Ripple Effect: How digital transformation is solving water in Asia

Ripple Effect: How digital transformation is solving water in Asia

In Asia, digital technologies are delivering transformative water, energy, and cost efficiencies, making water systems and communities more sustainable. 

Drawing on insights from Ripple Effect: A Movement Towards Digital Transformation, Xylem’s President of China and Asia, Shuping Lu, sat down with Making Waves to discuss some of the digital trends emerging across the region and how collaboration is fueling digital transformation. 

What are the common drivers behind digital transformation in Asia?

Asia has a strong business ecosystem. Since the 1980s, the region has been an industry leader in manufacturing textiles, electronics, and automotives – to name but a few. To sustain such a strong economy, we need to be innovative. It’s a huge part of our culture, particularly in China. Just this year, the Chinese government unveiled its “Digital China 2035” plan, which includes a framework for accelerating digital transformation in key industries across the country. 

The water sector is a huge area of focus, with the Ministry of Water Resources working to advance the deployment of digital twin technology for more effective water management – particularly in terms of improving flood control and enhancing water security. China, and indeed the rest of Asia, hasn’t escaped the devasting impacts of climate change, and this has put a huge premium on how we manage water. We have no choice but to get it right.

Furthermore, as an attractive place to live and work, populations continue to grow, and industrialization and urbanization show no sign of slowing. These factors, coupled with the global need to decarbonize, have really taken water management to a new level. Utilities and businesses across the region are tapping into the power of digital to deliver impactful water, energy, and cost efficiencies, and it’s those efficiencies that make water systems and the communities they support more resilient and sustainable.

Of the utilities you have seen that have implemented successful digital transformation plans, what do you think has led to their success?

Digital solutions are only as good as the problems they solve. Quite often, we see utilities diving straight into technology without really understanding what it is they are trying to achieve. Successful utilities are those that take a considered approach and align their digital investments with strategic priorities. Utilities need to think about what it is they are trying to solve for and put strategy before technology. If they don’t, they can’t unlock the full value of their digital deployments. 

Malaysia’s largest water utility, Pengurusan Air Selangor Sendirian Berhad (Air Selangor), is a great example of how this approach is paying dividends – both for the utility and the roughly nine million people it serves. The utility has used data and analytics to meet several business objectives, including reducing non-revenue water using intelligent leak detection tools. As of January 2021, the utility has deployed more than 1,600 sensors and has identified close to 295 leaks. 

They are an incredibly innovative utility and have since implemented a 360-degree digital transformation strategy, with integration across departments, systems, and datasets at its core. They are a powerful example of what can be achieved when digital investments directly support operational goals. A need-driven approach ensures that digital transformation efforts are focused, relevant and capable of delivering tangible benefits.

The global race to zero is on, with many utilities in Asia leading the charge. How big a role does decarbonization play in advancing digital transformation across the region?

Water utilities are an important part of social infrastructure, and digital transformation is an essential part of achieving carbon neutrality. Technology like the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and artificial intelligence are allowing utilities to rethink management and operational models, resulting in smarter, more efficient systems that advance the race to zero. 

Chinese utility, Beijing Drainage Group (BDG) is a fitting example of this. It focused its digital strategy around the need to meet the capital city’s dual carbon targets – reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2025 and reaching net zero by 2050. By implementing a suite of advanced control systems for aeration, chemical dosing, and drainage, BDG has achieved annual energy savings of 10 to 15 percent.

We’ve also worked with Beijing Daxing International Airport on its sponge airport initiative – an innovative project that follows an environmentally friendly ‘green city’ philosophy. To support the project, we designed an innovative ground-source heat pump system for use in the terminal building – a solution which now generates up to 10% of the renewable energy used by the entire airport. 

We’ll likely see more innovative projects like these as the race to zero gains pace and more pressure is put on utilities and businesses to advance progress. Digital solutions can help utilities embrace circular economy principles at scale and develop more sustainable water management strategies in the process.

Solving water through digital solutions requires innovation and collaboration. How is Xylem partnering with utilities in Asia to advance progress?

Over the past few years, we have transformed our presence in Asia. We are no longer a traditional equipment manufacturer, but an integrated digital technology provider specializing in the sale and supply of smart water services and solutions. In China, we recently launched a new innovation center, Xylem Water InnoSpace, located in our headquarters in Shanghai. This hub will function as a digital product laboratory, where we can help drive innovation across the water sector with a focus on digitalization and intelligent product development.  

We also have a dedicated Xylem Smart Water team that brings together water experts from across China and our global enterprise, with a focus on helping our customers tap into the power of digital solutions. This involves partnering with academic groups like the Binhai Research Institute at Zhejiang University to promote the research and development of new technologies. We firmly believe innovation holds the key to unlocking sustainable water management.  By working together, we can better protect our water resources and build a more sustainable future for all.

As digital transformation continues gaining momentum in the region, what advances will happen over the next ten years? What does a digitally enabled utility look like in 2035?

The next ten years are going to be transformative for water. Utilities globally are already digitizing water systems with advanced technology, data, and analytics – so really, we’ve already begun building the utility of the future. As technology advances, more and more capabilities will be added, with each new project building on the successes of the one that came before it.

The beauty of this evolution is that, as utilities continue to innovate, they are collecting more valuable data at every turn. By 2035, utilities will have a wealth of historical information at their fingertips – more than ever before. By continuously putting this data to work, we can shape a future where water is no longer a constraint to economic development or the environment, and build a more sustainable and equitable world. 

Put simply, the opportunities are limitless, and the outcomes for our communities are nothing short of transformative.