Is your city a smart water city? Do you know the potential costs and risks to you for not making that switch? In general, using the adjective “smart” is a grammatical tool to indicate digital technology. A smart city is one that deploys technology with the goal of operating more efficiently. Smart water solutions are a three-layer system— infrastructure, software, engagement—that digitally transform the operations or management of the water system. That definition gives you a 40,000-foot view but what’s happening on the ground? How do all the pieces work together? A system isn’t smart until it includes all three layers. Water is life, and the systems that support it also have elements—the bones, brains, and heart—that keep the pulse of a city beating.
According to the 2018 McKinsey Global Institute Report, Smart Cities: Digital Solutions for a More Liveable Future, there are three distinct layers required to be called a “smart city.” The first layer is the technology base. This layer includes the physical infrastructure necessary to collect, monitor, or disseminate data. From a smart water perspective, this means the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and the technology responsible for transmitting meter reads. Smart water infrastructure is not limited to water meters. It also incorporates innovations in stormwater and wastewater such as sensors in sewer manholes that help prevent wastewater overflows. Stormwater professionals are utilizing smart water solutions in storm drain inspections, detecting and preventing illicit discharges, and for assessing and monitoring remediation projects.
The second layer we’ll call the brains—the software and applications. These programs translate the immense amount of raw data coming from the infrastructure in the field into the alerts and insights that can be used to make critical decisions. For smart water, this means the customer portal that delivers real-time water use data to customers so they can make better decisions about their water usage. These applications alert users of potential leaks so they can address it immediately. They allow homeowners to set budget threshold notifications or turn off their scheduled automatic irrigation system during a rain event.
The brains make the bones work in a way that creates meaningful solutions for the end user. According to the McKinsey report, the fallacy in the past was focusing on just these two layers.
“After a decade of trial and error, municipal leaders are realizing that smart city strategies start with people, not technology. “Smartness” is not just installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure or streamlining city operations. It is about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.”
A smart city isn’t truly smart until engagement occurs. Public engagement with digital solutions is the beating heart of a smart city. Without widespread adoption that changes behavior, smart solutions wither and die, regardless of how innovative the technology might be. The ROI of an AMI program rests heavily on the buy-in of customers. AMI is a significant investment with benefits for users on both sides of the meter. However, public approval and buy-in tilt the scale of future support from management and council public further in favor of water utilities. The positive impacts of the widespread adoption of tools available for water users using AMI are plentiful. From a societal perspective, decreased water demand means less stress on local water sources. From an operational standpoint, technology adoption can equate to fewer issues caused by demand fluctuations and more effective leak detection. Customer portals also allow customers to handle more minor questions and concerns on their own. This service offering drives customer satisfaction scores, frees up customer service staff time, and empowers customers with more transparent information they can use to make better choices.
Smart cities are meant to improve the quality of life for the entire community. This doesn’t happen without all three of the layers—the bones, the brains, the heart. Adopting smart technology solutions takes effort and the coordination of many moving pieces. Any implementation or deployment plan should include strategies that cover all three. Smart water solutions sometimes get left on the back burner within the spectrum of smart city innovation options. City leaders often focus on growth and economic development. While these areas are essential, so is a resilient water system. It’s the foundation upon which everything else, quite literally, rests. Customer engagement is the beating heart of a smart water system, and a resilient water system is the beating heart of a community.