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Technology alone does not solve the digital transformation of the water sector

Published online: 08.09.2022

In a current research project, PhD student Jonas Falzarano Jessen from the Department of Culture and Learning in collaboration with Lemvig Vand A/S and COWI A/S focus on the human factor in the digital transformation of the water industry. Jonas Falzarano Jessen’s research indicates that Danish utility companies will never reach the goal of a successful transformation if they do not include the experiences and knowledge of the operating staff in the water industry, while equipping the staff to handle future technology.

Article

Technology alone does not solve the digital transformation of the water sector

Published online: 08.09.2022

In a current research project, PhD student Jonas Falzarano Jessen from the Department of Culture and Learning in collaboration with Lemvig Vand A/S and COWI A/S focus on the human factor in the digital transformation of the water industry. Jonas Falzarano Jessen’s research indicates that Danish utility companies will never reach the goal of a successful transformation if they do not include the experiences and knowledge of the operating staff in the water industry, while equipping the staff to handle future technology.

I SWIFT-projektet kræver spildevandspumper løbende kontrol og vedligeholdelse. Fjernmålingsteknologi indsamler og transmitterer data i realtid fra forsyningsnetværkene, med det formål at mindske risikoen for tilstopning af spildevandspumperne (Foto: Jonas Falzarano Jessen)

In recent years, there has been a global focus on digitisation of the water industry. This transformation will not only improve efficiency of the current water supply, but will also ensure better water and environmental quality while supporting the green transition. In Denmark, the water industry was also part of the government’s spring 2022 digitisation strategy, which focused on, e.g., the need for better water data. Smart Water Infrastructure (SWIft), a current interdisciplinary research project at Aalborg University, hopes to contribute to this. The project, which includes mathematicians, engineers and techno-anthropologists, focuses on optimising digital processes in the water industry from several different angles.

“My part of the SWIft project builds a bridge between technology and the people who work in the utility companies. I am interested in what the world looks like out there,” explains Jonas Falzarano Jessen, who is a PhD student in the research group in techno-anthropology at the Department of Culture and Learning.

 

Automating the human experience

Specifically, this means that Jonas Falzarano Jessen investigates how to support employees’ local knowledge and experiences at utility companies through digital solutions. The study also looks at how managerial recognition of reports from operating staff can contribute to creating more robust and future-proof utility companies. He has conducted field studies involving operating staff, operators and tradespeople at municipal utility company, Lemvig Vand A/S. He has also held interviews with Aarhus Vand, Brønderslev Forsyning, Aalborg Forsyning and Vandcenter Syd, as well as with companies that work with water technology.
“Jonas’ research project focuses on the human factor and I believe that much in relation to climate challenges must be solved by focusing on the human factor. This applies not only in relation to water, but in relation to numerous issues. Technically, we can solve everything, but it makes no difference if people don’t understand the solutions,” explains Lars Nørgård Holmegaard, CEO of Lemvig Vand A/S, about the background for joining the project, who continues:

“With respect to digitalisation, Jonas has reversed it. He does not start with the technology, but looks at what people involved in the water supply see and do and whether things can be done more automatically. People have worked at the water company for 30-40 years and possess tremendous knowledge about the field. So, for us it’s important to find out how we can digitise their processes.”
This has been well received by the employees at Lemvig Vand A/S, where it has created a new understanding of the digital transition and of research in the field.

“Jonas held a workshop where employees could see that their work is important and that what they know is also important. It has been an incredible experience and has also given me an understanding that research is not far away. It is something specific that makes a difference,” says Lars Nørgård Holmegaard.

Technically, we can solve everything, but it makes no difference if people don’t understand the solutions...

Lars Nørgård Holmegaard, CEO of Lemvig Vand A/S.

The human factor in future technological development

Also, with the other research project partner, consulting company COWI A/S, it has specifically been the special angle of the human factor in the digital transition that has been motivational for actively choosing to participate in the project.

“It’s a change to work much more digitally with data-driven decisions. You have a good feeling out among the utility companies and the feeling often hits the spot, but sometimes there are also challenges that can be costly. Utility companies have large assets in the ground that must be maintained and a lot of data about water and drainage systems is produced in connection with this. The technological angle is how we get hold of the data and analyse it, but there also needs to be a greater focus on how we work with large amounts of data. This is where we have a lot to learn. So, we believe that it’s about focusing on three things with respect to the digital transition: data capture, data analysis and the human angle to convert the data into actions, as well as creating a learning environment for it,” says Jan Scheel, Market and Project Manager at COWI A/S.
The company works based on an approach to business management of the future, where there is a 50% focus on technology and 50% on change management.
“We are not far off from technology being able to solve all the challenges we face, but we are not good at converting the data and setting up a learning process. It’s people we work with and if our colleagues and employees are not on board with the digital mindset and are able to create learning situations, then we will not reach the goal of a digital transition. So, we would like people to think a bit differently with respect to digitalisation. Both technology and people must have a place in digitalisation, which is why a project like Jonas’ is so important,” emphasises Jan Scheel.

We are not far off from technology being able to solve all the challenges we face, but we are not good at converting the data and setting up a learning process. It’s people we work with and if our colleagues and employees are not on board with the digital mindset and are able to create learning situations, then we will not reach the goal of a digital transition.

Jan Scheel, Market and Project Manager at COWI A/S.

Water technology as a future export

However, the digitisation of the water industry is not only about optimising Danish utilities and preparing them for the future. In 2021, the Danish government launched a new export strategy for water, which will ensure that the Danish water industry can maintain its position of strength and exploit opportunities on foreign markets. Therefore, as part of his research project, Jonas Falzarano Jessen has also followed one of Denmark’s seven water ambassadors, who has been sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark to the USA, Germany, Italy and Poland.

“I have followed the Danish water ambassador when he visited Italian utility companies. The country has a huge problem with waste in its drinking water supply. We don’t have that problem to the same extent in Denmark, so here the water ambassador shares his knowledge and connects the Italian utility companies with Danish companies in order to expand the Danish market in Italy. Another aim is to adapt the technologies to the geographical, political and social realities that prevail in Italy. It helps to give me an understanding that water, technology and supply are different around Europe,” says Jonas Falzarano Jessen.

 

Collaboration results in solutions

The SWIft project partners also work on an international angle. In December 2020, Lemvig Vand A/S established an international climate centre, Klimatorium, located in a brand new building at the port of Lemvig. Here, solutions are developed for current and future climate challenges in collaboration with private and public companies, knowledge institutions and civil society.

“We have been contacted by New Zealanders who are very inspired by our Klimatorium and want to establish a similar centre in New Zealand. We are currently working on how we can obtain widespread knowledge from Jonas’ project and use it at the Klimatorium in New Zealand. We also have a close collaboration with the Netherlands, where they are the world’s best in water technology and are interested in our approach to digitalisation. A dike burst in the Netherlands in 1953, where 1,800 people died and when visiting, one of their experts said it can happen again, because the new generations have forgotten 1953. That is why an approach with a focus on the human factor is crucial,” says Lars Nørgård Holmegaard, who has no doubt that the results from the research project must also be implemented in everyday life.
“We are involved in many projects with the universities, because we see that the universities have the solutions to many of the challenges we face, so it’s also important to us that the results are released and are used.”

COWI A/S is also concerned with obtaining knowledge from the techno-anthropological angle of the SWIft project and making a tangible difference at the utility companies. Therefore, the consulting company has invited Jonas Falzarano Jessen to visit its customers and hopes in the long term to be able to convey the results of the collaboration in articles, workshops and at conferences.

“Our goal is to play a part in changing an industry so that data-driven decisions are made in future. We believe that the way to good deliveries to our customers is through collaboration and we are very busy collaborating with other instances such as universities,” says Jan Scheel.

- Vi indgår i mange projekter med universiteterne, for vi ser, at universiteterne har løsningerne på mange af de udfordringer, vi står overfor, og derfor er det også vigtigt for os, at resultaterne kommer ud og bliver brugt.

Lars Nørgård Holmegaard, direktør for Lemvig Vand.

Facts

The SWIft project began in October 2019 and will last until the end of September 2024
Jonas Falzarano Jessen, in collaboration with lecturer in techno-anthropology at the Department of Culture and Learning Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen, has published an article about digital water: https://vbn.aau.dk/da/publications/digital-water Furthermore, Jonas Falzarano Jessen has participated in a Climate summit at Lemvig Vand and more activities are on the way. They can be followed here: https://vbn.aau.dk/da/persons/146867

For further information, please contact:
Jonas Falzarano Jessen on e-mail: jonasfj@ikl.aau.dk

Interested in participating in a research collaboration? Then read more here: