Dynamic Digital Twins: Improved Service Levels and Better Public Engagement

The future strategy for water services

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April 21, 2021 | David Fortune

Q: We have spoken about digital transformation before – and about digital twins. I don’t recall discussing public engagement. So why now?

A: Everyone I know in the water industry understands, we are here to serve the public. We talk a lot about how technology is transforming the way we plan and operate smart water, wastewater and stormwater networks. But we should go beyond and consider the ways in which the public could benefit from the use of dynamic digital twins. After all, they are paying for the flood-protection, sewage, and water network the water industry services. They should expect benefits from the innovation they fund – it shouldn’t just be “business as usual.”

Q: So how do dynamic digital twins benefit the customers of a water utility?

A: The major change is going from passive to active management of the networks. And using active management to improve service levels.

We have discussed before how dynamic digital twins are being used more and more for flood forecasting. These forecasts are used to generate flood warnings that are routed to the public, providing a clear benefit in increased safety and protection for households and businesses. Additionally, if emergency response services are given adequate warning of any major flooding, they can mobilize and protect the public with evacuation, if need be.

Q: What about wastewater service levels?

A: Dynamic Digital Twins assists in protecting our aquatic environment by creating a visual of how the sewer network is performing from day-to-day. In turn, providing insight into how the network responds to heavy rainfall and identifying when and where blockages are occurring within the sewer systems.

Through insight provided by the digital twin and active sewer management, it is possible to clear blockages quickly, allowing for a more efficient use of the sewer system’s capacity. Also, helping to decrease the number of polluting overflows into rivers, estuaries and our shorelines.

But this is not just about sewers. Digital twins mirroring the performance of water treatment, allows for the performance to be improved by optimizing energy and chemical costs. In addition to controlling outputs so they stay within regulatory compliance.

Q: So, is it a similar story for water distribution?

A: Absolutely. Again, smart water network management using dynamic digital twins can help to improve service levels. Active control of pressure reduces leakage and reduces the likelihood of bursts. At the same time, active rezoning can improve firefighting flows and give more resilience to cope with infrastructure failure and maintenance.

Let’s take a simple example: a service reservoir needs to be shut down quickly for cleaning but perhaps there has been a water quality warning. You could expect a digital twin to let you know which members of the public may have been affected. You’d be able to see the impact on the network while the reservoir was out of action – which properties, and how low their pressures and flows will go.

To evaluation effectiveness, you can try out potential corrective measures such as re-zoning and connecting to additional supply points, using the digital twin.

And again, digital twins are functioning at the heart of advanced management of treatment works, by keeping costs down and regulatory compliance up.

Q: So dynamic digital twins can be used to improve service levels. Anything else?

A: Yes, there is more: communication. That’s really what I wanted to talk about today: improving communication between the utility and the customer. Because improving communication will lead to better engagement with the public.

All around the world, water, wastewater and stormwater service providers want to have conversations with their customers – and that includes the public. They want to know what the public thinks about pollution, environmental protection, flooding and wasting water through leakage. Or ecological damage caused by over-abstraction, fire-fighting or personal water consumption.

And of course: cost and affordability. How much is the public willing to pay for the benefits of a well-managed water system? Can they afford it?

These are not easy conversations to have. And it is even harder to get the public involved and engage them in strategic decision making.

Schools have been great at educating young people about the water cycle and the water industry. Yet still the public pays little attention to the industry. They assume the water and wastewater service should always be there. And it shouldn’t do any ecological damage – it’s just water after all. It should cost very little – it’s just water after all.

At Innovyze we like to remind ourselves, water is life. That’s one of the reasons we enjoy our jobs. But how do we put a realistic value on water if people take water services for granted?

Q: Can you be more specific about how dynamic digital twins can help with public communication?

A: Yes, let’s get into that. The water utilities want to engage with the public on a whole range of issues affecting the future strategy for water services. The best way to get that conversation going is to take initiative and start putting out information about the water service that is of immediate interest and benefit to the public.

To demonstrate, a utility actively managing the service, rather than sitting back and letting it happen, will increase the trust and value the public has in a utility’s service. They will be encouraged to respond and engage in strategic conversations.

Q: Can you give examples of what sort of information you are talking about?

A: Well, let’s start with water distribution. Wouldn’t it be great if we could inform the public about the kind of service they’re likely to get in the week ahead? Or what sort of pressures they are likely to be receiving and alert them to potential service drops, such as low pressure or discolouration due to planned network maintenance?

And if we do detect that we are suffering from serious service disruption due to equipment failure or a burst or major flow reversals or fire fighting then let’s let the customers know when they are likely to see service drops – and by how much.

Right now, we put huge reliance on the public to let us know the occurrence and location of discolouration, leaks and bursts. Many of us in the water industry are really uncomfortable with relying on the public to let us know what is happening in the service we are managing. So digital twins can give us information about the state of the service – in advance of the public becoming aware. They can help us to reduce service dropouts and generate information on service status that can go directly to the customer.

And, let’s face it, we will have increased the value of the service we are supplying. As a result, I believe the public will feel more involved, leading to better-informed and even better-natured information coming back. Plus, allow for better engagement in strategic decision making.

In one way, the case for sewerage and stormwater services is even stronger. Obviously, the public would value advanced information about likely flooding, sanitary sewer overflows, and combined sewer overflows. Yet so much of the received wisdom within the industry says, “don’t tell the public about problems – and perhaps they won’t notice”. Well, I think it is clear to most of us - the public does notice. And they lose trust in the utilities, if the utility itself seems to be unaware of failings in the sewerage or stormwater service it’s supposed to be managing.

Q: Sounds like dynamic digital twins can lead to a more collaborative relationship between utilities and their customers. How do you see that developing in the future?

A: The technology to enable digital twins already exists and is being used to some extent by many utilities. At Innovyze, we believe in democratizing dynamic digital twins – making them available to all utilities – large or small. And much of our design and development goes into making digital twins easier to start up and grow over time, for every utility. That’s what is at the heart of our Info360 digital-twin cloud-architecture and Software-as-a-Service delivery. We should talk more about that another time!

But, as I always say, technology is just an enabler for digital twins. In order, for utilities to receive the benefits, they need to collaborate with technology suppliers and the engineering community. And they need to implement organisational change. And part of that change could be using the information from digital twins to improve communication and collaboration with the public.

So, if anyone out there is intrigued by the possibilities of benefiting from using digital twins, to improve service levels and generate better public engagement just get in touch with me or anyone else at Innovyze and we can explore it all together.

For more information or to request a demo, please visit: Info360 Insight


About the Authors

David Fortune

David Fortune

VP of Innovation


David drives innovation into water management software systems, including real-time operations, asset management, and hydraulic modelling. He specializes in digital twins: virtual models of water, wastewater and stormwater networks that support design, construction, maintenance, planning, and operations.