BLUE PLANET Berlin Water Dialogues 2021 | An event recap

2021’s first BLUE PLANET Berlin Water Dialogues was special in two ways: On 25th February, the conference format not only celebrated its 10th anniversary but also its digital premiere. Debates around solutions to the challenges of global water management took place entirely virtually, allowing nearly 700 participants worldwide to join this vibrant conference and interact with speakers and other guests via the online networking tool. High-ranking international guest speakers presented innovations in asset management processes and discussed water utilities in smart cities. The next event is planned to be held in November 2021.

In the welcoming words, Julia Braune, General Manager at German Water Partnership and Frank Bruckmann, CFO at Berliner Wasserbetriebe both highlighted the important opportunity for the international water industry to meet online and to enter into dialogues to improve the global water situation. Bruckmann also mentioned the newly published digitalisation index of the German water sector. Digitalisation was the overarching framework topic of the conference. Under the umbrella theme Smart Water for Resilient Cities, the program was divided into two topic sections, focusing on Innovative Asset Management Processes and Water Utilities in Smart Cities.

Innovation is key

„Innovation is crucial to help the water sector achieve the sustainable development goals and the European Green Deal ambitions“, Claudia Castell-Exner, President of the European Federation of National Associations of water services, EurEau, set the tone in her keynote speech. She presented immediate needs such as the innovation of analytical methods, creating sustainable business models, and above all digitalizing the water sector. “It is vital that we plan and consistently invest in our systems according to the long-life cycles for our assets. In this ongoing process, innovation is a key factor for us”, Castell-Exner stated.

Different perspectives, one goal: detecting sewer damages using AI

Initiating the first topic of the day, Regina Gnirß, Head of Research and Development of the Utility Berliner Wasserbetriebe, provided a comprehensive introduction, pointing out opportunities and challenges as well as showing a simulation of sewer systems for different investment scenarios.

Current challenges such as old infrastructure, new demands from increased runoff and an aging workforce call for innovative technology. Insights on the benefits of using Artificial Intelligence to detect damages in sewer systems were given in the framework of three different projects with similar objectives. The AUZUKA project presented by Daniel Sauter (Berliner Wasserbetriebe) aims to achieve the detection of sewer damages by (semi-)automatically using novel 3D camera technology. The project SEMA presented by Mathias Riechel (Berlin Center of Competence for Water) developed a quality-assured aging model for the condition of Berlin’s sewer system and future investment needs. And the Swiss company Hades AI, represented by Co-Founder Christian Koch, uses machine learning to automatically detect defects in sewer inspection videos and inform cities when and how to repair them, saving tax money, reducing CO2 emissions and wastewater leakages.

In four subsequent break-out sessions participants had the opportunity to join discussions that built upon the presentations and looked at “Innovative tools for asset management strategies”, “Guidelines for the assessment of wastewater networks”, “Physical modelling of sewer failures” and “IoT networks and sensors: smart sewer systems”.

Integrating smart water concepts in cities

“Smart City is not about technology. It is about enabling a sustainable urban future facing – and in need of – rapid change”, Prof. Jochen Rabe, CEO of Berlin Center of Competence for Water and professor at the Einstein Center Digital Future introduced the second part of the conference on Water Utilities in Smart Cities. In his opening remarks, Jochen Rabe explained how resilience informs the development trajectories towards the overarching goal of sustainability and both, the opportunities and risks associated to the Smart City within this transformation.  Jochen Rabe was challenging the audience and the water sector to engage more deeply in the Smart City debate and to deploy digital means as a key enabler to analyse, communicate and eventually operate the SUSTAINABLE SMART WATER CITY.

Walter Kling from the City of Vienna joined this paradigm and presented Vienna’s achievements in smart city water management. Vienna is developing a smart city framework which includes water supply in all its strategy areas – a success story that continues to be written.

It’s all about integration and interoperability

A great illustration of an integrated approach is the Digital Water City project, which was presented by Sofia Housni (Greater Paris Sanitation Authority – SIAPP) and Nicolas Caradot (Berlin Center of Competence for Water). Its core aim is leading urban water management to its digital future by solving water challenges in five European cities, e.g. creating an early warning system based on a forecast of bathing water quality in Paris or fostering public involvement in urban water management in Berlin – using fifteen digital solutions.

Discussions in the following break-out-sessions examined that the integration of water – as a physical asset – with the digital world is still at an early stage, but efforts are underway for this to change very soon. One of the biggest challenges is to instill trust in smart solutions. There is a need to break up siloes and enhance interoperability.  

Furthermore, it was concluded that governance is one of the key bottlenecks that need to be addressed, because there is still a discrepancy between policy and “tech-readiness”. When considering utilities, it was stated that characteristics of utilities being smart are to be inclusive, green, sustainable, and resilient. And to achieve this, for utilities to be effective and smart, capacity is a key pillar – together with governance and finance.

A global story with local storylines

Wrapping up an intense afternoon filled with project insights, expert discussions and 1-on-1 networking Paul Fleming, Global Water Program Manager at Microsoft concluded: “Water is a global story with local storylines”. He highlighted that partnerships are a crucial success factor, and that water can be an asset to decision-making by way of a stronger role in policies.

Conclusion

The virtual afternoon has once again proven that international collaboration is imperative in addressing global challenges of the water sector. As water is not yet sufficiently featured in the smart city debate, global events such as BLUE PLANET Berlin Water Dialogues are a first step towards changing this. Many promising projects and innovations are already underway. Together, the water industry can create a sustainable water strategy for the future.

Watch a full recording of all sessions here.

Download the speaker presentations here.

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The next BLUE PLANET event is planned for November 2021. Follow our website www.blueplanetberlin.de for updates.