Melbourne Water flows to the future, carrying innovation across the nation and the industry

Melbourne Water is committed to enhancing the health of the community and environment of Greater Melbourne. They manage and protect the city’s water supply—ensuring its world class drinking water is secure both now and into the future. Caring for the environment and creating outstanding natural spaces and places for the community’s well-being and enjoyment is also at the heart of what Melbourne Water do. The focus is not only to deliver exceptional essential services to the people of Greater Melbourne today but to help secure a sustainable and healthy community for generations to come.

With the ever-present challenges of population growth, urbanisation, and an increasingly changing and variable climate, the company is working hard to build a more resilient and water-sensitive city, one with a smart and sustainable water supply.

Melbourne Water is a future-forward business, navigating these currents of change to ensure this and that the city’s wastewater is treated efficiently and innovatively.

The utility’s leadership in digitisation is central to all of this and poised to raise the standards for utilities nationwide—and for the industry as a whole.

As the organisation’s chief technology officer, Geoff Purcell has been accountable for the implementation of its Digital Strategy since 2015, though responsibility for digital initiatives spans the organisation: in water supply, waterways and catchments asset management, safety, HR, procurement, and many other teams.

Purcell said Melbourne Water’s initial five-year digital strategy has been recently refreshed with a further five- to eight-year outlook.

“In that time, the scope of digitisation has expanded. In 2015, a lot of the focus of digitisation was the SMAC analogy: social, mobile, analytics, and cloud. When we refreshed the digital strategy (in 2019), digital had become pervasive. It touches everything in the water industry ecosystem and means different things for different parts of our organisation.”

Purcell explained that while IT is about systems, digital is about people, processes, and technology. ”It’s about the impacts of our people and processes, and what we must optimise before we even look at technology. Only then can we look at technology and use it to support what our people do and identify how we can improve the services we deliver to our customers.”

For customers, digital provides the ability to share information in a two-way process through a website designed for the general public, and through a portal for local stakeholders such as governments and other water authorities. Water operations, including the drainage network and wastewater businesses are heavily focused around automation and IoT. On the corporate side, the focus is on information management.

“We are on a multi-year cloud journey and we have been so since 2015. The major objective behind all of what we're doing is to improve the services we deliver to our customers and to our employees,” Purcell said.

Steering the currents of innovation

The organisation is undertaking an innovative push to automate the city’s water supply network.

“We have implemented one part of that, which is how we move water out of our reservoir in the northern suburbs of Melbourne through our treatment plant, and then for distribution to our northern and western suburbs,” Purcell said. “ This is proving a more cost and energy efficient way of operating.”

“We’ve done a lot of work in other areas across Melbourne Water, with third-party partners to showcase and innovate. For example, we use virtual and augmented reality to allow operators to walk through a digitised image of a treatment plant so they can spot flaws in the design before we build it.” Using a 3D image developed from engineering documents, a VR/AR experience enables plant operators to “experience firsthand the environment and make meaningful design changes that stamp out defects.”

Melbourne Water has used IBM’s Watson cognitive learning system, implementing the technology to shift the city’s drainage network away from the typical scheduled maintenance routine to a predictive maintenance model. This monitors the system’s condition and automatically alerts teams when drains or grates are blocked. “From an innovation perspective we’ve proven that the technology works and that cognitive learning and predictive analysis are mature enough technologies to justify investing in as we go forward. Now we can positively change the way our drainage network operates to a more efficient and resilient system over the coming years.”

The utility has developed a strategic partnership with Tata Consultancy Services for managed services, including IT operations and application support. Together, Melbourne Water and TCS have launched a soft rollout of Water Cloud, which essentially offers ITaaS to other water facilities in Australia. “One water authority is using our facilities as a disaster recovery site, and others are looking at different services that we offer,” Purcell said. “Water Cloud is really about how we can take a leadership position in the industry, and how can we deliver efficiency right across the sector.

Melbourne Water wants agencies across Australia to benefit from its commitment to invest in innovative and efficient technologies. “Many water authorities may not have the resources they need to invest in some of the technologies we've been able to invest in, so we're going to package up the services where there is demand and offer them to the rest of the industry,” he revealed.

“Using technology creates value for the organisation and for our customer base. I’m really excited about these types of initiatives. I’m also responsible for uplifting our digital capabilities in the workforce. How can we do that? We aim to reach everyone in the business—and develop mastery across a whole range of different digital capabilities such as service design thinking or digital literacy.

"The tagline of our digital workplace strategy is, ‘I can do my job from anywhere,’ so we're really using digital to deliver a better customer experience and a better employee experience.” We’ll drink to that.