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Moving water into an artificial intelligence (AI) and data-powered future was the theme of a keynote speech from Lewis Richards, Microsoft’s chief sustainability officer for the UK, at British Water’s 2024 Spring Reception. 

Speaking at the event hosted at the House of Lords on 27 April, he said: “Why does Microsoft care about water? We are intrinsically linked to water, there is no cloud computing without water, no datacentre without water, no PCs without water.  

“The entire world works on the fact we have a very finite resource, so it’s in our collective interest to work as closely together with the industry to make sure we do the right thing.” 

As well as speaking about AI trends that will impact the water sector, Richards also talked of the importance of upskilling and digitisation and the need for both sectors to work together to protect resources. 

“Our global mission to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more is predicated on us protecting the resources we need to help power the cloud. As we move into an AI-powered future, it is even more important that we work together to protect people and the planet by conserving resources.” 

Richards highlighted the importance of skills as technology develops, saying, “We’re in a time of unprecedented change in technology. It is rapidly expanding all around us and we have to be really careful we don’t leave people behind.  

“The skills investment is massive in bringing people along. We have to make sure that as the technology that helps us and guide us evolves, we teach people critical thinking, especially in the world of AI. It is really important that humans keep that critical thinking capacity.” 

He went on to talk about digitisation of the water sector ahead of the 2025-2030 asset management plan period (AMP8). 

“As we go into AMP8, we cannot behave the same way we’ve always behaved. Every single time we’re building something new, it needs to be digitised and sustainably driven from the get-go, to feed data into enterprise data platforms. If we can’t do that together as a collective, we’re never going to get that en masse benefit, we are always going to be in silos.” 

Using the Microsoft Stream open-data platform as a positive example of collaborative progress, Richards said: “We’ve all got the same intent. Everyone wants to work on the same data. The problem is the data, at the moment, is antagonistic between us.  

“As we move forward with this hyperconnectivity element, data sharing is going to be imperative. We’re starting to see that with Stream, and that’s empowering to see.” 

Looking forward, Richards said advances in technology mean solutions to some of the sector’s biggest challenges, such as PFAS and microplastic pollution, are within reach.  

“The technology is there now, if we work together. We need the right partnerships between industry, tech, science and government to make those things a reality.” 

Over 200 guests attended the spring reception, including member companies, sponsor partners and key industry figures. It was hosted by Lord Wei of Shoreditch, who told attendees: “It feels like there is a season just around the corner that will be more innovative, more hopeful and more sustainable, with more working together, to give us a water ecosystem for the times ahead.  

“That gives me confidence that we can change the current situation. You are the reformers of today. Be encouraged.” 

Now in its 17th year, the British Water Spring Reception is held to help raise the profile of the UK water industry, the supplier community that British Water represents, and address sector challenges.