SWAN 2024: shaping the future of water management in Vancouver

Mahtab Barazandeh Mahtab Barazandeh May 30, 2024

5 min read

We just returned from a trip to the SWAN 2024 Conference, which was held in Vancouver, British Columbia. A water conference’s location can affect everyone’s perception of an event, and it brings with it a spotlight on the local area.

Water is important and abundant in Canada, which has a staggering 20% of the world’s freshwater resources and approximately 2 million lakes. Vancouver is renowned for its stunning natural beauty and innovative sustainability practices, so this may have been a perfect backdrop for a SWAN conference. Indeed, they have set a goal to become one of the greenest cities in the world.

Metro Vancouver water map from Where Does Our Water Come From?, a K-12 educational resource.

Metro Vancouver Commissioner & Chief Administrative Officer Jerry W. Dobrovolny gave an excellent presentation that highlighted the city’s commitment to high-quality potable water, which is sourced from the pristine Capilano, Seymour, and Coquitlam watersheds. They have forward-thinking water conservation programs, and their work and passion for the work exemplified the innovative spirit at the heart of the conference discussions.

In Vancouver, approximately 360 million liters of water are consumed daily, with a strong focus on reducing this through efficient usage and cutting-edge technology. The city’s robust wastewater treatment facilities, including the Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Lions Gate Wastewater Treatment Plant, manage around 1 billion liters of wastewater per day.

Metro Vancouver’s Jerry W. Dobrovolny presenting on the main stage.

Digital Twins in the water industry: from buzzing to unpacking

The 7th SWAN Digital Twin Workshop was a blend of panels and interactive roundtables, providing a platform for utilities, consulting firms, and technology providers to share insights. Digital twins, which are virtual replicas of physical systems, are transforming how we manage water infrastructure from planning and design to build and operation.

Although the definition, best practices, and reasons for adopting digital twin in water management are still somewhat vague for industry professionals, the discussions highlighted their potential to mitigate environmental impacts. Digital twins can optimize infrastructure design and enhance energy efficiency through continuous modeling.

Some leaders who applied the digital twin in their organization emphasized on starting small. They discussed the importance of initiating pilot projects with clearly defined KPIs to demonstrate the tangible benefits of digital twins.

“Define proof of concept and value proposition to justify the investment,” said Autodesk Senior Product Manager Javier Cantu, during the Tips to Scoping and Executing a Digital Twin Proof of Concept roundtable. This approach paves the way for broader adoption across the water sector. In the context of digital twin maturity, experts underscored the importance of adoptability, usability, scalability, stakeholder buy-in, types of models, and levels of complexity.

The roundtable discussions at the 7th SWAN Digital Twin Workshop were very engaging.

During enlightening conversations, it became evident that the success of digital twin hinges on reliable data. “Data accuracy is the key,” said Mia Sabanovic, a manager at the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, their sewer and stormwater utility. She believes that building a culture of data accuracy and ownership within organizations is crucial.

Another key takeaway was the need to foster a data-driven culture. Leadership must drive this change, stressing the role of human resources in managing and interpreting data. It’s about more than just technology; it’s about cultivating an environment where data is valued and utilized effectively.

Getting practical with Rising Smart Water Professionals

After the day of digital twin roundtables, during a special evening session, young professionals were invited to share their examples and demonstrate solutions for how utilities can advance in their digital journeys. Pierre Mishra, from RiSWP (Rising Smart Water Professionals), shared how he consolidates disparate data sources to create meaningful data analytics for their client utility. Kedar Dabhadkar explained how he created SWAN’s ML/AI Lighthouse tool, and Lucas Djehdian showed how a sewer network was optimized and made more efficient.

These real-world examples took the more theoretical discussion points from the day’s workshop and demonstrated how they had been put into practice by persistence and enthusiastic engineering. Teams of young professionals then continued this exercise by workshopping digital solutions to everyday problems such as a lack of meter data or sanitary sewer overflows.

Adapting to the AI era

The buzz around AI was palpable. Its potential in water management was explored, along with the ethical and security considerations that come with it. Education and awareness about AI’s capabilities and limitations are vital for its successful implementation. Once again, standardizing data practices emerged as a critical step for leveraging AI in water management. Javier Cantu, whose focus at Autodesk is on AI and ML, along with Product Marketing Manager Patrick Bonk, spoke about Autodesk’s AI water management capabilities by showing condition assessments developed via VAPAR’s integration with Autodesk Info360 Asset and real-time network operations to empower predictive analysis.

Our resident AI and ML expert, Javier Cantu, speaking on a panel.

Over on the wastewater track, the use of AI to simulate various scenarios within catchment networks was particularly intriguing. This approach allows utilities to optimize treatment processes and monitor systems more effectively. Sanitary and Environmental Engineer Caique Amorim, from BRK Ambiental, one of the largest privately owned waste management organizations in Brazil, shared a success story on adopting Transcend’s Generative Design technology and pointed out how generative design enhanced their treatment plant operations and expedited regulatory approvals.

Embracing innovation and sustainability

The SWAN 2024 Conference in Vancouver was an enlightening journey into the status quo and the future of water management, and they will be putting many sessions on their website if you missed it. It reinforced the transformative potential of digital technologies in creating more efficient and sustainable water systems, from digital twins to AI.

As we reflect on our experience, we are excited about the possibilities these technologies offer, but even more excited about the persistence, knowledge, and creativity of the people behind them. Here’s to a future where innovation and sustainability go hand in hand.

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