Not long after the bang came the pepper pot. Then napkins and menus, closely followed by chairs and tables, carried from the café up the road on a torrent of water that threatened to rout parked cars.
On a sunny day in a Sydney suburb, cold temperatures underground had caused a decades old pipe to burst, sending rock and rubble and gallons of water spewing to the surface. The shocked and soggy-shoed community jokingly dubbed it - The Great Flood of Petersham.
Such surprises won't happen in the future. The chaos caused by the ruptured main will be a thing of the past.
Soon, Sydney Water will be using artificial intelligence to mine years of data – asset maintenance histories, live climate data, finance records – to predict when a particular pipe is likely to crack, and before it does, commission maintenance teams to fix the potential problem. Customers won't even notice, and if that's unavoidable, those affected will be instantly warned and assisted.
But getting there requires the utility to undergo a major digital and cultural transformation. Leading the charge is George Hunt, Sydney Water's new CIO.
"The significant opportunity that we've got here," says Hunt, "is that we can reset the operating model in a way that we become a digital business rather than an analogue business with a digital veneer. That’s the vision."
Such roles are the Brit's speciality. He joins Australia’s largest water and wastewater service provider from Wipro where he was global consulting lead for energy and utilities.
He has led similar transformations at three of the UK's biggest water companies; Thames Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities; as well as at American Water, Washington Water, Greater Cincinnati Water Works, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the US.
As his predecessor Stephen Wilson, who retired this year, put it: "He’s done these sorts of things before".
"The weather is good, the lifestyle's really good but the real draw, without any question," says Hunt, "is that Sydney Water is on the cusp of a major, a very amazing, transformation journey."
Sydney Water runs on an ageing infrastructure - one of the pipes that burst in Petersham was installed in 1901. It's built to last, but it does have its limitations. Take the company's billing system: created on an IBM mainframe using PL/I programming language some 30 years ago.
“I'm an engineer at heart and it’s a beautifully engineered piece of equipment," says Hunt. "It’s a workhorse. And it is the most reliable, robust system you could imagine."
"However, we've hit a ceiling of what we can do with it. We want to bring our customer experience up to the same level that we expect from our banks and our retailers and the other online experiences that we have. And we've got a slightly more fundamental issue which is - the kind of skills that you need to keep that amazing piece of equipment alive are getting harder to find.
"We know that it's got life left in it. But the time is right now to make that step change that will allow us to go forward."
Along with billing, Sydney Water's front office and back office systems are also in line for an overhaul. A new ERP system is soon to be commissioned, as well as a CRM solution.
"It's not a case of creating 'as is plus'," says Hunt. "We've got extraordinarily good value out of the systems that we've had for many years. I think as a utility we're quite good at sweating our assets, making them last a long time.
"And I would say that’s what we've done with the technology assets as well, which is a great thing, but when you look at the transformation and the operational model that we want to develop, with the customers at the heart going forward, the timing is just right – let's create that digital front face of the organisation through an effective CRM, and supported by an effective billing engine. But also let's refine the processes that support those activities through the back office."
Completion will take years. It's the next step that most excites Hunt, when everything comes together in what he calls the 'hyper-connected utility'. "We're not going to wait", he adds.
Three speed philosophy
Within days of starting at Sydney Water's Parramatta HQ Hunt laid down his vision to the team. "My simple philosophy when I got here," he explains, "was to work out whether they wanted to be part of my journey going ahead. I'm very happy to report that the vast majority do. I'm really pleased how they've embraced what I'm trying to do."
Although the utility recently launched the likes of Sirius, a mobility platform for field workers, and Water Services Radar, a Google Maps overlay that shows live repairs and leaks on a map. These were delivered through what Hunt calls a "relatively traditional IT structure".
"We're changing that," he says. "I'm structuring the technology department in a way that we can deliver a lot more innovation a lot more quickly. We're moving from developing solutions to developing products and services."
The team will run at three speeds. The enterprise group will deliver those major ERP and CRM projects and they won’t be going it alone. Hunt brings a cultural shift to Sydney Water - it's now "open for business".
The ERP, billing and CRM system overhaul is being put out to tender in what Hunt says will be a "once in a generation investment in technology". Already approved by the NSW Government (Sydney Water is a government-owned statutory corporation), the company is calling for expressions of interest from potential partners.
"Historically we've been quite closed to working in a collaborative fashion with vendors and suppliers and other companies," he says. "We're not going to do that any more."
Meanwhile, an Agile group will develop and release apps and innovative products to a high frequency release schedule. Apps like 'Tap in' - an online portal to access connection and building plan approvals.
“It’s one of the first where we've put a really significant business process into an online service,” says Hunt. “There’s a range on the horizon.”
Then there's the middle speed, which Hunt calls the corporate services group.
"Their primary goal," explains Hunt, "is to get more value out of the information that we have. So there's a lot of activity there around business analytics, business discovery, artificial intelligence, so that we can start to gain insights that we've never had before.
"The fact is we've got years and years of data. You can only get a certain layer of value out of that data out of traditional reporting or business intelligence tools. When you start mining the data and looking for data patterns, and you start employing data scientists rather than data analysts, you get a whole new layer of value unlocked."
The ultimate smart asset
It’s in those reservoirs of data that Sydney Water secures its future and avoids another Great Flood of Petersham. It is already leading an international team of researchers to find of way to predict pipe failures using modelling and machine learning algorithms.
“The precedent for how we need to operate in the future comes from something like a Formula One team. An F1 car is the ultimate smart asset, it is loaded with telemetry and sensors that are telling you how the asset is performing. Is it running hot? Is it running cold? Should it go faster? Slower? Should you change the way you’re operating or driving it? That info is being fed in real time back to a hub that is informing how you should operate and maintain the asset," says Hunt.
“Even though we couldn't be further away from an F1 team as a business, when you break down all of those capabilities what you realise very quickly is actually they’re very relevant to take that step towards predictive maintenance. To the point where we can predict an asset failure before the customers feel the impact of an asset failure. And that’s an amazing step for us to take.”
That’s assuming Sydney Water will still be a water utility in the future. Last month it trialled the use of liquefied food waste from local businesses as a fuel for generating electricity. Some 600 wheelie bins a day of rotten fruit and vegetable peel now partly power a wastewater treatment plant in Cronulla.
Innovative technology will power the company’s future.
“Will [Sydney Water] be a utility? Or will it be a water services business? Or a recycling business?” asks Hunt. “We’re in the business of recycling raw water into drinking water. Maybe we’ll recycle waste water or waste products into energy. Or be recycling the way that we use our land into energy by partnerships with energy companies around solar power.
“Fundamentally the nature of the company is going to change. Which means we've got to be a lot more innovative about the way in which we use tech.”
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