I had a chance to sit down with Peter Williams, CTO of IBM’s Big Green Innovation Unit. We discussed Smart Water, industry trends and collaboration, and the potential for the Blue Tech industry to improve living conditions worldwide. Peter will be chairing a panel on Smart Water at the Blue Tech Innovation Forum in June.
What single improvement to water infrastructure will have the largest holistic impact?
Embedding information technology to allow people to manage their infrastructure more effectively. And allow them to optimize and control the operation of that infrastructure in terms of energy consumption, water delivery and quality, flood risk, or whatever.
What will convince investors that Smart Water is a substantial opportunity?
The bottom line is if you don’t invest in that kind of development, you’re going to recreate the kind of water infrastructure we’ve got today, which is energy intensive, requires way too much concrete and steel and is arguably not the best way to meet some of the demands that we’ve actually got.For example, there are notions now around localized processing of stormwater, the creation of things like localized wetlands, that the EPA is looking at for example, that allow you to manage the impact of runoff. As opposed to collecting them together in some gigantic tank or gigantic pipe and then pumping it straight into a river.
Are you talking about on-site, localized solutions?
It’s not necessarily on-site or off-site but it’s actually just about trying to work a bit smarter. And if you’re going to do that, you need information about the environment itself, in other words, is there sufficient water in this river to dilute what we’re about to put in it, effectively.You need information about the environment. You need information about the operation of various human systems that are contributing to the problem. Whether that’s human processes generating wastewater or traffic generating urban runoff or industrial activity or whatever it might be. And you need better information about the operation of those systems. You need to be able to understand continuously, “Ok, these are my options for reducing my total energy consumption given the configuration of the system right now, demand, etc. Or, here’s where all my major leaks are right now, here’s the at risk sections of pipe and here’s how I can reduce leakage to an average of 3 or 4% throughout my city.”
I’ve read that you’re using supercomputers to monitor the Hudson River, levees in the Netherlands, etc. How are your tests of smart infrastructure progressing?
It’s not always been supercomputers, or at least if it is supercomputers, it’s using a very small part of a supercomputer that you could easily replicate with a smaller computer. [The tests] are progressing very well. We’ve got a system live called Smart Bay in Galway Bay in the West of Ireland, that’s doing great things.We have projects in Australia and the UK, amongst other places. We’ve got one that goes live this month in Sonoma, and that’s going to do great things. That’s not a supercomputing job at all, that’s running on a very small machine. I wouldn’t want water agencies to read what you’re about to write and think, “Well that doesn’t apply to me, because I can’t afford a supercomputer.”
A PC can run this?
It’s a standard Windows server, the Sonoma machine. Basically we’re integrating information from a bunch of different SCADA systems, adding in data from different agencies, adding in data from the USGS and the Army Corps of Engineers, adding in weather forecasting data, adding in collaboration tools that allow the operators in each of the relevant water agencies to work better with each other. The idea is to create a common operating picture, which they don’t have at the moment, and allow them the basis to discuss, compare and contrast, as they each go about their day-to-day jobs in their different agencies, to improve the level of collaboration. The idea is to remove surprises – to make the activities of each agency visible to the others, so that they can all adjust and react accordingly.
How are agencies responding to the idea of inter-agency cooperation?
Depends on who you talk to. If you talk to the agencies in Sonoma, after a little bit of discussion and persuasion they get it. An awful lot of others don’t yet. But they will, I predict, because I don’t think they have any choice. It’s becoming increasingly apparent you can’t manage a water resource that’s split into 20 or 30 different jurisdictions like San Francisco Bay, without a sustained effort to collaborate. And I don’t just mean sharing data. I mean a sustained effort to actually collaborate and do common and agreed things with that data.
You wrote in 2008 about WaterOrg. How has that progressed?
That’s become the Water Innovations Alliance, and that has most definitely progressed. It’s live and operational.
How is that being accepted by the governments? Are you able to use that to integrate technologies and to sell the idea of Smart Water?
We’re having a number of very crucial discussions with federal agencies. The purpose of that organization is not actually to do the technological integration. The purpose of that organization is basically to build awareness of the potential for information technology to improve water management and to start to create some of the collateral that you need to do that, in terms of things like reference architectures and standards, potentially.
Is WIA pushing for collaboration between water technology companies?
We’ve got two other large technology companies that are members right now: Hach and Intel. We’ve got strong interest in joining from a number of others. There are some smaller startups involved as well, along with privately-owned utility companies, NGOs And others. We are ahead of the membership goals we have set ourselves.
Are utilities providing feedback about new types of technology they’d like to see?
Unfortunately not many state utilities yet, but we have three private water companies involved (United Water and American Water and Veolia). United Water is a part of Suez.
How are IBM and other companies measuring the uptake of smart water?
Revenue for us. Uptake on the ground. Do we make money at it, and when people implement it do they get benefit from it? It’s pretty straightforward: in other words, does it work? Is it affordable? Is it profitable?
My research has shown that Smart Water is proving itself incredibly affordable compared to overhauling infrastructure.
Yes, but the bit that statement doesn’t account for, unfortunately, is where people’s heads are at in the water industry. I could show you an example — I’m not going to name them — where we demonstrated that applying a more analytic approach to the management of their combined sewer overflow could probably save them about $15 million bucks worth of new sewer. We proved it, and they still went ahead and built the new sewer. That’s what they do — “Hey, we’re concrete and steel guys.”
How can we change mindsets?
Partly you’ve got the satisfaction of knowing that it’s changing very slowly of its own accord. And it’s changing because people are looking at the status of the nation’s water supply — and this isn’t just a US statement; people all over the place are looking at the status of their respective countries’ water supply — and going “you know what, we’ve got to do better. We’ve either got more people, and/or we’ve got the impacts of climate change, and/or we’ve got the impact of economic growth, and/or we’ve got the impact of polluted water resources, and/or we’ve got various environmental demands we’ve got to satisfy. We’ve got to come up with a better way of managing all of that”. By the way, the cost of energy and the cost of chemicals are going up, so add that into the mix as well.People are looking at that and going, “You know, there’s got to be a better way.” Certainly, you look at some of the water industry journals and there’s an awful lot of articles in there about piloting different kinds of technology. Unfortunately, it’s still a case where if a water agency implements an advanced meter infrastructure, it actually warrants an article in the journal. It really ought to be by now total commonplace. The good news is it’s getting the coverage. The bad news is it’s still out of the ordinary. That’s the issue.
Are certain countries adopting smart water technology faster than others?
Yeah. Singapore, Australia. They’re each driven by particular supply constraints of their own. Australia’s in the throes of a major drought. Singapore wants to stop being reliant on Malaysia for its water. In the Netherlands, they’re doing amazing things around flood prevention and levee management. In Florida, for example, they’re doing tremendous things around ground water management. Each driven by some imperative that says they have to.Some countries get it. The US has got a particular problem because its water agencies are so small and fragmented, compared with the norm. I believe I’m right in saying there’s 250,000 water agencies in the world and 50,000 of them are in the US. The US has got over 50,000 water systems. I think either 39 or 32 thousand of them are fewer than five hundred customers. It’s incredible fragmentation and a bad basis on which to capitalize the overhauls and repairs that are needed to the nations water infrastructure.
It seems the EPA is pushing for on-site, while you seem to be saying if they were unified it’d be easier to deploy new technologies.
The missing piece in that is the monitoring and the control technologies. You can distribute the technology and use information technology to maintain the centralized oversight of how it’s working. And that’s the key. The one thing you don’t want if you use more localized technologies is a free-for-all. It’s IT that prevents it becoming a free-for-all because you can monitor and observe and set alarms and alerts and all that sort of stuff, and if you want to apply things like statistical process controls to all of these decentralized plants.You’ve got to be careful about how you write about decentralization because it’s not an established fact yet. But in the event that it happens, you’d use IT to put it all back together again.
So even if management was politically separate, the technology would tie it all together?
Yes. Given that you’ve got fragmentation, if you can at least get those agencies to agree to exchange information you can get yourself in a situation whereby the fragmentation matters less.
What sort of collaboration is occurring? Is IBM carrying the whole thing?
Not necessarily IBM. IBM doesn’t make sensors and meters, so there’s opportunities to work with other companies right there. Especially sensors: there’s lots of different kinds of sensors you might need. We don’t necessarily do the networking and the communications component of that either, so there’s more collaboration opportunities. We’re also quite happy to work with vendors’ products that compete with our own. For example, in another arena, we compete with SAP, and make a huge amount of money implementing SAP. The whole circle of coopetition kind of idea, we continue to apply. It’s not either / or.
Would you talk about your experiences with Smart Water and what attracts you to smart water itself?
That’s very simple. It’s an opportunity to make a real difference to an immediate worldwide problem. It’s a job that lets me look myself in the mirror each day, and say, “You know what, you’re doing something worthwhile.”
It’s a very attractive industry right now.
Yeah, that’s right. Be in no doubt just how severe the problems are. You’ve got parts of the Western United States are in danger in the next four or five years of actually running out of water. It’s already having an impact on economic activity — especially in California and Arizona and so on. If we can get some of these technologies in use in the developing world… if I told you that half of all the hospital beds in the world are filled by people suffering water related diseases and that very nearly half of mankind is expected to be living in water stressed areas by 2020-2030, you begin to get the scale of the problem. People are going to die. In gross numbers, unless we get this straight. Either through war of through famine and drought, unless we get this straight. This is an opportunity to head some of that off and get paid a good wage at the same time!
What needs to happen to enable the technologies that are developing here to be able to be implemented in the developing countries?
It’s all about price point and infrastructure. Being able to get them cheap enough so they’re affordable. Being able to ruggedize them so they can operate in relatively rural environments, relatively unattended, often times without a continuous power supply. Those are the two main things. Will they require communication? How are you going to do that communicating?
Is IBM taking on that segment as well?
We are, but not directly. The way we’re taking it on, for example, we’re working with the Nature Conservancy on a thing called Water for Tomorrow, to provide a set of tools for land-use planning so that people can better plan the use of water and the impact that different development decisions might have on aquatic health. That’s something we’re doing that has developing world focus. We’re present in a lot of Asian and African and South American countries. But we’re not actively engaged in the business of creating low-cost, low-infrastructure solutions at this point, as much as we’d like to be. But what we would anticipate is that the stuff we’re creating for the developed world will eventually start to get to a point where it’s affordable in other places too.
Are countries in the developing world contacting you for advice on water?
The contact’s going to come through IBM employees who work in those countries. So you can say they’re contacting me indirectly but using IBM as a communications channel. We have around 380,000 employees. We’re in 180 countries.
Is that IBM itself or the team you’re CTO for?
The team that I’m CTO for, there’s precisely seven of us. But you’ll infer from that we’re not doing all the work ourselves, and that was never the intention. We’re the center of a network. If you look across IBM, how many people at IBM are working on this stuff, if you include greenhouse gas reductions that we’re doing, the numbers are in the hundreds.
I’m a fan of the distributed, multi-tasking approach, that people are doing this for capitalistic as well as humanitarian reasons.
I see no dichotomy there. To use a trite phrase, “Doing well by doing good.”