The rising digital tide

The challenge

Digital technology has transformed many of our industries, from banking to power. Why hasn't the Australian water sector kept up? How can we help these water utilities migrate over to digital to build a better sector by 2050?

In this article

  • The extent to which different water utilities around Australia have embraced digital.
  • Which digital technologies offer the most immediate and longterm benefits for urban and rural utilities.
  • What a digitally mature water sector might look like, and what we can expect from our water utilities in 2050.

For a water utility in a drought prone country efficiency is everything. Especially in Australia, where a relatively low density of people is spread out over such a massive body of land. How do utilities continue to deliver a positive customer experience without dramatically increasing prices to cover the swelling operating costs? Is digital transformation an answer?

This research project was inspired by that question. Over the past few years banks, energy companies — pretty much every sector, really — has turned to digital technologies in order to better focus their resources. We can now order a financial service, pay for our power,  or even order our dinner using an app. Why are water utilities lagging behind?

Thinking through drivers of change as part of our Digital Tide stakeholder workshop. Photo Arup

Translating Technology

But what does digital transformation actually mean? 

Let’s start with the basics: data. Data presents the most obvious tool for ramping up efficiency. Sensors collecting data for analysis can help to better predict demand and deliver bespoke products to customers. Drones and monitoring technologies are also becoming popular as they provide image data we can process using machine learning algorithms to catch flaws in operation.  Drones can also help mitigate the work health and safety risks associated with working on site. 

This is particularly valuable when it comes to remote and isolated working. In order to further explore these many possibilities we created a deck of Digital Tide cards. These were designed to provoke discussion around how these emerging technologies might disrupt the water industry - read more about the top 10 card here.

Beyond data and monitoring, digital also opens the opportunity for utilities to get closer to their customers. This means that by 2050 customers will be much more educated about their water use.

“You might receive a direct notifications from your utility saying: hey did you know you’re using 50% more water than is usual for your neighbourhood.” says Therese.

You’ll also be able to messages the utility back, to report a problem or to have a bill explained in greater depth. It’s by enabling conversations that ideas are born, after all. By bringing different stakeholders together we can not only build a more efficient water sector but a healthier water community for us all.

Here's an example of Arup's Martin Shouler using our Digital Tide cards to guide a conversation on water sector wholesale and retail separation at an event in London, UK.

Martin Shouler guides a conversation on the digital future of water on London. Image Arup.

Resilient Resources

“We set out to map how mature different water utilities were in terms of becoming digitally enabled,” says Dr Therese Flapper, a water leader who has a background  in delivering water infrastructure projects. “We then developed an ingredients list in terms of how to move from one stage to another—and what those ingredients meant.”

This work was done in collaboration with the Water Services Association of Australia. It involved interviewing 20 different utilities across Australasia in urban and regional areas. We found a wide range of digital adoption. Some utilities were just starting their digital journeys while others had strategies to take them from now to 2022.

This disparity was particularly pronounced between the major utilities, such as Sydney Water, who were relatively mature, and smaller regional providers. However, it's small regional utilities that stand to gain the most through digital transformation, given that they have less resources with which to deliver services across much larger geographies.


  • Australian water utilities vary in their digital maturity. Some are only beginning to consider the opportunities presented by digital. Others have full digital transformation strategies, to be realised over the next three years.
  • While there are a number of exciting opportunities for water utilities to embrace digital, automation and remote sensing technologies offer the most immediate benefits as they mitigate risk and safety concerns.
  • Harnessing the power of data and analytics will allow water utilities to maximise their efficiency and deliver more tailored products. This can be particularly valuable for rural and regional utilities, who often have less resources to spread over large geographies.

This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Dr Therese Flapper
Therese is a water engineer based in our Canberra office, and leads our research efforts across the region.

Ask Therese about

  1. Why some utilities are more digitally mature than others and what the path toward full digitisation looks like
  2. How different utilities stand to gain by embracing digital technologies and why the global smart water market has been valued at $14 bn by 2024
  3. The 40 digital disruptors we identified as part of this research, and how each can add value in one of five key areas: sensing, connectivity, data, automation, and networks


Research TEAM

Digital, GIS and Planning, New York office
Elise is a graduate engineer working across transport and resources

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