February 9, 2016 Society

The Impact of ICT in the Water Sector

Technician servicing the gas boiler for hot water and heating

The democratisation of computation brought a science fiction question to the real world: can computers surpass their human creators? The ambitious idea of building computers with human-like learning skills drove the most prestigious companies and universities at the time to take up the challenge. In 1985, Carnegie Mellon and IBM started working on an artificial intelligence (AI) project that led to the development of the chess playing computer Deep Blue. Deep Blue eventually challenged and defeated Garry Kasparov, world chess champion, in a six-game match in 1996. This incredible victory not only unveiled the potential of the computer as we know it, but also showed that machines can perform some complex tasks better than humans.

Although the chess-playing machine didn’t revolutionise any particular industry, the technology involved in creating such a computer was part of the huge technological breakthroughs of the last three decades. The water and sanitation sector, a millennial industry with an intrinsically slow technological progress, has benefited greatly from information and communication technology (ICT) advances. ICT eases the way we study, design, operate and optimise our water and wastewater systems. It’s now a given fact that we can use advanced modelling to plan long-term projects, use smart metering to optimise supply, shape demand and forecast, with an increasing degree of certainty, which parts of our existing networks are more likely to fail.

Even though the application of smart technology is already changing the water sector, it does raise a series of important questions: How do we ensure the rights of our citizens in terms of privacy and data security? Who owns and who is responsible for the data generated?  Is smart water taking away jobs in the sector or creating new, more specialised vacancies? Should we rely solely on big data-driven models to make our decisions?

When we think about the water sector’s potential breakthroughs such as nanomaterials, microbial tools or microbial fuel cells, it’s inevitable to think that some of the most impactful breakthroughs may well be “imported” from the ICT world. Recognising the importance of ICT for water, the IWA has actively established a central position in this discussion by participating in projects such as the Water Innovation through Dissemination & Exploitation of Smart Technologies (WIDEST), and addressing the topic in some of its top Congresses, including the IWA Leading Edge Conference 2016 and the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2016.

Last week, a Google software called AlphaGo defeated expert human players of Go, an ancient Chinese game that is considered one of the most complex games in existence. Despite the concerns that this new “man versus machine” may raise about our future role in society, it is also expected to help, as did the Deep Blue in 1997, to accelerate our understanding of complex dynamic systems. The implications of these new advances in ICT on the water sector are yet unknown, but it’s safe to say that they will definitely have an impact.

 

Discover more about IWA’s work on ICT & Water:

 

Through WIDEST, IWA and the other project partners will consolidate existing knowledge about different smart water technologies and communication protocols. IWA will also use its legitimacy as an independent voice in the sector to integrate privacy-related principles in the smart water agenda.

Check this video that explains the links between ICT and water management:

The IWA Leading Edge Conference 2016 will host a half-day interactive workshop where the top leading professionals of the sector will gather to advance the use of smart water in cities, and a technical session about smart management of assets and water.

 

In the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition 2016, the discussion about ICT with good governance principles will put smart water into the broader decision-making context.

Joao Grilo

Conference Content Manager
  Joao manages the technical programme of IWA’s Tier 1 events, covering every aspect of the water cycle, from academic research to industrial practice to policy and regulation. Joao is an Environmental Engineer, and has an MSc in Environmental... Read full biography