On 15 July with WSAA we held a director and executive event considering the macro trends affecting our sector. These trends were viewed with the circumstances of COVID-19 and identified using an analysis of the social, technological, environmental, economic and political (STEEP) factors. The environmental scan reports of water corporations across Australia, global trends studies and research articles were used to support the work. We also interviewed a number of industry leaders to glean further insights in our analysis.
Here are some of the insights we found:
Collaboration and Trust
Recent events have prompted greater collaboration and deepened trust across the sector. However, the pandemic has increased controls on communications and increased micro-reporting distracting community engagement and planning for important matters such as long-term supply security.
Market impacts arising from COVID-19 have heightened community interest in the affordability of services and the Victorian water industry has quickly responded with blanket and tailored support for customers. However, we have not defined affordability. And its connotations vary considerably across society, leaving our industry grappling with its ability to fulfil the increasing costs of services now and in the future along an implicitly stable price path.
As we see previous population projections weaken under the weight of domestic and international restrictions caused by the pandemic, there is a call for more adaptive infrastructure that can meet the regional population fluxes recently signalled but not yet determined across the state. However, current planning tools are not well calibrated to support flexible infrastructure systems with uncertain rates of return. In addition, there is a disconnection between the foci for agricultural and urban water supplies. It has been suggested that this artificial divide needs to be bridged for greater state and national benefit to be realised.
The rapid growth of neighbourhood activity and domestic industries has triggered the perception that the water industry can provide a broader role in enhancing the social cohesion and resilience of communities. This provides an opportunity for extending water services for landscapes, front and behind the meter services, and neighbourhood-scale alternative water schemes. However, these solutions need to fit a regulatory model largely designed to support regional economies of scale.
The growth of so-called “presence-free living” stimulated by COVID-19 paves the way to increase data and analytics, harnessing greater customer control and self-services via a “digital relationship” with water corporations. However, the digital relationship will need to be protected from breaches of customer privacy and cyberattack, which have manifest in new forms since the onset of the pandemic.
According to surveys of staff across Victorian water corporations, the majority of employees are seeking to maintain or enhance their “new ways of working” caused by COVID-19. However, the challenge with flexible and dispersed workforces will be in the maintenance of organisational culture. A new suite of approaches that support productivity, health and safety and the building of resilient leadership capabilities are anticipated.
Within the event, we workshopped the trends identifying areas for our industry to focus. VicWater and WSAA are currently considering the recommendations in their programs. An industry macro trends publication will shortly follow.
These events highlight the extent and depth of our industry’s capability to work through the big issues and find ways to address them for the benefit of our communities.
September is the time for VicWater’s annual conference. We have keynote speakers Ross Garnaut discussing the carbon economy and Danielle Wood of the Grattan Institute talking about the resilience of our state under current trends. These critical presentations will be complemented with a host of thought leaders bringing attention to flexible infrastructure, resilient leadership, technological innovation, progressive governance, diversity and inclusion, and the circular economy. For this virtual event, please keep 10 and 11 September locked away in your diaries and check our website and socials for further updates.
Chief Executive Officer