Why smart technology is needed to transform the UK’s water sector

A woman holding a glass of water.

Why smart technology is needed to transform the UK’s water sector Marc Hannis is the principal at Ofwat Innovation Fund.

The water system across England and Wales is entirely dependent on the streamlined use of technology, with tens of thousands of sensors already used to track and flag blockages and flooding risk, and complex data collection mechanisms used to monitor changing water quality.

Additionally, data is already used to identify vulnerable customers and deliver tailored services to those that need additional support. But with large ageing pipelines operating in the context of increasing demand and climate change, the sector faces undeniable and urgent challenges that require action now.   

Water companies provide drinking water and sewage services to over 50 million households in England and Wales, with a sewage network that could wrap around the world 13 times. Up-to-date maintenance and preparation for the future of these networks requires bold thinking from innovators at the forefront of technology development. This means experts and engineers who are familiar with, and adept at, flexibly using data, smart technology and the internet of things to resolve and prevent industry-wide problems.  

Last month, Ofwat launched the Water Discovery Challenge, a new £4m competition for innovators outside of the water sector with bold ideas that can help solve some of its biggest challenges. Ofwat is calling on innovators working in data, technology and IoT to apply their ingenuity and skills to deliver breakthrough solutions to be used by the water sector. 

The competition is the latest from Ofwat’s £200 million Innovation Fund, which seeks to generate new ideas to tackle issues including managing leaks, preventing pollution, improving water efficiency, reducing emissions, boosting flood and drought resilience, prioritising sustainable practices, and supporting vulnerable customers. We need to respond and adapt to climate change, working towards clear common goals and ambitions. 

How smart technology can revolutionise the water sector  

 Intelligent and adaptable water-tech could be game-changing for the sector – from improved water treatment technology to flooding risk management, as well as better delivery of services for all customers.  

From implementing sensors to collect and transmit data from geographically disparate locations across the country, to remote source management data systems and water quality tracking, the possibilities are endless. Smart technology could also rewrite the rulebook on leak management and maintenance, especially for inaccessible or remote locations. Finally, simpler technology – of the type many of us already use every day on our phones – could help improve communications between customers and their water companies, and boost ease of access to documents such as bills. 

Previous competitions from Ofwat’s Innovation Fund have already seen numerous winning tech and data-related entries. This includes advanced technologies such as the Water Quality As-A-Service Treatment-2-Tap project, which is exploring how sensor technology could identify poor quality water, alerting companies ahead of customers and allowing them to tackle the issues causing the problem. By the end of the project, lead project partner Northumbrian Water hope to be operating Europe’s largest integrated network of water quality and leakage management sensors and analytics software.  

Similarly, open-data system Stream, will allow better insights into leaks, customer needs and accountability, making it easier to solve complex industry challenges. Stream will design and deliver the ‘network of data pipes’ needed to share useful industry datasets in a secure, standardised and easy to access way. This will enable water companies to collaboratively solve tough sector challenges. 

Other winning projects using data include Unlocking Digital Twins, which is creating virtual copies of physical datasets, that can be used in the same way as the real product and Support for All, whichseeks to put in place a shared register of financially vulnerable customers, working with the NHS, third sector, and other utility providers, to enable customers to contact one utility or service provide to receive support from all.  

How to enter the Water Discovery Challenge 

Up to 20 teams of the most promising innovators will be awarded up to £50,000 to develop their ideas, with expert support and mentoring from water companies. Up to 10 will go on to win up to £450,000 to turn ideas into pilots.   

To deliver the competition, Ofwat is working with innovation prize experts, Challenge Works, alongside global engineering, sustainability and water sector experts, Arup, and Isle Utilities. In addition to financial incentives, successful teams will benefit from expert mentoring and capacity-building support, including access to insights and mentoring from water companies and support for scaling solutions for the extensive water network in England and Wales. 

The Water Discovery Challenge closes on 5 April 2023. To find out more and to enter, visit waterinnovation.challenges.org  

Want to learn about the IoT from industry leaders? Check out IoT Tech Expo taking place in Amsterdam, California, and London. The event is co-located with Digital Transformation Week.

Explore other upcoming enterprise technology events and webinars powered by TechForge here.


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