Every Drop Counts: Talking Smart Water with Cisco’s Sielen Namdar

When Sielen Namdar co-founded the smart cities initiative at CH2M Hill, now Jacobs Engineering, it was the first time an engineering procurement and construction firm had created such an initiative. The move also set Namdar on her current career path as a smart water leader.


“I felt like that was the space where I could really make a meaningful impact,” Namdar said of her time with the group. Her work with technology companies led her to her current position with Cisco, where she’s an Industry Solutions Executive and leader of the company’s Global Smart Water, Ports, Rail and Airports Businesses.


Namdar is also chair of the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN), a global non-profit promoting the use of data-driven technologies in water and wastewater networks. Through her work in both roles, she’s seen an exciting evolution of smart water adoption and innovation.


“In 2015, smart water was a novelty, with a handful of utilities leading the charge but not many people were aware of it or engaged or deploying it,” Namdar said. “Since then, because of so many challenges in the water realm and improvements in technology, we’ve seen a lot more traction.”


OT/ IT, cybersecurity and making every drop count


In her role working with smart water solutions worldwide, where does Namdar see communities focusing their efforts today?


Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) modernization is one key area. “Information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) are converging, and a lot of SCADA systems that are decades old might not have the right back-end ability to connect—to secondary networks such as IoT systems, to other assets and facilities and to new technologies,” said Namdar.


Such connections require both the right networking—like wireless connectivity—and strong cybersecurity protocols.

The recent hacking of a water treatment plant in Florida was “just one example we heard of. Many others do happen that we don’t know about,” Namdar said.


In response to a heightening risk environment, US federal law now requires water systems serving more than 3,300 people to undergo risk, cybersecurity and resilience assessments. According to Namdar, “the first steps are to figure out what your current systems look like, evaluate IT and OT across the enterprise, and make all of this visible across assets, plants and distributed facilities through tools such as Cisco Cyber Vision. At the same time, network segmentation is important so one act doesn’t compromise an entire system.”


Another smart water priority is monitoring—of drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, water in wetland areas, and beyond. “Right now, we lose a tremendous amount of drinking water to leaks – on average 30%, and in some communities as high as 50%. We do have the capability to detect and repair these leaks in a timely manner,” Namdar said.


Tips for smart water success


Amid challenges such as growing populations, aging infrastructure, constrained budgets and a workforce that’s nearing retirement and still working remotely due to COVID-19, the prospect of a smart water project can be daunting.


Namdar’s advice to those new to the field: “Start small. Review results, build on that, and then scale up.”


For communities more advanced in their digital journey, she recommended looking at ways to improve efficiency, increase visibility, safeguard assets, and provide excellent customer service. “What’s the next thing? How can you integrate all your solutions?”


Advanced metering infrastructure is becoming a given in many water systems thanks to the ubiquity of wireless connectivity, and exciting innovations that are on the horizon. Digital twins—an advanced modeling tool that gives utilities a live representation of their entire system—and edge intelligence, which takes all the data utilities collect from various vendors, software systems, and platforms and, through advanced networking, allows it to be processed and analyzed closer to the source, are a big plus for more timely infrastructure monitoring.


Bringing it all together


Namdar sees a future of “self-diagnosing and healing water systems, a next generation of automation that leverages digital networks to combine artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics and more to be able to pinpoint anomalies, bring down energy usage, increase efficiency and improve customer service, really making every water drop count.”


Getting there requires teamwork, starting with municipalities and utilities. “We have to build a roadmap together and work with solution integrations and consultants who have subject matter expertise,” Namdar said.


“I’m a big believer in partnerships,” Namdar said. “We cannot do this alone. We must always think what is our joint value proposition? How are we better together?”

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