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How digital technology can support water management

Simon Kerr, digital lead for water consultancy at Mott MacDonald, discusses how digital transformation is bringing efficiency to the water industry.

How has digital improved water services?

How has digital improved water services?

Globally, the use of building information modelling (BIM) has had one of the biggest impacts on water services of any recent digital innovations.

The use of BIM in design and construction has enabled huge efficiencies in the way capital schemes are delivered, while leaving behind a legacy of better information which supports better asset operation, maintenance and upgrades. Greater programme certainty and delivery efficiency as a result of rich information models safeguards customer bills and ensures vital infrastructure upgrades are completed in a timely manner. We are proud supporters of the work of BIM4Water, which has acted as a catalyst and body of knowledge for this ongoing transformation.

BIM has in turn enabled the development of digital twins, which are progressively gaining traction in the water sector. Digital twins are realistic digital representations of physical infrastructure which unlock value by enabling improved insights based on real-time data from the physical system. Our use of a digital twin during the commissioning of DC Welsh Water’s Five Fords Wastewater Treatment Works is a great example of how significant benefits to programme, performance and energy use can be achieved through the federation of multiple data sources. We used our digital twin platform Moata to integrate Biowin modelling with real-time operational data to provide commissioning engineers with insight for decision making that would previously have taken many weeks to generate. The benefit to delivery was confirmed by the MMB’s design manager, Dan Buxton, who said: “The Five Fords digital twin has allowed the team to move from reactive to proactive decision-making, it is creating a real step-change in how we manage our assets. Using a digital twin on this project saved around £80,000 in labour costs during the commissioning phase and led to a 12.5% reduction in commissioning time”.

We’re also proud to have been involved in Safeswim, one of the largest organisation-level digital twins in the water sector, globally. The initiative uses data gleaned from sensors across the wastewater network and storm drainage systems, combined with weather and tidal information, to predict water quality at over 100 beaches in and around Auckland, New Zealand. This information is shared with the public in real-time, via an online portal and a downloadable app, allowing them to make informed decisions about where best to swim. Using infrastructure data to serve customers and wider society in new ways is one of the core ways digital twins will help our industry deliver better social outcomes.

Looking ahead, we have been appointed delivery partner for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) on its BIM Pathfinder Programme. Part of the Prosperity Fund’s Global Infrastructure Programme, our Smart Infrastructure business will provide BIM technical and sector expertise in countries including Indonesia, Vietnam, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico and South Africa. Embedding a BIM way of working will support better project development, procurement, finance, design, delivery and operation of buildings and infrastructure in these countries. We look forward to helping spread the benefits of digital design further afield.

Across the industry, water providers need to maintain best practice in digital twins as developed by organisations such as the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) and Building Smart International, if we are to realise enterprise-wide and even industry-wide benefits from this exciting new technology. Mott MacDonald is proudly positioned at the leading edge of digital twins within the water sector and takes an active role in identifying and sharing best practice. As co-authors of CDBB publications (Gemini Principles, Flourishing Systems and Digital Twins for the Built Environment) we have taken an active role in establishing the foundations for building, scaling and integrating digital twins. We also led the Digital Transformation stream of the Infrastructure Client Group’s Project 13 – the UK’s industry response to developing new business models to boost certainty and whole life outcomes – and are a key advisor to the Infrastructure Client Group, providing yearly digital maturity benchmarking of the industry using our Smart Infrastructure Index©.

Where will digital take the water industry? Read more

How can digital unlock greater efficiency?

How can digital unlock greater efficiency?

Water is a very energy-intensive sector – it’s estimated that 2-3% of the world’s energy consumption is used to power the pumping and treatment of water for industrial and residential use.

As well as driving down energy use, reducing water demand and removing waste will help to streamline the sector and cut costs. There are many areas where digital technology can help, including:

Optimise networks and reduce flooding: Smart infrastructure enables the performance of water infrastructure to be monitored, predicted and optimised. Anomalies in the system can be used to identify faults and leaks, which can be pinpointed and remedied quickly. Worldwide, it is estimated that 45bn litres of water are lost through leakage every day, so a major roll-out of smart infrastructure to reduce leaks will bring great efficiency to water networks. Monitoring performance of water treatment processes will also help to drive down energy use. Combining real-time sensor data, custom analytics and traditional hydraulic models, our Network Optimisation solution helps you to understand live performance, investigate anomalies, and prioritise future interventions across entire water and wastewater systems.

Understand criticality: Understanding the consequences of asset failure was until recently a laborious and time-consuming process. Smart infrastructure has the very real ability to empower operators to understand the dynamic consequence of failure and help prioritise maintenance to prevent or mitigate largescale failures as situations change. Our Moata Criticality Live solution connects to open data sources and digital twins as well as our own Moata solutions to show the condition of critical assets, with intelligent analytics connected to a live decision-support dashboard. This risk-based approach to maximising uptime has a proven track record and demonstrates best-in-class stewardship of investment funds, public or private.

Optimise treatment in real-time: The operation of treatment works carries significant costs, through intensive labour and chemical requirements. Treatment is a key component of a water network and its performance impacts both operating costs and the receiving environment. By combining real-time plant data with complex dynamic modelling, Moata Treatment Optimiser cuts time and costs associated with treatment operation. Furthermore, the same technology has been shown to save 12.5% commissioning time for large treatment works and 20% of aeration costs through efficiency analytics. By embedding artificial intelligence, owners and operators can ensure immediate responses to real-time trends based on predetermined scenarios. Faults or loss of service can be quickly remedied with minimal disruption to customers through a system that is always on and always learning.

Smarter energy management: Connecting digital twins from water assets and other sectors that either generate or consume energy can help drive down energy of treatment processes. Pumping water to storage in response to lower power demand elsewhere is one way in which interconnected digital twins across multiple sectors can lead to smarter energy management. We have developed a suite of smart energy solutions, including Moata Demand Forecaster, to support energy network operators to assure the security and efficiency of electricity supply.

Can digital help cut carbon emissions?

Can digital innovation help cut carbon emissions?

The global water sector is looking for a step-change in the way we approach carbon. Many countries are already setting strict decarbonisation programmes, and in the UK, water providers have committed to achieving net-zero by 2030, with some providers setting even more ambitious goals.

Embracing digital transformation can unlock a vast number of incremental efficiencies that will make net-zero a reality. For existing infrastructure, data-based solutions can optimise energy and chemical use. Predictive modelling and criticality analysis technologies will support a lighter touch maintenance scheme with faults pre-emptively remedied, avoiding the need for major works to fix assets after they have failed. In new infrastructure, automated design applications can help develop truly optimised solutions, rather than limiting ourselves to what traditional engineering solutions have to offer.

Tools such as our Moata Route Optimiser, for example, can rapidly design the most efficient route for new pipelines, while Moata Carbon Portal, the first BIM-enabled carbon calculator, enables accounting of embodied carbon in new assets, supporting better carbon management. We developed Moata Carbon Portal in recognition of the responsibility that we bear as designers of infrastructure to help drive down the capital carbon cost of what we build. Through the portal, we bring to life the carbon impact of our designs and ensure that our design effort is focused on the areas that will have the greatest impact on reducing the overall carbon footprint.

Both new and existing infrastructure benefit from digital twins which enable scenario-planning to optimise performance and the design of future assets. Last year, we also developed a route-map to net-zero for Water UK, the industry body representing water and wastewater providers in the UK. The route-map shows how digital technology is key to achieving the industry’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2030.

How can we use data from other sectors?

How can we use data from other sectors?

There is huge scope for data from other sectors to inform water resource management. For example, understanding trends in levels of water use in energy or farming – both big water users – can help water providers make long-term plans to maintain supplies.

However, piecemeal use of data sources from other sectors can only take us so far. True value comes from joined-up access to real-time data across all industries for mutual benefit, so we’re proud to be at the heart of UK efforts to establish a national digital twin. This digital twin will be an ecosystem of interconnected digital twins sharing data streams between all sectors, enabling significant efficiency gains which will benefit the wider economy. In fact, the National Infrastructure Commission’s 2017 report entitled ‘New Technologies Case Study: Data Sharing in Infrastructure’ estimates that greater data sharing across UK infrastructure sectors could unlock £7bn of value each year.

Mott MacDonald also worked with the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to develop a systems approach to water resource management for two contrasting catchment areas. We used participatory systems mapping, which involves working with stakeholders across all sectors who affect – or are affected by – the local water network, to gather data which reveals the complex relationships of cause and effect in each catchment. Since then, we have taken this work to the regional level, working with Water Resources South East (WRSE), an alliance of water providers in the water-stressed region of south-east England, to provide a systems approach to resilience planning with a multisector water resources perspective. This work has shown that a better understanding of the downstream impact of new interventions through a systems approach can maximise the benefits for all.

Click here for more information on our work with Defra and WRSE.

Can digital be used to enhance biodiversity?

Can digital be used to enhance nature-based solutions?

Although many might think it strange that digital technology can be integral to delivering natural solutions, all decisions can be enhanced by having access to better data.

For example, we are helping to deliver natural flood management solutions in Leeds, UK – part of a £112M scheme to reduce flood risk over a 700km2 catchment area. The natural solutions we are delivering include creating woodlands, planting hedgerows, seasonal ponds and re-meandering the river to help slow run-off into the River Aire. More than 200 sites are involved in the project, so we developed a range of geographical information systems (GIS) tools hosted on an online platform to map the area, enabling us to gather, manage and analyse data in a single virtual workspace.

The platform helped us identify key sites, design bespoke interventions for each site and plan for the safe delivery of each intervention. Having an online, shared platform where all project information was stored and updated also allowed us to monitor progress against delivery dates, streamline work between all collaborators and provide an interactive overview of the project to stakeholders. The result has been seen in improved biodiversity, reduced carbon and cost, and better value to local residents.

What blockers are there to further digitisation?

What obstacles are there to further digitisation of water?

There is certainly a digital skills shortage in the industry, and many companies still have some way to go in their digital transformation journeys.

Our 2020 Digital Benchmarking Report provides a snapshot of digital maturity in the UK based on the responses of more than 450 employees from 19 leading asset owners and operators across transport, energy, water and defence. Data was gathered via our Smart Infrastructure Index which we created to help businesses establish a baseline and monitor progress of their digital transformation goals. The report shows that although digital maturity had improved by 20% (for those who had completed the index the previous year), three quarters of respondents felt poorly organised information prevented their organisation from reaching its full potential, and 37% felt their organisation relied on legacy IT systems which weren’t adequate to meet evolving needs.

Our report also found that many employees aren’t developing the skills and work practices to keep up with the pace of technological change, creating capability gaps that will become increasingly expensive to close. While the report focuses on the UK infrastructure industry, similar challenges can be seen in the water sector in many other countries too. The experts with the domain expertise need to be equipped with the necessary digital skills to help drive a culture change towards digital transformation, and we also need to seek expertise from outside our industry to help bring digital innovation sideways from other sectors into our own. A digital skills framework for the water sector will help determine what skills we need and how they can be evaluated, ensuring water can move forward without leaving parts of the industry behind.

We also need to discuss new ways of procuring digital solutions which reward the value being delivered. In our role as consultants, we often find there are contractual obstructions to making the most of digital – such as contracts which provide all the value and upside of digital innovation to the client, while a significant portion of the investment and risk required to achieve the innovation typically lies with us. A wider industry conversation about how we manage intellectual property and share risk and reward will support an upsurge in digital innovation.

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