Is it time to Gamify the Water Sector?

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What is gamification and how can it be used in the water sector? What is the difference between gamification and edutainment and loyalty programmes?

Humans like to play games, as do crows and dolphins and a lot of other animals. Children learn though play. Games are fun and engaging. So why aren’t they a larger part of the grown-up world? Well they are and always have been, but over the past decade their role has been more formally recognised through the emergent discipline of gamification. Coined in 2003, this is more than just a buzzword with 70% of the world’s top 2000 companies expected to have a gamification project by the end of this year.  It is the use of game techniques and approaches in non-game situations. Points, badges and leaderboards are the key basic elements, allowing people to compete. Think of travel review websites where contributors get badges, or hotel loyalty cards where different levels can earn awards, or wristbands that measure exercise and publish your progress on social media.

The water sector has a number of issues that can’t be resolved by conventional engineering without massive costs, for example, supply-demand imbalance, sewer blockages, peak demand. These challenges require customer engagement. But this has to be real engagement and not the normal water company idea of engagement where information is sent to customers and meetings are held for customers to attend, there has to be two way communication where the customer is actually engaged in the process. The issues facing water companies are important to them but not important to normal customers, sewer flooding is hideous when it’s your home, but not something you think about when it’s not. How can we help customers understand the link between fat down the sink and a blocked sewer?

It’s not as difficult as it appears, there are probably few things more boring than insurance but add in a meerkat and everyone knows about it.

It’s not as difficult as it appears, there are probably few things more boring than insurance but add in a meerkat and everyone knows about it. Water should be easier than insurance as there is a latent interest. More people watch the weather than the news; people go on holiday to lakes, rivers, the sea or snow.  People are interested in water, but just not in the problems of water companies, especially when we have spent the past century telling them that engineers can solve everything and water is none of their business.

So how can we engage them more? This is where we can use gamification. Making saving water an action that can win awards or where levels of saving can be shared through social media means that more people are likely to participate, like the IBM neighbourhood water trial in Dubuque. Or using games to teach people or convey messages, like the new serious game from Paris Water.

There has been some limited use of gamification in the water sector in other countries, but nothing in the UK, and the foreign water examples have not yet linked financial incentives and prizes to games. Gamification offers a way for water companies to crowd source solutions to issues such as water efficiency and sewer blockages. It also has the added benefit of increasing customer engagement; this could lead onto activities such as customer involvement in systems management like in the Singapore ABC programme or the EU DAIAD trials.

gamification isn’t something you can ask your engineering contractor to deliver as part of the next AMP, it involves a change in mind-set

The drawbacks are that the current structure of water companies is highly centralised (although stuff like Veolia’s community initiative show they are trying to devolve), so there is a question about whether they are ready to really engage with customers, gamification isn’t something you can ask your engineering contractor to deliver as part of the next AMP, it involves a change in mind-set from water companies. It may also mean that when customers are engaged and informed that they start to question water company decisions more vigorously, like the Thames Tideway Tunnel or proposals for new reservoirs, or the cost of metering programmes, once companies start down this route they have to be prepared for what it actually entails because it will be difficult to put the gamification genie back in the bottle. But if they don’t then they will become even more detached from a customer base that will expect proper engagement against a background of other companies delivering increasingly sophisticated programmes.

Waterwise and WRc have just started a project reviewing the use potential for gamification in the water sector and undertaking pilots to assess impact. In addition Waterwise’s annual conference on 16/17 September 2014 is all about gamifying water.