Smart cities are built on a foundation of water. Adopting digital water technologies is critical for helping cities build a more resilient future in the face of extreme weather events and a changing climate.
From increasingly severe storms to hotter temperatures, the effects of climate change are being felt across Australia’s cities. To help build resilience, cities are becoming more intelligent and embracing innovation across various sectors and utilities, including water – a fundamental resource and critical factor in maintaining urban stability and liveability. According to the latest Special Report on Drought from the United Nations, drought has been the single longest-term physical trigger of political change in 5,000 years of recorded human history. The report also noted that the causal drivers of drought are rooted in the complex interactions of socioecological and technological systems. Droughts can have “severe, wide-ranging and cascading impacts”. Similarly, the UN World Water Development Report 2022 focused on managing groundwater. The report, titled Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible, described the challenges and opportunities around developing, managing, and governing groundwater worldwide. It also aimed to establish the role that groundwater plays in our lives. Finally, it intends to identify opportunities to optimise its use for the long-term sustainable use of this precious resource.
What are smart cities?
Smart cities are generally considered to be urban areas that use various sensors to collect data. That data is then used to manage assets, resources, and services more efficiently than traditional methods. A key enabler of smart cities is the Internet of Things (IoT) – sensors, smart meters, lights, and other devices connected to the internet. “In many Phase I projects, enterprises focused on a single use case and on acquiring the data streams from single sources,” said Bill Rojas, Adjunct Research Director at IDC Asia Pacific. “But as the organisations gain a deeper data-driven understanding of their operations, they can start to use other data sources (such as geolocation, machine maintenance data, weather, transactions activity, vehicular telemetric traffic data, and so on) to improve their analytics and expand beyond the original use case.” It’s a trend Daniel Sullivan has noticed in the water sector. The CEO of Australian smart water specialists Iota says customers often experience a ‘light bulb moment’ after using IoT technologies such as smart meters for the first time. “Take one of our customers, a large council in Queensland. Suddenly, they’ve got this data they’ve never had before from digital meters,” he said. “They share more broadly within the council and now know when people are using offices in the city. That feeds into other major planning decisions. This was not considered in the original business case, but now you have extraordinarily valuable insights. There are so many other uses [for data] that you just cannot predict.”
Smart cities’ innovation in the water sector
“It’s not just clean drinking water, which is often taken for granted. During the Millennium drought, many sports fields were brown and unplayable. There’s a well-being impact in having green, healthy spaces for communities,” said Sullivan. He believes that the water sector is ripe for innovation because water underpins liveability in cities. Like many water industry leaders, Sullivan believes climate change impacts the many facets of the industry differently. Melbourne’s catchments rely heavily on rainfall, but rainfall has been steadily declining for the past 50 years. With Melbourne’s population predicted to double by 2070, there is an understanding across the sector that there needs to be a change in how water is used. A wholly owned subsidiary of South East Water, a water authority in the South East Melbourne growth corridor, Iota specialises in actively incubating, developing, and commercialising a portfolio of technologies for the global water sector. The company was founded after South East Water fielded strong interest across the industry in various innovations it developed in response to the Millennium drought, which is recognised as the worst on record. “South East Water notifies customers if we suspect a leak on their premises,” he said. “With smart technologies, we tell them how much that will cost if they don’t address it and how they can get help to fix it.” Sullivan said that financial and environmental sustainability benefits from the amount of granular data that smart water infrastructure collects.
Water security and smart cities work together hand in hand
The issue of water security is not unique to Australia. Water utilities worldwide are exploring smart sensors to reduce bursts and leaks within the network, prevent sewer spills and provide greater insight into customer behaviour. Sullivan highlighted the critical importance of presenting a positive business case, given the significant up front investment. “It can cost a bit more today to future-proof yourself for tomorrow,” he said. “And if you have a tight budget, it can be hard to look over the horizon. We’re fortunate in the water sector. We have a strong business case around IoT and digital metering that we can build upon.” With global cities at various stages of their smart trajectories, Sullivan is excited about the potential for customers who embrace open standards such as narrowband IoT (NB-IoT). Doing so prevents customers from being locked into a particular ecosystem to the exclusion of others. It will also enable the ability to take advantage of future innovations. “You’re preserving that freedom should new technologies develop down the track,” he said.
How Iota and South East Water are setting new standards in smart cities
Melbourne is working hard to develop itself into a smart city, and Iota is partnering with the Victorian government to achieve that goal. One example is Fishermans Bend, an ambitious urban renewal project covering 480 hectares. It will be home to 80,000 people and over 80,000 jobs across multiple sectors by 2050, with the goal of being Australia’s largest Green Star Community. “We want to create a watersensitive precinct that accounts for residents living there, students studying there and people working there,” said Sullivan. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to make a watersensitive precinct. By mandating smart water tanks for every building, we can have people living and working on lower levels of the building. Fishermans Bend sits below sea level so that the smart water tanks can flush out the water in the tanks in preparation for incoming water. That makes for highly productive development.” The introduction of intelligent rainwater tanks and a water recycling plant for the area aims to solve local challenges with local solutions by reducing demand for drinking water supplies. South East Water will also implement network sensors and digital meters to harness all water sources. Scaling technology up to the precinct level has come from years of experience based on their Aquarevo Project. “When we had an old treatment plant in Lyndhurst, we decided to create a water-sensitive development instead of selling it,” he said. “By setting up a joint venture with Villawood Properties, we have developed what might be the most water-sensitive development in the world. We are aiming for a 70 per cent reduction in water use, and we are nearly there.” This joint venture with Villawood Properties has supported other government initiatives to help secure water supplies for current and future generations of Victorians by reducing demand for drinking water supplies. The 460-lot development has twothirds full of families, with the last third sold and waiting for families to move in. “We’re using a whole variety of different technology and principles around integrated water management that gets talked about a lot but are rarely bit into practice. That’s why we decided to go into the joint venture so that we could turn the talk into action ourselves,” said Sullivan. The incorporation of rain-to-hot water systems, smart rainwater tanks, sensors, and a pressure sewer system are all designed to reduce the reliance on drinking water for uses that do not require it. “Digital metering is a great example of how consumers react to smart technology,” he said. “We have over 65,000 smart meters deployed with our customers, and they get told when there is a leak on their property. As part of that, we tell them how much money it will cost them if they do not fix the leak. We are also doing a lot of work around gamifying water conservation at the street and neighbourhood level, which has the potential to drive competition around water conservation.” The Aquarevo Project also studies an urban cooling project and runs an intelligent irrigation system. The digital smart meters provide near real-time data to South East Water and end-users. Sullivan has been thrilled with what has been achieved so far. “Integrated water management needs IoT technology to realise its potential. If you can’t monitor the flow or control the quality of water, if you can’t predict or model what is going to happen and adapt to it, it’s tough to make integrated water management work. In terms of smart cities, they work best when they are built off the back of smart services and smart utilities because the business case is really strong.”