In a reboot of the SWAN interview series, we spoke with Mike Lunn, Utilities Director at the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was one of the first US utilities to join SWAN. Mike remarked, "Joining SWAN is an opportunity to expand our reach, share our knowledge, and stay on the forefront of the future of the water industry." See the full interview below.
Q: How did you learn about SWAN and why did you decide to join?
We learned about SWAN from our partnership with South Bend, Indiana based company EmNet. We’re working with EmNet to create a smart watershed platform as part of our effort to improve the quality of life in Grand Rapids. Traditionally, our work culture drives us towards emerging technologies but we haven’t always been great at telling our story. As we challenge ourselves to be better at that, we’ve increased our visibility by meeting leading utility innovators, developing new relationships, networking with our peers, and being involved with leaders in the smart water sector, like the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and the Water Research Foundation. Joining SWAN is an opportunity to expand our reach, share our knowledge, and stay on the forefront of the future of the water industry.
Q: How do you see the state of new data technologies in the NA water industry?
Just as with the growth of technology across all sectors, the water industry is seeing the use of technology move our work forward in new and exciting ways. New technologies such as IoT (Internet of Things) allow us to manage water systems more efficiently, something that is very important as a municipal utility, in a city determined to give our residents not only the best quality of life, but also balance our investments with affordability and return on that investment. Integrating data from multiple platforms and sharing information openly is expected from our community. Just as with other government development, keeping regulations moving along with the growth of technology can be a challenge and will need focus going forward.
Q: Are there specific local challenges that data solutions are helping you address more effectively today?
The City of Grand Rapids considers itself “right-size,” meaning we are nimble in our launch of new technology or advancing ideas. An example of a public-private partnership in new technology we are currently working on is a low-cost air quality sensors currently being deployed across the city. The sensors will monitor things like PM2.5 and ozone at a granular level across neighborhoods. The air quality sensors relay the data over a new LoRaWAN network and communicate with other air quality sensors to an online platform in an open-source format. These kinds of collaborations are what we feel sets Grand Rapids apart. There is always interest in our community to improve quality of life and we can bring everyone together to participate in these conversations - representatives from the City, major corporations, local minority interest groups, NGOs, economic development, and others all at the same table working together on improving our Grand Rapids.
Q: What are your expectations from an organisation like SWAN?
We’re excited to be part of the conversation that drives utilities forward! We pride ourselves on being innovative and challenging how things have been done historically. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the resources to pilot every idea we have. SWAN allows us to collaborate with other innovators and see case studies that can help us inform our decisions and allocate our resources to the best ideas. We are also excited to develop more partnerships and collaborations to advancing water quality.
Q: Tell us something that our members should know about your city.
Grand Rapids has become known for its beer industry, with more than 30 breweries within the city limits. In fact, we’ve held the title of “Beer City USA” for many years! This has meant a great deal to us as we help grow the city as a tourist destination. Great beer starts with great water but breweries can create large amounts of wastewater that must be treated. The large number of breweries in our city has forced us to increase our capacity and look for special opportunities. We formed a collaborative partnership with Grand Rapids based Founders Brewing, the 15th largest brewery in the country, to handle their aggressive growth and support their economic prosperity. Supporting their growing success, while maintaining water quality was an important goal. We needed to find solutions to handle capacity for their growing concentrated waste. Of course, doing so means more beer for everyone, and we have coined the term “Save the Ales!” as part of that effort. Being involved with the initiative from the American Water Works Association called “No Water, No Beer” has helped to bring awareness to how we can work collaboratively to handle this growing industry state and nationwide.
Q: What keeps you excited about working in water?
Every day we do something important for others. We take pride in our work because our work matters to everyone in the community. We are providing a quality of life improvement to all. How many people can say that?! Achieving this impact, surrounded by others with the same passion for their work, is a privilege. And being in Michigan, a state surrounded by lakes, we are all water people who love clean water. Our efforts mean that we, along with others, can enjoy the water for boating, swimming, fishing and more. Water matters, and our work matters.
Q: What recommendation do you have for rising professionals entering the industry?
As someone who has worked in the water industry for over 40 years, I can say that it’s easy to stay focused on meeting regulations and seeing things in terms of black or white. As my career progressed, my viewpoint shifted to be more forward-thinking and I try to see challenges in a broader way now, and from different viewpoints. In Grand Rapids, we look at decisions through the four pillars of sustainability and impact; governance, economic, environmental, and social.
My best advice to rising professionals: Boldly go where you need to in order to achieve what wish to accomplish. Immerse yourself in what we do, it’s a career, life’s calling, not a job. Read, do your homework, keep up with the latest trends in the industry, and never be afraid to ask people why something is done a certain way. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo and speak up! The wisdom from those who have been doing the work for decades, along with the new voices from this new generation, will help lead us into the future! We must change as an industry.
We recently met Save Water Save Money (SWSM) at the SWAN 2018 Conference in Barcelona and enjoyed discussing their innovations within the realm of water efficiency. This month, we are pleased to officially welcome them as one of SWAN’s newest members. With years of experience in the water industry and a holistic approach to encouraging water savings across water companies, businesses and consumers, SWSM is playing an instrumental role in realising a sustainable water future.
Q. What motivated you to work in the water sector?
Back in 2004, I decided to quit my marketing agency job to become a volunteer Backcountry Ranger in Olympic National Park, Washington State. My role required me to patrol a 17-mile coastal strip bordered by pristine rainforest, cutting trails, checking visitor passes and from time to time, conducting Search and Rescues for missing persons. I had to source my water for drinking, cooking and bathing from a river half-a-kilometre away from my tent. You really get to value water when you have to carry it across soft sand every day.
On my return to the UK, I saw there was a disconnect between Water Companies telling people to cut down on watering their gardens and leaving people to spend as long as they liked in the shower.
That’s what got me into water – along with a very understanding wife.
Q. One of the central themes of the recent SWAN 2018 Conference was the need for improved customer engagement. How does SWSM help water utilities better interact with their customers?
My conversations with Water Companies around the world tell me they’ve limited opportunities to actively engage customers – in a non-competitive industry, most customer engagement tends to be reactive and negative i.e. my bill is too high; there’s a leak outside my home, etc.
SWSM recognises that engagement isn’t about telling customers what to do; rather, it’s providing the tools to allow customers to find out for themselves – which leads to them placing greater value on what they discover.
Our aqKWa Savings Engine™ is a uniquely interactive, personalised online tool designed to help customers save water, energy and money. It takes no more than 5 minutes to complete a series of questions which customers tailor to their particular home. Then, through a single personalised portal, customers get to understand the value of water, which includes a series of simple, relevant actions to help them reduce their water consumption.
The real value of the aqKWa Savings Engine™ is in the data it provides on customer usage at a granular level. Conservation starts conversations that yield far richer information – on potential leaks, on energy savings and on opportunities to migrate customers to online bill payment. By digitally engaging utility customers with offers that help them see how to save water, energy and money, aqKWa closes the loop, making it easy for customers to access answers and solutions all in one single place. For example, we provide links from each personalised savings tip to relevant Water Company pages, service providers or even product pages, if desired.
Q. From your experience, are there any specific lessons you think can apply from the UK water market to the rest of the world?
Without giving away our trade secrets (!), there’s several lessons that spring to mind.
Our 11 years in the industry working with 90% of the UK’s Water Companies provides SWSM with a strong track record in water efficiency – and arguably the UK is one of the world leaders in this field, providing us with unrivalled expertise. It helps open doors.
However, we still require patience. Water Companies take time to consider adopting new, innovative approaches to customer engagement. What’s important is to listen to specific requirements, and to offer a sufficiently agile solution to enable Water Companies to receive a bespoke software product that meets their ambitions, delivers their values and looks the part for their customers.
Delivery is also key: it ensures we maintain solid long-term relations with all our Water Company partners. I’m proud of my dedicated team who continuously apply the very highest standards of project management to everything we do. In addition, software development is an extremely costly and complex field to be in, which is why we decided a couple of years ago to make a commitment to digitalising water efficiency by investing heavily in growing our own internal team of software developers. This provides us with the control to ensure we can deliver a flexible product when we say we will at the low cost that makes it universally acceptable. And importantly, that we believe whole-heartedly in the software product – as a company – to ensure every one of our staff buys into the focus, energy and individual commitment required to deliver a world-class product.
To summarise then, I’d say Patience, Legacy, Agility, Delivery and Belief are the most important lessons we are exporting from our experience in the UK.
Q. We all read about Cape Town this year and Los Angeles the year before - what do you see as the greatest need to invest in water efficiency?
Cape Town did a brilliant job to drastically reduce per capita consumption – I think the challenge will be in encouraging people to maintain this level of use over time.
For me the greatest opportunity to further water efficiency is for Water Companies to invest in providing customers with personalised water use targets, reinforced through direct online (and low cost) communication. This will enable water efficiency to be addressed on a relevant one-to-one basis, avoiding the need to publish broad-based heard-it-all-before messaging such as: ‘Take a shorter shower’ which I don’t believe resonates with many people.
Q: Why did SWSM join SWAN and what do you hope to achieve through the global network?
That’s simple: SWAN is about data-driven water management and SWSM provides additional data to support visibility and drive operational efficiencies. By providing this data to SWAN’s utility members and technology solution developers, we bring additional insights on the customer that can also help to automate processes. And where the regulatory framework permits, provide opportunities to grow ancillary revenue and services by better serving this customer.