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Water in 2019: Resilience, AI and investment

Matt Cannon

This year has been a turbulent year for the water sector, with challenges around the state of the network, leakage and affordability set against a political debate over who is best placed to deliver such an essential service.

Less publicised are the moves from the sector – driven by regulator Ofwat – to address these challenges.

The regulator’s price review, PR19, provides a clear route to tackle four core themes: customer service, network resilience, affordability and innovation.

Business plans from water companies setting out how these will be met will be finalised in the next 12 months.

The coming years needs to see the industry step up to tell this story, reassuring customers that their supply is in safe hands going into the next AMP period from 2020.

Our role in construction is to prove that we can work collaboratively with the water companies, existing and new partners to support and deliver these objectives on the front line.

Driving innovation

For construction, innovation is the critical theme.

New tools and methods will unlock a more resilient network that brings value for money and better customer experience. Working with operators, we need to demonstrate that we are investing in technology and processes to serve their customers.

Tackling the 3.1bn litres of water lost every day in England and Wales through leakage is top of the agenda – and work is already under way to harness the power of data and machine-learning to do so.

“We need to focus on how we have the labour and expertise in place to deliver jobs efficiently to a high standard of customer satisfaction”

By combining historic data on leakage with the age, location, material and geography of an asset we can use artificial intelligence platforms to draw up an increasingly accurate picture of our infrastructure, showing where weaknesses lie and allowing us to not only respond to leaks, but to pre-empt them.

These tools are well advanced in the manufacturing sector, but not in construction.

As contractors, we are at the coal face of the problem and have a fundamental role to act as a conduit and partner for tech providers – in our case it’s Microsoft, through its Azure machine-learning platform – to bring these tools into the industry.

A better customer experience

These big-ticket investments need to be supported by reinvigorated processes to improve the customer experience – and ultimately secure better satisfaction ratings across the industry.

Whether working through our alliance contracts with the likes of Anglian and Thames Water, or on frameworks for Southern and South East Water, we recognise that our teams are the public face of the water sector and critical to meeting Ofwat’s objectives.

In the context of a growing skills crisis, we need to focus on how we have the labour and expertise in place to deliver jobs efficiently to a high standard of customer satisfaction.

That means spending time on training in customer service, as well as investing in tools that bring productivity gains and reduce disruption, such as our e-viid mobile platform which allows our office and field-based teams to instantly share updates, progress jobs and capture data on the network.

Playing back results

Ofwat’s final challenge – affordability – will only be met through time and financial investment in these construction tools and methods, helping us work more collaboratively to enhance efficiency.

In 2019 we need to justify that investment by demonstrating the essential role we play in shaping a more resilient, innovative, customer-focused and affordable water sector.

Matt Cannon is chief operating officer and incoming CEO at the Clancy Group

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