Digital twins and nudge theory: Water gets a shake-up

Q&A with Tamsin Lishman, Asset Management Director, Northumbrian Water Group

Tamsin Lishman’s long career in the energy industry has given her a wealth of experience in asset management and digital technologies in oil and gas. Now at Northumbrian Water Group (NWG), she is excited about digital’s potential to shake up the water industry.

Why is digitalisation going to be important to the water industry?
I’m really excited about how we embrace the use of digital techniques in our assets. We’re adopting condition-based monitoring and are already using data and digital techniques to look at when a pump is about to fail. 

For new construction projects, we make sure we have a digital model of our assets – a digital twin – which is something anyone building something in the 21st century should aim to have. With a digital twin we can understand the current state of our assets and model for the long term. We're able to move from fixing things when they fail, to fixing things proactively and using modern digital techniques such as condition-based monitoring, preventative maintenance and predictive maintenance.

This highlights the value of data. But looking after assets is about more than just data. Having a big pool of data needs to go hand in hand with engineering risk assessment and ownership. I’m a believer in engineering ownership and knowledge of our asset base, supported by data and digital. So we need our engineers to collaborate with operations, maintenance projects and IT. Technology works best when you're solving a real business problem that's got value.

What are the biggest challenges for NWG and its regions? Where do you think investments are needed the most?
Water and the water industry will be at the forefront of the impacts of changing climate. Whether that's from more extreme weather events and also from reducing our own carbon footprint.

In terms of climate change, we've got a really interesting geographical mix: from Northumbria in the north, with flooding events, to Essex and Suffolk in the south, which will be more affected by drought and high temperatures. So across our assets we’ve got the full range of climate change impacts. How do we provide clean water and manage our local and global environmental impact well?

For our strategic plan we consulted heavily with our customers, and one of the things they wanted us to do was to invest for climate resilience. However, in our final regulatory allowance some of these key projects were removed. So one of the things we're talking to the Competition and Markets Authority about is bringing back those projects that are around providing resilience – particularly in a changing climate.

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Are water companies doing enough to engage consumers and encourage them to change their behaviour? 

We're using some of the modern nudge and engagement techniques with our customers to reduce sewer flooding and wastewater flooding – and particularly floods that are caused by people putting wet wipes down the toilet.

So there's a local social media campaign, and we’ve given people bins for their bathrooms – especially in areas that have had repeat events. We’ve used that to build awareness and get people to change their habits. Another initiative I thought was brilliant was, before the pandemic broke out, our team offered house visits to fix leaking toilets for free. This reduces water use and also has a positive impact on customer bills by reducing demand. For us, less demand means there is less need to build or invest in new infrastructure. That’s a real win-win example. 

We're seeing a lot of recognition and appreciation from our customers around the service we provide.

How does the water industry compare to oil and gas? And what are the best practices that you are bringing with you from the oil and gas sector? 

Firstly, I am pleased to be joining the water sector and being a part of a very ethical business that really cares about the communities we work within and our suppliers and as well as our customers. It's very much a purpose-driven sector and that shines through in every interaction I have with my colleagues in NWG and the wider industry.

I think in the oil and gas industry, assets are at the core of the industry, and there is a fairly well-understood approach there to deciding what to invest in and how to deliver projects. Industry-standard ways of working on this were very effective because they had to be: that was how the industry drove its revenue and growth. 

Understanding our assets, looking after them, optimising decisions and really understanding risk and making risk-based judgements. Really putting asset management at the heart of how we look after our assets These are highly applicable to the water industry, with its complex assets and big footprint, and I see these as opportunities for us. I'm delighted to be joining NWG, which has an intelligent asset management programme and recognises the importance of asset management.


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