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Infrastructure intelligence, water, and sustainability meet at Year in Infrastructure conference

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Last October the 2023 Year in Infrastructure conference, organised by Bentley Systems, was held in Singapore. Smart Water Magazine had the opportunity to interview Bentley experts on their takeaways from this annual landmark event on infrastructure intelligence.

Water permeates everything

As we approach the end of 2023, we might have the same feeling as when this year started: water is gaining relevance in everyone’s minds. Last March the UN 2023 Water Conference emphasized that water is a crosscutting theme, key to climate resilience and a more sustainable and inclusive world. As the year advanced, we have witnessed water-related extreme events wreak havoc across the globe, reminding us of the nexus between water and climate.

Last October we had the opportunity to attend the 2023 Year in Infrastructure Conference and Going Digital Awards in Singapore, and we did so with our water industry lens, always excited to be at a forum that recognizes innovation and excellence in the broader infrastructure industry, as it offers the opportunity to learn about trends and get that global perspective that is vital to address the complex challenges of our time such as climate change, urbanization, and sustainable infrastructure development.

With this in mind, we tapped into the knowledge and insights of experts from Bentley Systems to get their takeaways from this year’s event.

We spoke with Gregg Herrin, Vice President of Water Infrastructure, and Neda Simeonova, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Water Infrastructure, both at Bentley Systems. They confirmed what we had observed: Water and Wastewater may be one of the twelve categories represented at the awards, but every year water-related projects can also be found in other categories, be it structural engineering where a project is building a new wastewater treatment plant, or enterprise engineering, where a digital platform is used to develop a component library for phosphorous removal schemes from wastewater.

The annual YII event enables interaction between digital tool users that leads to inspiration, not only for Bentley, but for each other

The YII and Going Digital Awards finalist projects are truly outstanding in their contribution to digital advancements in infrastructure, but not only that, it’s inspiring to see “the real-world impact people are having with Bentley’s tools”, as Gregg noted. And in the case of water, that impact can be really life-changing. As Neda said, “it's such a great opportunity to see first-hand how solutions are making an impact, and not just to the utilities, the cities and people who manage these projects, but also to the actual people who are at the end getting water to their homes, having wastewater services.” The annual YII event enables interaction between users that leads to inspiration, not only for Bentley, but for each other, in terms of overcoming challenges, securing funding, engaging with stakeholders, etc.

More utilities are realizing that there is a huge risk in doing nothing to address the challenges the water industry faces

Zeroing in on the water industry, we wanted to know about the specifics of software adoption as compared with other sectors. Something that is common to public utilities, is that they tend to be more conservative when it comes to implementing changes compared to a private sector company, mitigating risks whenever possible. However, Gregg’s view is that some of that is going to change. “When we talk about the water industry, two of the biggest problems are ageing infrastructure and ageing professionals.” As professionals retire and are replaced by a new generation, and digital natives advance into leadership positions, the adoption of digital technology is likely to accelerate. “There's a new generation of engineers who are coming in, they're tech-savvy and they want solutions that are easy and can help them to make better, faster decisions”, agrees Neda.

On top of that, while the tendency to be risk averse when dealing with a human need like water is understandable, there is also a huge risk in doing nothing to address the challenges the water industry faces, points out Gregg, and more utilities are realizing that.

Gregg Herrin, Vice President of Water Infrastructure, Bentley Systems, at the 2023 Year in Infrastructure Conference and Going Digital Awards in Singapore.

We were also wondering if there are any trends in terms of use cases in the water sector, and it depends on the geography to a certain extent. In regions of the world that are still developing, a lot of the use cases revolve around securing water access, so they involve new designs and construction. On the other hand, in more developed countries, the use cases tend to be about how to make existing systems more efficient. Systems are optimized to increase reliability and water efficiency, reduce water losses, and also in terms of energy usage, to reduce costs, and to lower the carbon footprint. But there is a common thread, notes Neda: “As climate changes, cities and infrastructure around the world are increasing dealing with too much water in some areas, or not enough water in others. By adopting intelligent digital solutions, the water sector can minimize risk and address some of these pressing issues.”

If we had to choose this year’s buzzword, AI would definitely be a candidate. Looking at water infrastructure, we asked for comments on the role of AI in accelerating infrastructure intelligence. Gregg referred to it as “one tool of many”: by itself it will not solve all the world’s problems, but can have a copilot role, digesting more information than a human can, spotting patterns and making recommendations, saving time. He emphasized that you will still need a human to evaluate those different possibilities. Looking ahead at the possibility of extreme events, he noted that, while AI is great at things it can learn from, “when you look at the future and things that have never happened before, you will need additional scenario management tools to help evaluate what could happen if you hit extreme cases.”

This year’s projects stand out not only concerning their use of technology, but also in terms of social impact and sustainability aspects

This year there has been a significant number of project submissions: they stand out not only concerning the technology and how they use it, but also in terms of embracing sustainability principles, and achieving a societal return. Concerning water projects, Neda remarked: “It’s really hard to choose which projects are best, because they are all very meaningful”, adding “even some of the smaller projects made significant changes, for example, to respectfully accommodate indigenous communities in developing countries”. And Gregg agreed: “The challenges, like securing water access, have remained the same, but there's definitely more sensitivity in terms of the social impact of a project, and the sustainability aspect of it too”.

The ins and outs of specific technologies

To learn a little bit more about the specifics of some of Bentley’s technologies, we spoke with Robert Mankowski, who leads Bentley Systems’ Engineering Applications product division, and Benoit Fredericque, Senior Director of Product Management of iTwin Capture. Robert reflected on the essence of the annual conference: “going digital”, an intentional term because there isn’t a starting condition and an ending condition: you are continuously going digital, and at the YII conference every year we see new advances, projects that are improving quality of life for all of us.

“Going digital” is an ongoing process, and at the YII conference every year we see new advances, projects that are improving quality of life

During the conference keynotes, Chief Product Officer Mike Campbell announced the addition of iTwin capabilities in Bentley Open Applications, for modelling and simulation, starting with MicroStation, to introduce the benefits of digital twins in the design phase. Robert commented on this: “We're leveraging the existing applications and adding new capabilities based on iTwin”. The idea is to create new value through the use of digital twin technology. “By using that digital twin, they can more easily share information with other designers, and other disciplines that are working on the project to discuss design options and other critical project decisions”, he added.

EchoWater Project by Project Controls Cubed, winner of the 2023 YII Going Digital Award in the Water and Wastewater category.

We asked Benoit about the significance of reality modelling for the digitalisation of infrastructure. Reality modelling captures real-world conditions, to improve design, construction and operations. With real-world digital context, it is possible to address infrastructure challenges and make more informed decisions. “And when you have existing assets or infrastructure that you need to operate or maintain, for which you lack information, then surveying, reality capture, and reality modelling, are relevant and helpful”.

Bringing this technology to the water sector, the use cases are quite diverse. Coming back to the widespread problem of ageing water infrastructure assets, reality monitoring and surveying come into play to monitor the condition of such assets, such as dams. Also, technologies like ground penetrating radar are key for subsurface utility assets. Another major trend in mapping and surveying is the use of drones to acquire data. Inspections of infrastructure are a major share of the professional use cases of drones.

AI is about enhancing engineers’ ability to get work done quickly and allow them to focus on the creative side of their job

Finally, technology conversations have a way of ending up mentioning AI: “We have a bigger opportunity forward than what we believed just a few years ago” commented Benoit, adding “The more we do with AI, the more we realize how impactful it can be”. Bentley’s approach is to enable their users to do AI without taking ownership of their data. Robert agreed: “Our users’ data is their data – always. I think the opportunities are just increasing in how we can apply this technology together with our deep engineering knowledge, our analytical models, our numerical analysis, bringing it all together”. He emphasised that AI will not be replacing engineers or architects: “It's about enhancing their ability to get work done quickly and allow them to focus on the creative side of engineering, not on the mundane, repetitive type of tasks.”

Building a sustainability culture

We closed the circle talking with Rodrigo Fernandes, director of ES(D)G (Empowering Sustainable Development Goals), leading Bentley Systems’ sustainability business strategy and initiatives. Rodrigo reviews the projects in all twelve categories and one of his first comments about this year takes us right to the beginning of this discussion: there are many projects related to water: “I feel this is a necessity and a natural evolution, given the fact that water is becoming more and more relevant in the world.”

Rajghat Multi Village Rural Water Supply Scheme, by L&T Construction. 2023 YII Going Digital Awards finalist in the Water and Wastewater category.

On the other hand, taking a broad perspective of trends in infrastructure this year, he highlights AI, which is becoming a natural part of discussions. And finally, of course, there is a stronger focus on sustainability. He believes that “the fact that we are feeling more the effects of climate change are putting this on the radar”; after talking about it for many years, sustainability is finally becoming mainstream.

Efforts to decarbonize and to build net zero infrastructure are advancing, while there is also a focus on resilience and adaptation

It has been two years since Rodrigo took on his current role at Bentley Systems, and we wanted to know his view of this time. “In many cases, our users surprise us with their creativity and the workflows they build with our solutions”, he remarks, adding that seeing “what users are doing with our technology is really the most rewarding aspect”. From his role, he highlights the importance of bridging the gap between users’ ambitions and needs in terms of sustainability and Bentley’s product development teams: “We can adjust and improve to meet those needs, and vice versa, new developments from our product teams can be pilot tested by users.” As an example of this, he mentions embodied carbon assessment to quantify the emissions associated with the construction of infrastructure.

In addition, the newly created position of Chief Sustainability Officer at Bentley will bring “focus, resources and alignment for sustainability”, as a natural evolution of the company, says Rodrigo. Chris Bradshaw, who takes on the new role, will bring together Bentley’s sustainability and education initiatives, with the objective of empowering Bentley’s users to achieve the sustainable development goals, while ensuring the next generation of engineers has the tools and knowledge they need to succeed.

Achieving 24x7 Access To Clean Drinking Water For Emerging Economies, Geoinfo Services. 2023 YII Going Digital Awards finalist in the Water and Wastewater category.

There is a huge carbon footprint linked to infrastructure, “which means there's a huge responsibility for the sectors, for the infrastructure sectors, to decarbonize and to become more efficient”, notes Rodrigo. Investments around sustainable infrastructure are on the rise, in the industry and in the world. Decarbonization efforts and efforts to build net zero infrastructure are advancing. On the other hand, there is a focus on resilience and adaptation: “Global spending will also increase a lot in terms of adapting infrastructure”, particularly in the water sector: “There are studies saying that more than 50% of the global spending around adapting infrastructure for climate resilience is on water infrastructure”, noted Rodrigo.

Aligned with these trends, it is not surprising that “many of the projects this year were directly linked to water conservation and climate resilience”. The core sustainability challenges for Bentley are clean energy transition, healthy cities and communities, land and water resources, climate action and resilience. Water is a big part of those challenges, which are all connected.