Our relationship with water is undergoing a transformation in response to increased demand for water (e.g., human consumption, energy and food production, etc.), the impacts of climate change and poor water quality.

Digital technologies (e.g., information communication technologies or ICT) are leading the transformation through the emergence of technologies such as remote sensing, inexpensive sensors, smart devices (e.g., internet of things), machine learning, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality and blockchain. This digital transformation of water is currently enabling real time water quantity and quality monitoring, vastly improved management of infrastructure assets, direct consumer engagement and facilitating the adoption of off-grid and localized infrastructure technologies (e.g., air moisture capture, neighborhood scale treatment systems, etc.). Not only will water utilities be transformed by digital technologies but the public sector will benefit through improved knowledge of water supply, demand and quality to better inform public policy and investments. The private sector will be positioned to ensure the efficient and effective use of water in their supply chains, operations, and with products (e.g., water efficient personal care products, washing machines, etc.).

Several organizations have already acknowledged the potential of digital water technologies. The World Economic Forum frames the adoption of digital technologies in all industrial sectors as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or 4IR and the digital transformation of water is part of this revolution,1 the water utility sector is framing the “digital utility”2 and the Aspen Institute and Duke University framed the “Internet of Water.”3

Digital technologies have the potential to democratize access to water data, actionable information and, in turn, to safe drinking water. Achieving SDG 6 may be within reach through digital technologies and their ability to facilitate the adoption of other innovative water technologies. By 2030 we will see digital water technologies as commonplace just as we have seen digital technologies become integrated into the energy (e.g., Nest) and transportation sectors (e.g., Uber and Lyft). Moreover, digital technologies will enable leapfrogging of traditional infrastructure (e.g., centralized systems) to hybrid (e.g., centralized and decentralized) and new systems (e.g., off- grid) by providing real time access to water quantity and quality data for consumers, technology providers and regulators.


Currently, approximately 4 billion people live in water-scarce and water-stressed regions, with nearly 1 billion people without access to safe drinking water and almost 1 million deaths per year from waterborne diseases. The World Economic Forum projects that, under business-as-usual policy and technology practices, the world faces a 40 percent gap between water supply and demand by 2030. In addition to water scarcity impacts, the world also faces negative effects from flooding and poor water quality to economic growth, business continuity, ecosystem health and social well-being.

In particular, cities are vulnerable to the impacts of water scarcity and extreme weather events. These impacts are currently being realized in many global cities and, as a result, cities are looking to increase their resiliency to changing hydrologic conditions. Research by CDP Water highlights the response of global cities to these water risks.4 This research indicates the cities most concerned about their water supply are in Asia and Oceania (84 percent), with serious risks also identified in Africa (80 percent) and Latin America (75 percent). One hundred ninety-six cities reported risks of water stress and scarcity, 132 a risk of declining water quality, and 103 a risk of flooding.

Another recent study analyzed 70 surface water supplied cities with populations exceeding 750,000.5 The results indicate that, “in 2010, 36 percent of large cities are vulnerable as they compete for water with agricultural users. By 2040, without additional measures, 44 percent of cities are vulnerable due to increased agricultural and urban demands.

Impacts from water scarcity on a regional and national scale were also evaluated and presented in a 2016 report from the World Bank, indicating that that: “water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could cost some regions up to 6 percent of their GDP, spur migration, and spark conflict and the combined effects of growing populations, rising incomes, and expanding cities will see demand for water rising exponentially, while supply becomes more erratic and uncertain.”6

Current public policies and infrastructure will not be sufficient to keep pace with needs from an increasing global population. The global population is currently increasing by approximately 70 million people each year. As a result, the total global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050.7 The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that by 2050, demands for water, energy, and food will increase by 55, 80, and 60 percent, respectively.8

Digital technologies will be transformational in positioning the water industry, other commercial sectors and governments for expanded resilience from increased demand for water and the impacts of climate change (e.g., loss of stationarity and extreme weather events). The water industry has the opportunity to take the lead in addressing 21st century water risks through the adoption of digital water technologies.9


As is the case with so much of modern life, the global water sector is adapting to the information age and data-driven innovations. Disruption in the coming decade will be delivered by digital water technologies that allow for the decentralization of large, traditional water utilities and the incorporation of smaller, remote systems. Similarly, innovations in water collection and distribution would foster a new generation of blended or hybrid utilities to diversify the means by which drinking water is collected (e.g. rain collection, air moisture capture, etc.) and wastewater is treated (e.g. natural treatment systems).

The global water sector can look to other industries for reasons to embrace digital technologies such as energy and transportation. First, harnessing digital technologies will allow water utilities to shift their focusses from the paradigmatic economies of scale to those of economies of efficiency. Second, moving from a system of large, stand-alone water resources to one of dynamically integrated micro-systems affords an entirely new level of resource allocation and utilization. And third, introducing new incentives, payment systems, and engagement initiatives would transform the interface between utility and customer and in turn create a new generation of engaged water consumers.

Additionally, digital innovation in this sector would foster an environment in which water is no longer managed in an insular manner, but rather a collaborative one together with other resources, particularly in the energy sectors.


An overview of several digital water technologies transforming water are summarized below.

IV.3.1 Watershed and Consumer Connectivity

Surface and groundwater data within watersheds can now be collected and shared at the local, regional, and even global scales. The digital technology toolkit now includes satellite imagery for surface and groundwater evaluation and flood forecasting. Drones can also be deployed to assess real-time conditions upstream as a preventative measure and not merely for periodic planning as extant protocol usually dictates. Just as blockchain applications have been used to increase the transparency of supply chains in other sectors, they could potentially be employed to generate permanent, collective record-keeping of water use and transactions for a range of stakeholders.

There is now the ability to acquire water data at the global, regional, watershed, and local scale to provide a vastly improved understanding of surface and groundwater supplies. Data acquisition and analytics technologies that address these needs include satellite imagery and analytics for groundwater resource evaluation (e.g., NASA GRACE) and for flood predictions (e.g., Cloud to Street). In addition, there is demand for national-scale water data acquisition and management (e.g., AKVO Foundation) to track progress against Sustainable Development Goal 6 (universal access to safe drinking water), inform public policies (e.g., California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), develop watershed scale monitoring of hydrologic conditions (University of Berkeley California Hydrologic Monitoring), and tackle global water challenges (e.g., Earth Genome Project).

Blockchain applications also have the potential for collective record-keeping of water quantity and quality data, allowing multiple groups of stakeholders to create an immutable record of data.

Connectivity also includes the use of remote sensing. For example, in Crete and Sardinia, satellite data are being used to improve upstream water-quality monitoring.10 These types of data provide water utilities the ability to monitor natural systems on a real-time basis. In general, water utilities use hydraulic models for planning and expanding purposes only once every few years.

Blockchain applications also have the potential for collective record-keeping of water quantity and quality data, allowing multiple groups of stakeholders to create an immutable record of data collected by each and allowing open access to that data by all parties. Blockchains, which are already at work in making transparent supply chains, could be used in the water sector to improve mapping of tap-water quality.11

Digital water technology solutions will also change the relationship water utilities have with customers as society increasingly embraces digital technologies in all aspects of their lives (e.g., mobility, communication, and entertainment) and it is reasonable to conclude service providers such as water utilities will now be part of the mix. With new efforts toward sustainability and water conservation efforts, water utility companies are beginning to establish innovative strategies to help engage consumers and restructure the way people think about water use.

Companies and products such as Rachio, HydroPoint, Dropcountr, and WaterSmart utilize digital technology to promote sustainable water use and allow customers to access utility data and information with ease. Dropcountr and WaterSmart use digital technology to create reports using real-time monitoring from smart sensors to deliver data to customers. Rachio utilizes smart sensing technology, monitoring devices that essentially operate with an on/off switch and can use weather patterns to conserve water.12 The company also offers smart irrigation and sprinkler-control functions that are user-friendly, easy to install, and compatible with already existing at-home watering systems. HydroPoint allows customers to save both water and money through smart irrigation, leak and flow monitoring, and professional services.13

Companies that take advantage of these developments in customer service are benefiting. With new digital technologies such as AI chatbots, customers can ask questions and get answers whenever they want, opening vast possibilities for consumer engagement, providing customer alerts, and also water consumption and conservation information. Utility companies that embrace these technologies are improving their customer service and meeting the high demands of consumers.

IV.3.2 Asset Management

The most obvious opportunity for digital water technology adoption is in asset management and the ability to monitor water utility infrastructure performance in real time.14 Digital water technologies can vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure repair and capital investments. Utilities now have the opportunity to have every asset recorded within their GIS system with structured and unstructured data from across all departments for actionable insights to decrease costs and risks (e.g., Redeye). Today, most hardware companies (e.g., pump manufacturers) also provide software services as part of the product enriched with data analytics for insights, optimization, and future automation. The integration of critical data across utility departments, such as the finance department, work order systems, GIS system, and SCADA, will provide more accurate predictive asset management and an extension of asset life. Utilities will also be able to couple data with VR and AR tools for asset assessment and preventative maintenance (e.g., Fujitsu). In addition, utilities can utilize satellite imaging for cost-effective leak detection, (e.g., Utilis) and wastewater utilities can use smart remote sensing products to provide early detection and prediction on wastewater conditions (e.g., Kando). Asset management now also includes AI applications to manage infrastructure assets. There are several data- analytical companies armed with data scientist and application developers focusing on the water sector (e.g., EMAGIN).

Several utilities are also moving towards adopting “digital twin” applications, a pairing of the virtual and physical worlds that allows analysis of data and monitoring of systems to avoid problems before they even occur, prevent downtime, develop new opportunities and plan for the future by using simulations.15 The digital twin approach uses sensors to gather data about real- time statuses, working conditions, or positions that are integrated with a physical item. Digital twin applications allow lessons to be learned and opportunities to be identified within a virtual environment, which can be applied to the physical world—ultimately transforming asset management and operations.

Other benefits to digital solutions for the water utility sector include the ability to monitor water quality on a real-time basis at the tap or within the environment. Digital technologies allow citizen scientists to collect real-time water data with low-cost sensors (e.g., the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Georgia), open-source data platforms (e.g., California Open and Transparent Water Data Platform), smart residential irrigation and water management systems (e.g., Rachio), water quality testing at the tap (e.g., Microlyze), and blockchain applications to promote transparency and facilitate transactions (e.g., Power Ledger).

There is also the potential for digital technologies to facilitate the use of off-grid and localized solutions for water and wastewater treatment, along with strategies to build hybrid decentralized-centralized systems. Real- time water system performance and water quantity and quality monitoring are currently facilitating the adoption of off-grid air moisture water generation (e.g., Zero Mass Water) and localized treatment technologies (e.g., Organica). Digital technologies facilitate the adoption of off-grid and decentralized technologies by eliminating or reducing the need for centralized testing and reporting. Real time monitoring allows infrastructure technologies to become independent and more directly connected to the needs of the customer and consumer.


The development of digital technologies now requires the water utility workforce to adapt and learn new skills in order to keep up with the pace of evolution within the global economy and systems of commerce. In addition to recruiting new talent proficient in information technology, companies need to train existing employees and attempt to continue to operate and adjust to new systems seamlessly.

Another way to frame the digital workforce is how the “no-collar” workforce will be incorporated into company operations.16 In this scenario, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will likely not displace the majority of workers. Instead these digital tools offer opportunities to automate some repetitive, low-level tasks. More importantly, intelligent automation solutions may be able to augment human performance by automating certain parts of a task, thus freeing individuals to focus on more human- necessary aspects, ones that require empathic problem- solving abilities, social skills, and emotional intelligence.

Digital technologies can enable water utilities to collaborate with utilities in different states to identify solutions to infrastructure problems. For example, the White House Utility District (WHUD), which serves approximately 90,000 consumers and businesses in northern Tennessee, saved more than $20 million by identifying leaks in their infrastructure system with digital technologies.17 WHUD collaborated with data collected from the California Public Utilities Commission to determine leakage costs with comprehensive data analysis and comparisons of the regions.18

VR and AR applications can also benefit the water utility workforce by reducing risk and saving in maintenance costs, engineering tests, and innovation, and allow users to test or simulate real-world situations without the usual dangers or costs associated with large engineering projects. With VR, asset maintenance professionals can immerse themselves to fully and accurately experience what a situation would be like in real life. VR also allows the identification of design flaws or other potential problems with efficiency, which can then be solved before any problems actually occur.


While the digital water technology toolkit offer considerable promise, there are challenges in scaling adoption of these technologies at scale. Two of the challenges are highlighted below.

IV.5.1 Workforce capacity and training

Whether, real or perceived the water sector and users are slow to adopt new technologies due to; a lack of incentives, risks from adoption and siloes of data owners/ departments. As a result, proven technologies are strongly favored over unproven or emerging technologies. However, there are now strategies to de-risk new technologies by water technology hubs and accelerators working closely with utilities (e.g., Imagine H2O, Water Start, and Current). In general, water workforces are not trained in digital technology solutions and workforce transformation will be necessary to scale the adoption of digital technologies.19 A Harvard Business Review article offers valuable insight on the workforce challenge in adopting water data technologies: “Using and interpreting data is not only a search for insights; it’s also about enlisting the hearts and minds of the people who must act on those insights.”20

V.5.2 Cybersecurity

Because utilities are critical infrastructure, cybersecurity is a high priority, and often one reason utilities insist on not using cloud-based solutions and requiring on- premise solutions instead. Utilities need to constantly strengthen their operations with innovative cybersecurity solutions as well (e.g., Siga, and Radflow). The water utility sector is not alone in having to keep pace with the ever-increasing assault on public- and private-sector enterprises in the form of data theft and business disruption.

In 2015, the US Department of Homeland Security responded to 25 cybersecurity incidents in the water sector (8.5 percent of the total incidents reported) which marked a nearly 80 percent increase in water-sector incidents over the previous year.21


While challenges remain, there are new tools to accelerate the adoption of digital water technologies. For example, new business service models such as pumps as a service, operations as a service, and platforms as a service—are emerging in other sectors and are slowly having an impact in the water sector (e.g., Grundfos Cloud-connected pumps). Also, there are large volumes of water data collected by utilities from video, satellite images, social media sources. As a result, water utilities need the capacity to process these data for more informed decision making.

We can also not underestimate the impact of a digitally savvy workforce and consumers. Digital solutions are prevalent in the retail, transportation, and energy sectors, which has raised the expectations of workers and consumers that other aspects of their lives will be “digitally enabled.” The water sector is no exception to this trend. Also, entrepreneurs outside the water sector are now engaged and motivated to bring new ideas to solving water challenges. In many cases the solutions are focused on digital technologies. These entrepreneurs are being brought into the water sector by organizations such as; Imagine H2O, Current, WaterStart, 101010, The Nature Conservancy/Techstars partnership and ABInBev/ZX Ventures.


In developed economies, access to water has been taken for granted and this acquiescence manifests itself first and foremost in a lack of transparency. Customers almost never think about their water supply until there is a problem, and this in turns sends a message to their providers that transparency is neither a priority nor even expected. Modernized, developed society is disconnected from the idea that water is a valuable and strategic resource to be monitored and managed. Instead, their perception of water is dissociative, thinking of water in the contexts of its different manifestations (i.e. drinking water, gray water, storm water). In the future, these perceptions need to coalesce into a singular view of a singular resource and the best way to achieve that is through transparency between the utility and the customer.

Transparency at this level is most quickly achieved through customer engagement and education. This means sharing information about water supplies that is not always favorable, like supply shortfalls and quality issues, topics that utilities have long been hesitant to share. Digitizing data collection and employing open exchanges of information will both engage and inform water customers, which will in turn foster a new culture of transparency.

Innovations in technology, most particularly on the digital front, have made rapid changes in the energy sector like the adoption of renewables and the trend toward micro-grids. The water sector would reap substantial benefits by taking pages from these play books. Blending or hybridizing water utilities by incorporating the positive attributes of large, centralized water systems with those of off-grid, localized systems would power the optimization of water management and yield reliable, equitable distribution. An additional benefit hybridization offers is redundancy, the reliance on multiple smaller resources that can be reconfigured to accommodate repairs and renovations, emergency protocol, and even quarantines.

The catalysts necessary to bring about next generation water practices are in many ways cultural changes—increased expectations of transparency and the education of water customers and policy makers. One example is the rise of innovative business models that permit and even encourage technology ventures to share the risks of rolling out new technologies with their utility partners. Expanding on the trend of providing “Anything as a Service” (XaaS) that is perhaps most familiar in the cellular communications arena (e.g. smart phones as a service), technological advances in hardware become advances in services (e.g. pumps as a service, sensors as a service).

Generational change is another, extremely powerful enabling force because new, more sophisticated customers already expect digital solutions to so many other areas of their lives from personal communications and social media, to transportation (e.g. congestion pricing) and even their dwellings (e.g. Nest thermostats). The emergence of a no-caller workforce is made up of individuals with expectations of “digital instantaneity,” people who demand real-time information and solutions and possess an affinity for self-service.

More than anything, efforts on these fronts will power continued innovation that will in turn drive modern regulation. Ultimately, this means reinventing how water is shared and 205 Strafford Avenue Wayne, PA delivered, without losing sight of the overarching goal—a safe, reliable water supply accessible by all.


  1. Sarni, W., Stinson, C., Mung, A., & Garcia, B. (2018). Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Water. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_WR129_ Harnessing_4IR_Water_Online.pdf
  2. Karmous-Edwards, G., & Sarni, W. (2018, June 11). What is a Water Utility in a Digital World? Water Finance and Management. Retrieved from https://waterfm.com/water-utility- digital-world/
  3. The Aspen Institute. (2017). Internet of Water: Sharing and Integrating Water Data for Sustainability. Retrieved from https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/ uploads/2017/05/Internet-of-Water-Report-May-2017.pdf
  4. CDP. (2017). 2017 Cities Water Risks. Retrieved from https://data.cdp.net/Water/2017-Cities- Water-Risks/qaye-zhaz/data
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  6. The World Bank. (2016, May 3). Climate-Driven Water Scarcity Could Hit Economic Growth by Up to 6 Percent in Some Regions, Says World Bank. Retrieved from http://www. worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/05/03/climate-driven-water-scarcity- could-hit-economic-growth-by-up-to-6-percent-in-some-regions-says-world-bank
  7. Sarni, W. (2015). Deflecting the Scarcity Trajectory: Innovation at the water, energy, and food nexus. Deloitte Review, (17), 130–147. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte. com/content/dam/insights/us/articles/water-energy-food-nexus/DUP1205_DR17_ DeflectingtheScarcityTrajectory.pdf
  8. International Union for Conservation of Nature. (2013). The Water-Food-Energy Nexus: discussing solutions in Nairobi. Retrieved from https://www.iucn.org/content/water- food-energy-nexus-discussing-solutions-nairobi
  9. Sarni, W., Stinson, C., Mung, A., & Garcia, B. (2018). Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Water. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_WR129_ Harnessing_4IR_Water_Online.pdf
  10. International Water Association. (2018, August). Launch of SPACE-O, the Decision Support Platform. Retrieved from http://www.iwa-network.org/press/launch-of-space-o-the- decision-support-platform/
  11. Weisbord, E. (2018). Demystifying Blockchain for Water Professionals: Part 1. Retrieved from http://www.iwa-network.org/demystifying-blockchain-for-water-professionals-part-1/
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  15. Marr, B. (2017, March). What is Digital Twin Technology-And Why is it so Important? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2017/03/06/what-is- digital-twin-technology-and-why-is-it-so-important/#51ef5d722e2a
  16. Abbatiello, A., Boehm, T., Schwartz, J., & Chand, S. (2017, December). No-collar Workforce: Humans and Machines in One Loop-Collaborating in Roles and New Talent Models. Deloitte Insights.
  17. Kanellos, M. (2017, December). Digital Water: How One Community Saved More Than $20 Million by Finding Leaks With Data. Water Online. Retrieved from https://www.osisoft. com/News-and-Press/Digital-Water–How-One-Community-Saved-More-Than-$20- Million-By-Finding-Leaks-With-Data/
  18. Kanellos, M. (2017, December). Digital Water: How One Community Saved More Than $20 Million by Finding Leaks With Data. Water Online. Retrieved from https://www.osisoft. com/News-and-Press/Digital-Water–How-One-Community-Saved-More-Than-$20- Million-By-Finding-Leaks-With-Data/
  19. Krause, A., Perciavalle, P., Johnson, K., Owens, B., Frodl, D., Sarni, W., & Foundry, W. (2018). The Digitization of Water. Retrieved from https://www.ge.com/sites/default/files/GE- Ecomagination-Digital-Water.pdf
  20. Cespedes, F. V., & Peleg, A. (2017, March). How the Water Industry Learned to Embrace Data. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/03/how-the-water-industry-learned-to-embrace-data
  21. Clark, R. M., Panguluri, S., Nelson, T. D., & Wyman, R. P. (2017). Protecting Drinking Water Utilities From Cyberthreats. American Water Works Association, 109(2), 50–58. https://doi.org/10.5942/jawwa.2017.109.0021

Will Sarni

Founder and CEO of Water Foundry. He is an advisor to multinationals, water technology companies, investors, multi-lateral development banks and NGOs. He is an investor in water technology start-ups with...

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