The Future of Water Utilities – An Interview with Rik Thijssen

Utilities can’t rely on business as usual if they want to succeed in the industrial landscape of tomorrow. Increasingly urgent challenges, from aging consumers to ClimateChange, will force them to adapt—and nowhere is this more true than when it comes to water, the lifeblood of every society.

In this video, Emerald’s own Helge Daebel speaks with Rik Thijssen, business development manager at Vitens, the Netherlands’ largest drinking water company. We were fascinated by his perspective on the future of water, in particular:

  • How much has changed in water management from five years ago to today
  • How the covid-19 pandemic compelled the company to automate things it had never considered before
  • How it’s using new channels to communicate with consumers




Helge Daebel (00:00):
Welcome to this conversation hosted by Emerald technology ventures. I’m Helga Daebel. And in this episode, we like to ask the question, are water utilities running out of time? And joining me for this conversation is an esteem colleague, Rik Thijssenlin manager of business for business development at Vuitton’s. One of the largest utilities in the Netherlands. And part of his role is managing the innovation processes in different domains.

Rik Thijssen (00:33):
Good Morning nice to meet you.

Helge Daebel (00:34):
Nice to have you here. We’ve been knowing each other for a long, long time. So what’s new. I mean, I can only imagine there are lots of things that are troubling utilities these days, but what’s your view?

Rik Thijssen (00:46):
Yeah. My current view has rapidly changed last couple of years. And if we compare to today and the future in front of us, if you go five years back utilities in general in Western Europe and especially in the Netherlands, there was no serious issue.

Rik Thijssen (01:01):
There was enough water. There was no climate change. At least we were not aware about that. There was no drought and we did have float operations and a very low non-revenue water. So it was easy going if we compare it to today, it’s a covert, it’s a climate change. It’s aging population within the same time period in front of us. So it’s really very challenging.

Helge Daebel (01:23):
Yeah. I mean, it’s a long list.

Rik Thijssen (01:25):
It’s a terrible list.

Helge Daebel (01:27):
I’m not sure everybody’s aware. Yeah. But we obviously considered it of all the time as well. Let’s maybe be a little bit more specific. Like when you say COVID, what does it actually mean for a water utility? What are the impacts that you guys had to face doing the peak time of the COVID?

Rik Thijssen (01:44):
Three, three main issues. One is the concern from our management board to take care of their own people in terms of safety. That’s one.

Rik Thijssen (01:52):
Two is was a huge step in working digital. So meeting at the office, it’s the old times from now, at least to we hope. That is the fact.

Rik Thijssen (02:02):
And three will have serious limitations in terms of the quality control of the water at consumers and customers. We were not allowed to visit these customers for our quality control systems. So that was a serious concern at that time.

Helge Daebel (02:18):
So any automated systems can actually like COVID could be seen as a trigger to automate further, right? In that sense, a positive impact, right.

Rik Thijssen (02:31):
Yeah for sure.

Rik Thijssen (02:31):
Virtual meetings was this solution. It can reduce a little bit, I hope, but it was a huge, huge challenge to switch within 48 hours from offices to digital.

Helge Daebel (02:46):
And did you also face these challenges that you sometimes hear about entire industrial or commercial areas were depopulated? Therefore, no water consumption, therefore water quality issues in the drinking water pipes. Was that also something?

Rik Thijssen (03:00):
Yes we have seen changes, but we had still the year before in mind that we have tremendous hot summers, so all predictions, one completely different based on different temperatures in summertime, including COVID.

Helge Daebel (03:18):
Then you mentioned on top of all this, we face climate change. I mean, this past year has shown us many floodings, but we should obviously also consider droughts. I picked something I’m from the Netherlands that you have a groundwater levels that are dropping into certain issues. I think if people, if people think of climate change, they usually think of floods or droughts and not having enough water, but I don’t think they think so much about what it also what kind of impact it also has on the actual stability of the infrastructure system as the soils start to shift and so on. Is that an issue that you face?

Rik Thijssen (04:00):
Yeah, that’s a serious issue. It’s depending if you, if your production is depending on surface water or groundwater, like is for instance is dedicated to groundwater utility, and then sometimes we’re not the only user of the groundwater it’s agriculture, it’s farming, it’s recreation. So it was really a challenge to manage the water operations during the hot summer times. And the infrastructure was really suffering from low pressure and, and strange changes in pressure during the day. So it was something we have never seen before.

Helge Daebel (04:40):
And how do you, how does the population correspond to that? Do you see a change in how the population behaves towards the utility? I mean all the challenges that you listed, the population recognizes as well. Right. So how are you responding to it as a utility? Do you need to change the way how you interact with your customers?

Rik Thijssen (05:01):
Yes, We have explore the way how we are able to interact with our customers by social media, trying to get on the eight o’clock news in the evening to bring the relationship between swimming pools, gardening and the water supply issues. And I think we were able to manage that quite well, but it’s something you need to continuously to have the result finally.

Helge Daebel (05:30):
Yeah. And well, I mean, we now touched on a couple of big topics like COVID and climate change and so on. And we asked the provocative question at the beginning, are we running out of time? Right. So I guess we both know what utilities are known for in terms of their adoption cycle or the time that they need to adopt new solutions.

Helge Daebel (05:51):
Definitely technology can help with these challenges. Right. So is there enough time, the way utilities usually act to correspond to these kinds of challenges or are we really running out of time or is there something that has to happen?

Rik Thijssen (06:08):
Yeah, I think that there are many challenges appearing in a short time period that if in the way we manage the utilities, the last five years, it’s nearly impossible to be in control if you look at the challenges in front of us to do it in the timeframes we had in mind.

Rik Thijssen (06:27):
So to push it together, not let’s say over a time span of 20 years, but what should we arrange in 5 or 10 years time? And that regulation is there. So also governmental bodies are pushing us to accomplish something within 5 years time. I think this time we are not used to that. So that’s a tremendous challenge for every watermelon.

Helge Daebel (06:48):
Yeah. And I think it’s a mix of, of culture, right? I mean, utilities by definition have to think longterm have to be a risk of worse Evers from a certain perspective, right. We’re dealing with you’re ensuring good health, clean water service and so on.

Helge Daebel (07:05):
So from that perspective, the culture is long-term also from the assets, from everything that is deployed it’s long-term right.

Rik Thijssen (07:14):
Yes. Absolutely.

Helge Daebel (07:15):
Looking at climate change, you will need to be much more adaptive with quasi very StartX static systems. Right. Very heavy systems.

Rik Thijssen (07:24):
Absolutely. So we can be concerned into the future, but we are also aware about the fact that really certain numbers of opportunities.

Rik Thijssen (07:35):
Yes. We have an issue with aging population within the utility, but it means that we are able to have new people on board with new capabilities, new ideas, they are speeding up the processes.

Rik Thijssen (07:47):
That’s one and the availability of new technologies. So artificial intelligence, robotics, for sure. They’re going to help us to, to make it happen within the 5 let’s say 10 years time.

Helge Daebel (08:00):
Yeah. And maybe that brings us to the final question also that we want to look at. I mean, in venture capital, you, you like to look into the future.

Helge Daebel (08:10):
So in 10 years from now, let’s say 2030, would these be the areas that you predicted investors should take a closer look at? Or would you add other areas that will be hot 10 years from now?

Rik Thijssen (08:25):
The main challenges is that how are we able to implement technology in a way that it makes the operations more easier, more efficient in terms of cost, but also in terms of energy and carbon dioxide, but also to have let’s say, ability to adapt the technologies. We are now a little bit anxious in terms of implementation. So it’s

Rik Thijssen (08:55):
Just pushing technology in the organization and to be prepared.

Helge Daebel (09:00):
And yeah, what I hear is everything that helps you to be adaptive, everything that helps you to connect to the customers, maybe even use them as sensors customers.

Helge Daebel (09:09):
A sensor robotic technologies that you mentioned. So these would be areas that we, the investors should watch out watch out.

Rik Thijssen (09:17):
Absolutely. Absolutely.Yes.

Helge Daebel (09:20):
Thank you, Rick.

Rik Thijssen (09:21):
Nice meeting you.

Helge Daebel (09:22):
Nice chatting with you.

Rik Thijssen (09:23):
Very nice.