Water sector resilience through Adaptive Systems Planning (WASP)

Background

The regulatory process in the UK water sector operates through a 5-yearly price setting & investment planning cycle. Whilst the requirement for longer term plans exist, this 5-year cycle has led to short term, company/customer and value focussed decision making which typically ignores longer-term sustainability and environmental agenda. Further, whilst the introduction of competitive markets within the water sector has long been a regulatory goal, it remains difficult to quantify the customer or environmental benefit, or point to how this will drive significant cultural or process changes in how water companies operate. Meanwhile, the strategic risk landscape for the sector is rapidly changing: climate change and population growth are increasing pressure on available resources, and economic factors will lead to affordability and investment challenges. Long term global and sectoral goals like NetZero, Zero Pollution, and a 50% reduction in leakage will be jeopardised, and ensuring resilient services for future generations is becoming ever more challenging.

Problem

Whether you consider the environment through the eyes of a local community, a region, a nation state or in a global context, the world we live in is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). A key challenge for water utilities required to deliver essential services now and in the future, is how to plan effectively and with confidence within a VUCA world, meeting todays immediate needs whilst ensuring efficient, effective and resilient services balanced with environmental considerations in the future. This is a global challenge affecting:

  • Developed nations, who need to consider ongoing maintenance and renewal of aging water assets as well as the optimal deployment of new assets to meet future resilience requirements, regulatory obligations and population growth forecasts; and
  • Developing nations, where the regulatory framework is less rigid, financial constraints are more significant but where green field opportunities for fresh thinking and technology exist.

Hypothesis

The hypothesis we will test through this project is that, by combining the capabilities of Adaptive Planning and Systems Thinking within a rapid scenario analysis capability (hence referred to as Adaptive Systems Planning or ASP), water utilities will be better equipped to ensure service resilience, whilst balancing the needs of all stakeholders and the environment.

For more information on Adaptive Systems Planning, check out this video.

Proposal

Long-term Adaptive Planning is a relatively new approach cited by Government, Ofwat and other regulators as a means by which organisations can deliver more resilient services. Systems Thinking is recognised by academics as a valid approach to dealing with VUCA. Today, a key challenge for many organisations is the creation of new digitally enabled capabilities, integrated within core business processes and operating models, enabling more effective and confident planning and decision making within a VUCA world.

Water companies need to fully understand and embrace all relevant aspects, relationships, constraints, interdependencies and trade-offs which characterise the complex system of assets they use to deliver water and wastewater services. But, to be truly effective in the long term, they need to forecast how those characteristics are likely to change within an evolving and dynamic context. In other words, in order to reflect and cope with VUCA, the Planning capability needs to be both Systemic and Adaptive.

Our CASE partner, Business Modelling Associates (BMA), provide digital representations of complex systems known as Advanced Digital Business Twins (ADBT’s, Brochure). These ADBTs have been deployed in a variety of industrial sectors to support planners and decision makers. BMA’s clients use ADBTs to run a range of complex scenarios which inform development & delivery of their business strategy. The solve & cycle times for these cloud-based solutions are now such that rapid, multiple scenario analysis is possible enabling the prospect of a new organisational capability: Adaptive Systems Planning.

ADBTs are just one tool which can be deployed to enable an Adaptive Systems Planning. By considering two longer-term water sector challenges, this project seeks to inform how ASP could be deployed and enabled through all potential tools, and which could enable this capability, thus providing a means of establishing a best practice approach.

To enable the evolution and validation of such an approach, special focus will be applied to two water challenge cases:

  • a zero-carbon footprint source-to-tap water system, considering both operational and embedded carbon and enabling a hydrogen economy, and
  • a carbon-neutral market for bio-resources.

This will include a review of the role that technology should play in enabling an ASP capability to be developed within a water utility.

It may also be relevant to relate specific insights derived from the water sector to broader questions such as:

  • How does distributed decision making deal with uncertainty in the case of long-term planning?
  • How does technology affect organisational ability to effectively respond to uncertainty?
  • How has information technology helped and/or hindered organisational capability to build resilient long-term plans under extreme uncertainty?
  • What role does information technology play in an organisations ability to effectively adapt to extreme uncertainty?

Challenge case 1: A zero-carbon footprint source-to-tap water system

Application of ASP and exploration of how, for example, to:

  • Ensure the long-term availability of net-zero potable water, particularly for water stressed areas and whilst providing sufficient potable water to enable the development of a hydrogen economy.
  • Provide an ongoing & iterative assessment of existing & future renewable or low-energy treatment & transfer options, providing rapid business case evaluation within an existing programme.
  • Evaluate recycling opportunities, including the linkage of water & wastewater processes.
  • Balance nature-based solutions against traditional capex solutions whilst assessing the associated operational & embedded carbon implications.
  • Understand & explore the true systemic benefit of leakage & consumption reduction, including the application of new technology (leakage detection, leak repair, water saving devices & campaigns).
  • Explore, evaluate & test future water industry incentive mechanisms & frameworks.
  • Quantify the systemic risk & benefit of potential inter-company water trading opportunities.
  • Explore future network design & configuration possibilities, identifying & exploiting existing headroom, redundancy & hidden potential.
  • Promote the integrated management of all raw water abstraction (i.e. across all industrial uses) e.g. balance the timing of abstraction with the benefit of current & future storage options, across multiple sectors, to minimise environmental impact.
  • Assess the systemic impact of agricultural & upland catchment management practices on water quality & the consequential impact on the unit cost to supply potable water.

To learn more about water resource management and how ASP can help control it, check out this video.

Challenge case 2: A carbon-neutral market for bio-resources

Application of ASP and exploration of how, for example, to:

  • Ensure the long-term availability of net-zero wastewater treatment & sludge management.
  • Rapidly assess the viability of existing & future renewable/low-energy treatment & transfer options, including different options for low-carbon logistics, localised gas-to-grid, decarbonised grid etc.
  • Balance nature-based solutions against traditional capex solutions whilst assessing the associated operational & embedded carbon implications.
  • Identify & quantify the true benefit of potential inter-company sludge trading opportunities, accurately reflecting the changing impact on unit-rates & gate fees for different processing options.
  • Explore future network design & configuration possibilities, understanding & exploiting existing headroom & redundancy.
  • Promote integrated management of sludge treatment across existing & future technologies, particularly with regards to co-digestion opportunities & the impact of de-regulation.
  • Explore the systemic impact of other opportunities such as nutrient recovery, alternative disposal routes and risk factors such as seasonality and severe weather events.

To learn more about bio-resource management, see this video.

The above lists of considerations are likely to affect ‘the challenge’ now and into the future. They are not exhaustive and simply provide examples of the types of constraints and contextual changes which will affect asset systems and their financial, operational, service and environmental risk and performance. Within any ASP approach, they are the types of characteristics that would need to be taken into consideration in a holistic and integrated way.

It is expected that a Value Framework (e.g. Six-Capitals) and Environmental Social & Governance (ESG) reporting will be used to define the desired long-term outcomes of the asset systems.

Person

You should have a good (first class or upper second class) honours degree in a numerate subject such as an engineering, physical sciences, mathematics or geography discipline ideally with experience of computer modelling or systems approaches towards understanding and solving real-world problems. This experience might have been gained, for example, through a final year dissertation project or a prior industrial placement. As is normal for CASE studentships you must be prepared to travel and work at our partners’ offices for part of your research; Business Modelling Associates offices are based in Leeds, UK. CASE projects attract an enhanced research training grant, and placement costs i.e. travel and subsistence will also be covered. An enhanced stipend may be available to the successful applicant.