Water Utilities & Smart Cities: Is It All Buzz?

Water Management and Smart Cities Should Go Hand In Hand

The current challenges faced by the water management industry would seem to cry out for water utilities to unhesitatingly embrace smart city initiatives. As noted in a Black & Veatch 2015 report on the US water industry[1],
“…[w]ater scarcity in the Southwest, aging equipment in major cities (particularly along the Eastern Seaboard and Midwest) and an increasingly conservation-minded customer base have stoked high levels of interest in water-related smart city initiatives.”

bv-graphBut that same report, which is based on the responses of 454 utility, municipal, commercial, and community stakeholders, indicated that only a little more than 11% of water providers were planning or participating in a smart city initiative. About half said no plan was in place or being considered, and nearly 40% didn’t know, which seems to suggest that, in many cases, the water system is being left out of the smart city conversations.


So Why Is Implementation So Slow?

The following are some thoughts on the constraints that might be holding back the widespread implementation of water-related smart city initiatives.

Smart Cities Themselves Are Still More Buzz than Reality
There are no lack of major players who are promoting smart water and smart city solutions, including IBM, General Electric, ABB and Cisco.[2] There is also a great deal of governmental support for smart city initiatives, including a recent White House announcement[5] of a new “Smart Cities” Initiative that will invest over $160 million in federal research and leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations to help local communities use advanced technologies to tackle key challenges.

According to IHS Technology[6], however, as of 2013 there were only 21 cities around the globe that fit their definition of a smart city, i.e., “…cities that have deployed—or are currently piloting—the integration of information, communications and technology (ICT) solutions across three or more different functional areas.”

Cost-Recovery Concerns
Ruthbea Yesner Clarke, an analyst at IDC, notes that smart city initiatives have been slower than expected in part because the first wave of smart city technology coincided with the economic downturn that left many cities short of cash to back new projects.[3] Similarly, cost recovery concerns is one of the two top reasons given by respondents in the Black & Veatch report as to why water utilities are not rushing to embrace smart city initiatives.[1]

Technology Complexity
Sheer complexity has also played a part. Projects often rely on a range of technologies, from using “internet of things” products such as sensors to gather and analyze massive amounts of data, to data analytics technologies for making operational sense out of the big data generated by those sensors.[3]

Perhaps Google’s recently announced initiative, Sidewalk Labs, will provide an alternative to the complex “top-down” technology projects that have characterized smart city initiatives to date. Sidewalk Labs proposes a “bottom-up” approach that aspires to bring rapid change at low cost.[3]

Lack of Unified Efforts
The Digital Europe initiative notes that although smart water innovation and research SHOULD be combined and integrated with ICT research related to other smart city components — smart energy, smart transport, smart health, smart telecommunications and smart security — in reality research and innovation for each of these components is largely going on independently, without coordination and/or transdisciplinary cooperation and approach.[4]

Similarly, the Black & Veatch report indicates that siloed communications among the various smart city stakeholders is a major factor that is slowing down the integration of water providers into smart city initiatives.[1]

Perception That It Is a Big-City Solution
Responses to the Black & Veatch survey suggest that smart city plans are seen as a solution reserved for big-city water utilities. They note that the core concepts and technologies of smart city solutions bring similar benefits to smaller communities, but in the meantime this perception is one of the factors inhibiting the widespread integration of water utilities into smart ecosystems.[1]

And In Conclusion

As Black & Veatch point out, at the end of the day the specificities of a smart city system, and a water utility’s role within it, depends on a community’s needs and the missions of its various stakeholders. But the foundation of any plan can benefit from simple, higher order concepts common to smart city plans: measure, move and manage.[1]

Through Arad’s growing involvement with smart city initiatives in India and around the globe, it is clear to us that the future is the integration of smart water utilities into smart city ecosystems. The only uncertainty is how quickly the process will unfold.


[1] “Uncertainty Around Smart City Concept May Hide Golden Opportunity”, Jeff Neemann, Pamela Kenel, 2015 Strategic Directions: U.S. Water Industry Report, Black & Veatch Insights Group, pp. 32ff
[2] Smart water: regulations are driving global demand, says research, Metering & Smart Energy International, August 2015
[3] Google and the tech industry search for ‘smart city’, Financial Times, June 19, 2015
[4] Smart Water for the Smart City and the IoT, Digital Agenda for Europe
[5] Administration Announces New “Smart Cities” Initiative to Help Communities Tackle Local Challenges and Improve City Services, White House Press Release, September 14, 2015
[6] Smart Cities to Rise Fourfold in Number from 2013 to 2025, IHS Technology, July 29, 2014


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