Veolia’s digitalization with a human face

On the strength of a digital transformation that is already well underway, Veolia has adapted to the constraints of the Covid-19 crisis with agility, performance and reliability, with no interruption to its essential services management. The Group has successfully readjusted its practices, demonstrating its ability — both on a human and technological level — to be a benchmark player in the ecological transformation.
Published in the dossier of December 2020

The Covid-19 health crisis has confirmed to all the urgent need for a global ecological transition. Regions’ future will be resilient and carbon-free, or there will be no future at all. Whether local authorities, tertiary or industrial companies, Veolia’s clients have fully grasped this, and we are now witnessing a reinforcement of the green component in all economic recovery plans. This is good news for Veolia, whose ambition — with its Impact 2023 strategic program — is precisely to be the leader of the ecological transformation.

“We are now part of the solutions. Our job is to turn the collective will and allocated budgets into concrete projects to make the transition possible,” Estelle Brachlianoff, Group Chief Operating Officer at Veolia, reminds us.

Guaranteeing service continuity during the crisis

While providing essential services is an obligation, doing so remotely can prove complex and any failure entails very heavy consequences. In a widespread lockdown situation, the Group’s digital tools proved indispensable to maintaining essential services for many areas hit by the health crisis.

“As the digital transformation had kicked off in 2012, the technical environment was ready and we did not have to purchase any new systems,” states Didier Bove, Group Chief Information Officer at Veolia.

For several years, the SATAWAD (secure, anytime, anywhere, any device) program has made it possible to recover, aggregate and analyze data from numerous sites, entirely securely from anywhere. Cloud-based office automation solutions have also long made it possible to work remotely and roll out projects such as Hubgrade and Aquavista, or monitor the operational and ecological performance of clients’ sites online.

“Veolia’s technological edge allows it to deal with the unexpected more calmly than other companies,” remarks Didier Bove.

In the midst of the pandemic, Veolia was thus able to mobilize all its resources, both human and technological, to maintain the continuity of its operations — except for public construction projects made impossible by the government directives linked to the public health state of emergency.

“The word ‘essential’ has become key,” highlights Estelle Brachlianoff in this respect. “Over and above the services that we generally think of — drinking water and wastewater, household waste, etc., other areas of activity proved to be just as indispensable: treating hazardous waste from the pharmaceutical industry or hospitals, for instance, without which drug production or health security couldn’t be guaranteed.”

Echoing the Impact 2023 commitments, Veolia is thus positioning itself coming out of the crisis as the ‘glocal’ partner — intimately familiar with the local area and its constraints while enjoying the power of a global Group — able to improve its clients’ capacity for resilience and effectively support them through all sorts of crises.

“It’s all linked.
Digital is not something in parallel. It enriches all our business lines.”

Estelle Brachlianoff

Rising to challenges together: #UnitedThanksToDigital

The Veolia teams learned to master their digital tools from 2012 onwards: using Google Workspace, turning to video conferences, utilizing the cloud, etc. were the norm in the Group, long before the crisis. However, there was still some way to go to learn to unlock — remotely — the teams’ collaborative capacity.

“We had to establish rules collectively, throughout the lockdown period, but we rose to the challenge,” states Didier Bove.

In this instance, the teams demonstrated that they were able to support each other remotely with complex operations, with no loss of operational performance, relying on all the resources at their disposal thanks to digital.
For example, peer reviews — collegial consultations over several days traditionally bringing together experts from all countries to a site to challenge original or sensitive projects — took place entirely online for the first time!

“For the construction of the hazardous waste incinerator for Sadara in the Middle East, some thirty experts demonstrated that they could effectively offer their expertise, collaborate and challenge each other remotely,” recounts Pierre Ribaute, Executive Vice President Business Support & Performance at Veolia.

Increase in video conferences during the crisis

Balancing in-person work and remote control

By imposing major constraints, the crisis drove Veolia to accelerate its digital transformation. The proof: a certain number of tools or practices have now become standard (training its clients online, using electronic signatures, etc.).

For clients, it was a matter of taking advantage of cloud technology and overcoming certain fears in terms of relocating their data. Veolia’s decision to use platforms renowned for their robustness — Google, Microsoft — has also paid off when it comes to blocking cyber attacks, which have shot up during the crisis: hacking attempts, malicious emails, etc.

“Of course, we need to have a great deal of humility in this area, but up to now we have been able to defend our systems,” states Didier Bove.

Things have also changed for Veolia.

“We have psychologically broken down barriers and tried out everything we could think of, prioritizing online over in-person activities. We have torn down walls,” states Pierre Ribaute. “We know, for example, that we are able to conduct remote energy audits by using augmented reality, relying on the teams on the premises equipped with Google glasses, connected by computers to experts at the other end of the world,” he explains. “But this only works well because the teams know and trust each other. The connections made in person remain irreplaceable.”

This would suggest that in the post-crisis period Veolia will come to strike a sound balance between remote control and in-person interventions. A further step forward in reducing its carbon footprint.

Rapidly reacting and adapting

Managing a health crisis on the scale of the one we are experiencing requires being able to call ourselves into question and react extremely quickly. For instance, a comprehensive health, hygiene and environmental offering for buildings, combining indoor air quality, water system safety and disinfecting the premises, was created, marketed and rolled out in just three weeks.

“The pace accelerated in a number of fields,” explains Estelle Brachlianoff. “For waste collection, for example, lockdown meant that we had to entirely rearrange the rounds. Digital tools allowed this adaptation to be made almost instantaneously.”

Another telling example is the closure of waste drop-off centers. The Veolia teams realized that many small entrepreneurs, artisans or second-hand parts dealers, who generate or use waste, no longer had access to them and were therefore deprived of their livelihoods. In response, they were able to develop — in the space of a hackathon weekend — software for booking appointments with the waste drop-off center online.

“In this respect, digital represents a strength because it allows you to experiment and take risks at low cost, adopting a fast and cheap approach,” continues Estelle Brachlianoff.

The Group has been able to work in an agile and iterative way, testing and then readapting its solutions in real time with the client to help it handle the situation.

“During the crisis, Veolia has amply demonstrated its capacity and vision to support regions’ resilience”

Pierre Ribaute

Making digital work for people

The Group’s digital strategy underpins the Impact 2023 plan’s success and uses data to further the ecological transformation. A far cry from the image of the ‘great replacement’ conveyed by automation, digital bolsters Veolia’s business lines, all the better to support people.

“Two thirds of our employees are actually on the ground,” Estelle Brachlianoff reminds us. “Waste collection cannot be done remotely, for example. However, IT and artificial intelligence can improve the performance of these services, along with the comfort and safety of our employees.”

Veolia’s water, energy and waste management specialists are able to optimize their clients’ operational and economic performance and reduce their environmental impacts in real time thanks to the new remote control centers fed by data: Hubgrade platforms, which are growing in number in the Group’s operational countries.

“In the future, it’s a matter of avoiding the thankless tasks and keeping human intervention for where it is meaningful, without there being fewer employees throughout the project,” highlights Estelle Brachlianoff.

Hubgrade Centers in 22 countries

When digital and the ecological transformation go hand in hand

Veolia’s approach links its digital strategy to a multi-faceted performance goal, at once encompassing business, economic, social, societal and ecological dimensions. The Group also intends to draw on digital to solve a complex equation: maintaining economic growth, improving its employees’ working conditions and supporting them in the transformation of their profession, and increasing its clients’ productivity, while reducing costs and improving its environmental footprint. To this end, the IT team has rolled out its own strategic plan to support Impact 2023’s goals. A dozen digital offerings, currently under development, aim to support operational efficiency and the development of business lines seen as key for the future, such as hazardous waste management, CO2 capture, and plastics recycling.

“It’s all linked. Digital is not something in parallel. It enriches all our business lines and everything that we do for our clients must help roll out the new Impact 2023 strategy. The merger with Suez is in the same vein. The aim is to take the best of our two worlds: by combining our know-how and technologies, we will use the acceleration of digitalization to benefit the ecological transformation. Everything must help resource the world,” concludes Estelle Brachlianoff.

Meeting the challenge of collaborating at a distance of 5,000 km

Just before the health crisis, a drinking water plant recently installed in Minya, Egypt, by the German team from Veolia Water Technologies (VWT) was put on hold at the request of the client, a global food and beverage giant. However, seeing its orders skyrocket from the first widespread lockdown measures, the client asked for the plant to be urgently started up. Unable to travel, the German experts turned to their Egyptian colleagues, who were on site but initially did not have the necessary skills to single-handedly perform such a complex task. The two teams therefore set up an unprecedented collaboration, made possible thanks to digital tools.

“Covid-19 left us with few options, so we had to find a new way of working across borders; the first test was managing to draw up a virtual working plan,” says Sherif Manem from VWT Egypt.

Guided and supported from Germany, the Egyptian technicians benefited from the know-how and expertise of their European colleagues... based 5,000 kilometers away. This international task force took just 28 days to get the plant up and running. A feat in this unprecedented situation, made possible thanks to the power of digital, the daring of Veolia’s business units, and the combination of international expertise and local experience.