tech industry unicorn; the name given to a start-up business valued at $1 billion.
Whatever is making the industry risk averse and set in its institutional ways, its life-sustaining product is now so chronically undervalued that the stunning loss of 30% of it to leakage raises barely a whimper, let alone an international outcry.
Time for a serious look at tech adoption
But that could be about to change. As day zero edges closer, the sleepy water industry is waking up.
Initiatives like Isle Utilities’ new Trial Reservoir programme in the UK, which reduces financial risk for utilities, will hopefully increase the pace and help achieve Carbon Net Zero.
It can’t be soon enough.
Of course, water companies aren’t alone in struggling with effective tech adoption. As chair of the techUK Climate Council’s Accelerating Clean Tech Adoption Working Group, I see that many of the problems it faces are common across sectors.
But water is a sector where I have a special vantage point. My company, FIDO Tech, was nurtured within the UK water industry and is now navigating its way through successful trials and pilot projects around the world. The problems of water tech adoption are not limited to the UK.
So, what are the uncomfortable truths?
1 We need a transformational solution, not a transactional one
Problems like water scarcity won’t be fixed by giving engineers better tools to do the same things a bit more efficiently.
Take leakage. You might find more leaks by improving the listening stick. Believe me, we tried. But it’s not going to halve the UK’s leakage by 2030, which is the target. So why bother?
Only something with big returns is going to be worth the risk of change. Tech gives us more certainty, higher performance, better results and is quite possibly cheaper than what we’re doing at the moment. And that type of transformational change is unavoidably disruptive.
2 Disruptive change means process change, and that needs exceptional skills
You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. It isn’t possible to just adapt your time-served processes to fit disruptive tech. You need new processes.
But this type of high-stakes process change is not for the faint-hearted. It requires an exceptional skillset that isn’t available in most organisations.
Be prepared to look outside your industry if necessary because these people do exist. The rewards for those that get there first are immense.
3 Jobs will come, jobs will go
I read a lot about how AI doesn’t cost jobs. A bit like the stories about AI being a monster that will take over the world, it’s not strictly true.
But don’t conflate jobs with people. There will always be roles in an organisation for good people. AI will certainly remove the need for some jobs. That’s a good thing. I haven’t met many toddlers who dream of walking the streets listening to the pavement all day. That’s the sort of trudge that AI is wonderful at. It removes human error from those jobs and adds certainty of action so that humans with more complex roles are supported by AI.
Embrace it and count yourself lucky that human advancement means we no longer need jobs like leech collectors.
4 It won’t happen fast enough on its own
In 2017, the US Water Alliance published it’s One Water For America Policy Framework containing seven big ideas for managing safe and reliable water services in the face of unprecedented challenges. Number 7? Accelerate technology adoption.
The UN says the same about meeting its worldwide Sustainable Development Goals. Both recognise that the state (or states) have a role to play in creating the environment for this to happen.
Unfortunately, where regulation in the water industry does exist, like in the UK, its focus is on encouraging innovation rather than adoption. The carrot becomes a stick.
We need a new framework for tech adoption
So where do we go from here? In terms of inspiring and incubating innovative ideas, Ofwat has successfully encouraged the UK water industry to generate some breath-taking technology.
But innovation is only 10% of the journey. When it comes to the other 90%, adoption, the punitive targets become a brake on driving forward the change we so urgently need. The risk of failure, fines and financial divestment is too huge a gamble. No wonder water companies are cautious.
By expanding innovation incentives into adoption as well as rewards for trying, even if it fails, governments share the risk and ensure lessons are learned faster for benefit of us all.
Only policy-makers can do this, and that is where the techUK working group is focused at the moment.
We want to work with Government on a framework for incentivising adoption based on measurable outcomes using tools like benchmarks, best practice and shared process change expertise.
Tech offers us a way out of a cycle which is sleepwalking us into the path of climate disaster. But only if we use it.