The digital utility: Exposing dark data within our buried infrastructure Author | Gregg Herrin, Vice President of Water Infrastructure, Bentley Systems

  1. Introduction
  2. Advancing digitally in water utilities
  3. Addresssing critical business issues
  4. Conclusion
  5. Take assessment


We have an opportunity to help water utilities get the most out of existing assets and to embrace a digital strategy that helps them meet their objectives to deliver safe, reliable, and efficient service to their customers.

The main challenges of water utilities are the same as they have always been—struggling with aging and insufficient infrastructure, while trying to deliver safe, reliable, and cost-effective service. There are some things that are increasingly influencing the complexity and risks associated with these challenges, like population shifts and land-use changes from rapid urbanization, increases in extreme hydrometeorological events and natural disasters, and increased public expectations and government regulations.

Many utilities don’t really know how to address these challenges, so they do things that seem important, like collecting electronic data in unprecedented volumes, such as output from smart meters, sensors, and various types of inspections. However, they continue struggling to use that data to support better decisions, in part because many lack the digital technology to improve their business processes. The digital movement represents an opportunity for water organizations to change how they work by leveraging data more effectively, but it also represents a risk – without a way to use their data effectively to address real problems, many utilities find themselves drowning in data while thirsting for insight.

This is one of the things that I am the most excited about – we have the ability to help utilities get the most out of their existing assets by accessing data currently isolated in disconnected IT environments, spreadsheets, and paper records to help them meet their objectives to deliver safe, reliable, and efficient service to their customers.

It's time.

In my time with Bentley, I have seen a lot of advancements in computing technology, sensor technology, and communication technology. But, many water-related utilities have been hesitant to adopt new technology because they are concerned about data security, don’t know if the benefits outweigh the cost of implementation, and might have some doubt about their ability to effectively use the new tools. Those are some of the challenges that lie ahead in this area, but I am excited to see so many people in the water industry who are now ready to take a more aggressive approach to using technology to improve their efficiency, reliability, and service in general. I, along with others in the industry, have been evangelizing many of these technologies to the marketplace for several decades, and it is very rewarding to see the shift that is finally happening.

What makes now the time? In my opinion, the digital twin–a digital representation of a physical asset, process, or system, as well as the engineering information that allows us to understand and model its performance.

Advancing digitally in water utilities

Companies are using these digital twins in a growing number of industries, making it easier to design and operate complex products and processes. - Deloitte

Like Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), water utilities are leveraging sensors, RFID’s, smart phones and cloud services. And, with ubiquitous connectivity, AI and distributed computing, utilities can use this this as an opportunity to drive digital advancement to minimize silos and create information mobility as well as leverage big data, artificial intelligence, computer vision and machine learning to better manage their infrastructure assets. At the heart of digital advancement in many industries is the digital twinDeloitte states that “companies are using these digital twins in a growing number of industries, making it easier to design and operate complex products and processes.” Additionally, in their Insights document, Signals for Strategists: Expecting digital twins, Deloitte predicts the digital twin industry will be at $16B by 2023.

Typically, digital twins can be continuously synchronized from multiple sources, including sensors and continuous surveying data and meter readings, to represent the near real-time status, working condition, or position. By bridging the physical and digital worlds, you have access to timely and trustworthy information that can help you make decisions about everything from planning and design to operations and maintenance. A digital twin enables users to visualize asset, perform analysis, and generate insights for predicting and optimizing performance. A digital twin helps users make informed decisions in every part of the asset lifecycle, from long-term decisions about system vulnerability and capacity planning, to medium-term decisions like predictive maintenance planning, to short-term decisions like pump scheduling. It can even help with immediate decisions like emergency response, where time is critical, and mistakes can be costly or even deadly.


Sabesp (São Paulo, Brazil) has implemented improvements in water systems throughout its service area. On one of these initiatives, the team created a proactive infrastructure index using hydraulic modeling to improve reliability of the water supply service. The solution included analyzing the water speed in pipelines to ensure better physical safety and help reduce pipeline breakages. The team analyzed lack of pressure and low pressure at tank input points for continuous supply without outages. In another project, they restructured Jardim Angela Sector in São Paulo and reduced water loss from 61% to 30% with an estimated savings of BRL 103,000. Finally, for the Diadema project, modeling and simulation were at the cornerstone of Sabesp’s preliminary design work on the water system. Hydraulic modeling simulated simple, beneficial solutions to the organization, replacing costly, complex alternatives and ensuring that there would be water security for the system for at least a decade. The project has reduced water loss, saved water resources, and returned the measured value on this project as a result of process integration and new technologies. Currently in construction, the interventions implemented have already improved supply to the population of Diadema, enhancing customer satisfaction and improving small-sale metering. Image courtesy of Sabesp.

An open, connected data environment

The digital twin is enabled by a connected data environment where you have open and live access to information within digital engineering models, so that engineering technologies (ET) can be brought together with information technologies (IT) and operational technologies (OT) to improve the throughput, safety, and reliability of infrastructure assets.
Combining real-time intelligence with spatial analytics to enable utilities to understand the present and predict future performance.

With digital twins ability to combine real-time intelligence with spatial analytics, it enables utilities not only to better understand what is currently happening in their water distribution and sewer collection systems, but also to predict future performance and simulate the impacts of possible actions before they make changes in the real world. Digital twins allow immersive visualization and analytics visibility of decision support results to monitor operational performance and efficiency optimization, powered by artificial intelligence. Digital twins also enable work and asset management (both discrete and linear assets), reliability-centered maintenance with bad actor and root cause analysis, and risk-based strategic lifecycle asset management. This helps to optimize lifecycle costs, extend infrastructure useful life, and prioritize, manage, and deliver capital improvement projects.

Bentley digital twin technology

Our core competency is in engineering technologies (ET), but we are converging ET with operations technologies (OT) and information technologies (IT) to deliver an open, connected data environment that enables digital twins.

By bringing IT, OT, and ET together, we can create true intelligent and connected digital infrastructure, supporting planning, design, construction, and operations for smart water networks. And through the open, connected data environment, we can enable faster, better workflows that address the overall challenges of a utility better than individual tools can.

These connections of processes and data allow us to do things such as connect reality models with simulation tools and connect functional design tools with physical design tools. These connections make it easier to ensure that our infrastructure performs the way it is intended to, that it fits within the real-world the way it needs to, and that its impact can be shared effectively with all types of stakeholders, within all corners of a utility, and even beyond to city officials and the public.

We also excel at making sure digital twins have the fidelity they need to have long-term benefits. Our entire approach is based on capturing the physical reality of the existing conditions—the digital context; and the aligning of the virtual engineering data—the digital components—to make that “dark data” available for analytics; and the synchronization of that data to reflect the continuous change intrinsic to every project or operating infrastructure asset. Our iTwin® Services provide the change synchronization necessary to maintain the data integrity of the digital twin.

As part of Bentley’s open modeling environment, Bentley OpenFlows provides water professionals around the world with advanced engineering tools to plan, design, maintain, and operate water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. This includes asset mapping and management, capacity/pressure control; reliability and criticality; leakage reduction; and water quality/safety and energy management. And our solutions cross all lifecycle phases – from master and/or capital planning to detailed design, to operations and maintenance, including real-time monitoring and prediction, emergency response, and maintenance planning.

Digital twins in water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure

  • Water network digital twins that provide actionable insights to support smarter decisions in all phases of the asset lifecycle, from master planning to capital planning and design, to operations and maintenance including water resilience, better emergency preparedness and predictions that can help avoid issues.
  • Sewer, storm, or combined system digital twins using integrated hydraulic modeling and infrastructure data provides actionable insights to support smarter decisions in all phases of the asset lifecycle, from master planning to capital planning and design, to operations and maintenance.
  • Flood resilience digital twins provide actionable insights with accurate and reliable analysis to mitigate flood risk.

Addressing critical business issues

System reliability and criticality

Identify all segments in the system that can be isolated; evaluate system impact if any segment is closed; and evaluate importance of any pipe or valve failures. Prudent water engineers understand the risks involved with their operations and develop response plans. Executing assessments and related planning requires that they consider potential risks. A digital twin helps assess risk and resilience, making it possible to test risks using a hydraulic/water quality model of the system that reflects the system’s current condition. With a hydraulic model, the utility can simulate such events as pipe failure, power outages, fires, and contamination.

Water loss reduction

Combine network management or district metered areas with modeling to identify problem locations and guide field crews.

Águas do Porto, EM

Porto, Portugal develops technology platforms for integrated management of urban water cycle. The utility created an online platform combining all data sources (GIS, real-time network sensors, household meters, SCADA, laboratory billing, work orders, and logistics). Creating a digital twin of the city’s water supply, wastewater, stormwater, and bathing water systems helped forecast flooding and water quality issues that enabled the city to improve its response and resilience. Implementing all the modeling domains and the plug-in-based server capabilities were the main factors that contributed to the success of the implementation at the city scale. This eased the integration of new models, data sources, and tools, as well as helped to seamlessly put these components into operation and publish results. With this solution Porto is able to predict performance, identify failures early, and prescribe actions based on asset information.

Energy Management

For evaluating energy usage and costs with long-term planning and decisions for pumping strategies and pump selection, and short-term operational decisions for pump scheduling. Combining SCADA with hydraulic model results can be used to test alternative ways to operate systems to save energy or improve efficiency.

Real-time operations

Updating inputs from SCADA and other measured sources, simulating automatically, triggering early water alarms, and displaying model results in SCADA HMI. Integrating hydraulic model results with SCADA can fill in the information between SCADA monitoring points (for example, the expected pressure at a pressure zone boundary) and provide operators with properties that can’t be measured directly (water age, velocity), giving engineers a comprehensive overview of the water system. Image courtesy of Sabesp.

Emergency response

An integrated SCADA-hydraulic model not only provides an accurate and clear understanding of how the current system behaves, but it can also simulate various alternatives to identify the optimum emergency response. The difficulty in preparing emergency response plans is that the response will differ depending on the type of emergency that ensues. Most water utilities already have a hydraulic model of their system that they use for planning and design. From here, it is not difficult to construct a real-time model to use in operations.


Transients can be caused by rapid changes such as pump shut down, valve closures, fire-fighting, or power outages. Large pressure waves can cause very high or low pressures and the results can be catastrophic failure. The goal is to understand where problems exist and simulate the effect of any type of surge protection device.

Barwon Water

Barwon Water (Victoria, Australia) wanted to optimize asset management decisions and improve customer service by more efficiently planning network improvements. A key performance indicator for customer service is the number of customers affected by planned and unplanned supply interruptions. Therefore, it wanted to improve the quality of service in the 8,000-square-kilometer service area. The water model automatically shut down individual segments of the system and determined the impact of each shutdown on performance. The team improved accuracy by identifying critical mains and avoided identifying critical pipes manually, which saved an estimated two years of work and AUD 200,000.


Identify areas in the network that are at risk from hydrogen sulfide (H2S) formation; determine system overflow risk; identify areas of inflow and infiltration and simulate water quality.

Urban drainage

Consider drainage during master planning, capital planning as well as system extensions and rehabilitation. For instance, there could be a part of a city sewer system where problems with overflows occur in a handful of locations. The information that a digital twin provides allows engineers to investigate different improvement scenarios to decide which one is best. Bentley supports many types of low-impact development such as bioretention cells, rain barrels, porous pavements, vegetative swales, and infiltration trenches.

Urban flooding resilience

Digital twins support flood resilience with integrated flood modeling and simulation software that allows engineers to understand and mitigate flood risk to the complex array of interconnected processes related to urban, riverine, and coastal systems. Using accurate and reliable risk analysis data, in an open, connected data environment, engineers can work to offer a flood resilience digital twin.

City of Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal has seen its share of flood events. Rising sea levels and frequent extreme rainfall events have increased flood risk. The region around Lisbon has been urbanizing rapidly, leading to soil imperviousness that has led to more flooding in the region. Flood events are often a consequence of heavy rainfall, which occur in single or multiple subcatchments. Lisbon’s existing infrastructure is not adequate to ensure efficient drainage during these storm events. Between 1900 and 2006, Lisbon registered 84 inundations, and between 2008 and 2014, 15 inundation events occurred. Lisbon created a digital twin for urban flood simulation that lets them comprehensively model alternative scenarios and develop a plan for several return periods. This digital twin helps Lisbon create a drainage master plan that guards against changing climate conditions and urbanization.


The future of digital water technology is the same as the future for water systems in general; we will progress toward a situation where commonplace problems like water pipe bursts, sewer spills, flooding, and so on are extremely rare. Because we are able to recognize and react to problems instantaneously, we are more capable of predicting and preventing problems before they happen, and we are able to make better design decisions so that new infrastructure is more resilient. As a result, we will see improved service levels, reliability, and efficiency, as well as an overall improvement in our social, economic, and environmental impacts.

This improved real-world will be largely the result of continued advances in digital technologies, because it will be enabled by bringing together digital engineering with enterprise and operational data, which can improve the whole-of-life value for water infrastructure assets. Digital twins will improve how utilities manage distribution, collection, and stormwater systems with efficient operations, water loss prevention, and resiliency. Just like weather forecasts and traffic directions have become second-nature, digital twins will become an engrained part of every aspect of the water industry, and that is a great thing for all of us.

The digital movement represents an opportunity for utilities to o change how they work, find ways to collaborate, and share data more effectively, to optimize both workflows and the life of assets.

Digital twins have the potential to offer considerable benefits. The challenge is where to start, what are the next steps, and how can users accelerate digitalization. The initial step is to take the digital assessment. By assessing current business practices against an advancement framework, you can have a better understanding of your advancement level and what that level means; can identify what level you want to achieve; and create your strategy and roadmap for moving up the digital maturity stages. You may find areas to improve that are easiest as a starting point. There is no single path or set of steps you must take, but Bentley can provide experience and project examples to help you understand what others who are like you have done. It all starts with the first step – taking the assessment.

Take the digital assessment

Bentley Systems partners with project delivery firms, consultants, contractors, and owner-operators to help them get the most value out of data in a connected data environment and to help make better decisions, gain insights, improve asset performance, and achieve better business outcomes. We offer a Going Digital advancement framework that can help you understand practices that your organization can implement as you consider next in your digital advancement. It starts with an assessment.

About author | Gregg joined Bentley Systems in 2004 when Bentley acquired Haestad Methods, a pioneer in the hydraulics and hydrology software industry. Since then, he has served in many roles focused on the combination of engineering technologies and data systems. Currently, he leads the team that is responsible for Bentley’s water infrastructure solutions.


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