Future Forward: Sensors Are Just Part of Intelligent Water Systems
These profiles are based on interviews, and the opinions and statements are those of the subject and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by this publication.
With an impressive resume that includes Harvard, McKinsey, the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State and CISCO, Cho has seen the effects of water systems from an especially wide set of views and applications. His current work at Xylem centers on advanced infrastructure analytics, which focuses on the application of data analytics and decision intelligence solutions to solve major challenges in water infrastructure, including how to make systems more reliable, sustainable and resilient. It’s important to note that “smart water” is a lot more than monitoring sensors.
“Information and intelligence creates value primarily when it supports better decision making around specific capital or operating challenges that infrastructure operators have,” notes Cho.
Harness the Power
To advocate for better decision making, Cho and Xylem released a paper titled, “Harness The Power of Decision Intelligence.” It aims to demonstrate how the future of water utility operations and management can be improved through the application of decision intelligence in six key areas: reducing system losses, proactive asset management, improving water quality from source to tap, managing the data deluge in infrastructure systems, water equity, and what Xylem calls the “intelligent urban watershed” that includes the optimization of water collection and treatment networks.
“Intelligence in the system only matters if it drives significant improvement in the affordability of infrastructure investment,” notes Cho. “Nobody can envision a world where we’re going to invest trillions of dollars more in infrastructure in the near term, so the only way we’re going to be able to maintain the resilience and function of aging infrastructure networks is by changing the paradigm, and making smarter decisions about how we deploy capital and manage the existing assets we have.”
Asset Management and Criticality Assessments
According to Cho, asset management is one of the richest and most value-creating areas covered in the paper, because so much of the value of utility assets are locked up in buried assets that are difficult to visit, assess and manage. As a consequence, most people interact with their assets only when they fail or when there’s an emergency.
“One of the core themes from the paper is that reacting to emergencies is one of the most-expensive and least-efficient ways to manage assets,” adds Cho. He explains that there’s a better way to transition from managing assets out of the emergency room—from a purely reactive mode—into one where we can gain control of assets by better understanding their current performance and how best to target the limited resources we have in the areas that need it most. This is a multi-billion-dollar opportunity for water utilities.
It’s equally important to look at the criticality of each asset and what the consequence would be if they were to fail. If you look at a pipe network, one of the biggest causes of pipe ruptures is pressure transient activity in the network, so a strategy that only looks at statistical vulnerability of pipes based on age or pipe material or soil condition, will miss the fact that there are active hazards damaging pipe networks every day. In addition, an asset near a hospital will have a higher consequence of failure than one in a recreational area.
“If you know which assets you have, what condition they’re in at any given time, and you’ve actually developed control and rehabilitation strategies that allow you to do a lot more with what you have, you don’t have to reach for new capital dollars to build solutions to problems that may already be within your grasp,” notes Cho.
The Full Cycle of Water
Xylem, with its name coming from biological water-transport systems, hopes to emulate and support the vision of water as something that cycles throughout the ecosystem, whether that’s helping monitor and ensure the health of lakes, rivers and streams all the way to identifying ways to manage water in the most energy- and chemical-efficient means possible.
According to Cho, water systems equipped with decision intelligence offer services in a way that’s more affordable for communities in the longer term. Large capital investments in infrastructure may not be necessary if we can maximize the properties and potential of infrastructure systems already in place with data and analytics now available.
“Everybody deserves access to high-quality, affordable water services, so we look at decision intelligence as part of the core public-service mission of the utility to help drive more-affordable solutions for customers,” concludes Cho.