Topics in this article

At this year’s World Water-Tech Innovation Summit in London, I attended a fascinating panel discussion about the benefits of “systems thinking” in water management. 

Systems thinking tries to make sense of the world by looking at big, complex systems in terms of the connections and relationships between their component parts, rather than delving too deeply into the workings of the parts themselves. In the field of water management, it means looking at water systems across environmental, economic, engineering and social dimensions to ensure that benefits are achieved in all four.

The timing of the discussion couldn’t have been better. The climate crisis is intensifying the difficulties faced by water utilities, something the European Commission acknowledged in 2021 when it called for enhanced collaboration between municipal authorities to achieve smarter and more sustainable management practices.

From isolated interventions to an interconnected system

In practice, a systems-thinking approach would shift the emphasis from isolated interventions like new pipes and flood walls to solutions that deliver broader benefits – for example, early-warning systems that raise a red flag when remote sensors detect indicators of impending flooding.  

The thing about water systems is that they tend to be part of a bigger system – “systems within systems”, as one panelist put it.

That may sound like some sort of holistic interconnectivity has already been achieved, but the truth is that distribution, wastewater, storage, energy, sewage and other systems rarely link up as neatly as they should. There are physical disconnects, but arguably the biggest gap is the lack of an overarching system to gather and share data.

Infrastructure for megasystem analytics

The possibilities for analytics that capture activity, measure tolerances and trigger actions that are beneficial across the water megasystem are astounding. But it will take a systems-thinking approach to connect the dots.

What’s needed is a blend of smart and digital infrastructure.

Smart infrastructure is the integration of smart meters and IoT devices with the physical infrastructure of the water system to enhance its performance. This enables the collection and analysis of data that can be used to make real-time decisions and adapt water systems to changing conditions while reducing waste.

In practical terms, this could mean pipes with floating sensors that continually measure water flow, then send back readings using specialized SIM cards that transmit the data.

Underlying the smart infrastructure is the digital infrastructure that enables the flow of data and supports various services and applications – the hardware, software and networks that take the data delivered by smart infrastructure and apply it to make data-driven decisions.

In a separate session, experts from the City of Cleveland, Ohio, talked about the rising issue of algae blooms caused by warming temperatures in Lake Erie. Using a mix of sensors and dedicated analytics tools, the city’s water authority can now see when blue-green algae and related water hypoxia are on the rise, alert the US Environmental Protection Agency and act to protect water quality in homes and offices.

Sustainable solutions for municipalities and utility providers

For an IT infrastructure and services company like NTT DATA, with global experience creating digital infrastructure, there are opportunities to help our water-utility clients transform digitally and meet their sustainability goals.

As municipalities grapple with the impact of more people, houses and offices alongside changes in precipitation and rising water consumption, systems thinking – and the technological approaches that enable it – will be vital to success.

Contact us to find out how we can make your organization more sustainable.