One of the major focus areas for our company (Element Blue) is Intelligent Water. Actually it’s just one leg of the Smarter Cities stool, but one that we think it is extremely important today.  The idea is to help the public, commercial, agriculture, and private entities better understand and manage their resources usage, in this case water, more affordably and more sustainably through technology. In this particular case I was thinking about a set of Key Performance Indicators that would be useful to water organizations for better understanding what iswater going on within their environment.  In the case of water, hard return on investment (ROI) metrics that relate to usage and billing are pretty easy to understand, as are water quality characteristics, however the concept of “sustainability” unfortunately is not one that is easily understood. This is true for most any domain. Understanding, defining, and explaining sustainability in a clear manner can be a major challenge.

The EPA ( defines sustainability as the following; “Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” Probably because I am a technologist, I find this a bit vague and unfulfilling. I need something a little more concrete, perhaps in terms of a direct measurement that I can take around actions and activities that define or promote sustainability. How can I measure and manage it within my domain?  And if I can’t measure sustainability directly how do I know if I am on the right track to achieving it?

As I mentioned, my goal was to define a set of KPI’s that could identify or alert an organization on their progress toward sustainability.  In terms of water, specifically fresh water, but also useful in other types of water management, sustainability can be generally thought of in terms of usage and availability.  How much do I have, and how much do I need? However that is only part of the picture, measuring need can be a combination of factors including consumption and waste, which are much harder components to measure. In most cases consumption grows at some steady but measureable rate.  So a gross measurement can be calculated to give some idea of where things are headed.

The other side of the equation is waste, and how to measure and attempt to affect it appropriately. This can be everything from leak detection in aging public infrastructure, to alerting customers that a usage anomaly is occurring in real time. David Suzuki explores how consumption and waste is rapidly becoming a problem with our way of life as the world’s population grows exponentially. You can read about it in his new book “The Legacy” however equally interesting is this short interview by Living on Earth. In this interview Suzuki explores an analogy about the growth of bacteria in test tubes to explain in simple terms how humans might someday run out of resources on this planet. One of the biggest takeaways for me from this very interesting exchange was recognizing the need for change.  Reducing waste and conservation is key to achieving sustainability, and advanced invention with more investment are steps along the way to helping us be successful.

In future posts I will start to explore at a more technical level how we can measure systems and understand how they affect sustainability of those systems.  Energy usage and how it plays in water management is another area we have to explore. It takes energy to manage water, and in many cases it takes water to create energy. Regardless of your industry or domain understanding your usage of water and energy can help save both. Using technology to combine this information and make intelligent decisions can help drive smarter cities.

Smarter Planet Blog