Tallinn University of Technology

Ageing infrastructure, changing climate and tightening environmental requirements pose a challenge to the Estonian water sector to ensure continued high quality of service. According to researchers in the field, digitalisation of the field would help to overcome the bottlenecks more easily, writes the research portal Novaator.

Ivar Annus

An analysis commissioned by the European Commission last year showed that the water sector is a follower, rather than a leader, in the transition to digital solutions. When implementing innovative solutions, technological, social, and environmental constraints and opportunities must be taken into account. In Estonia, researchers at the Tallinn University of Technology, together with the Ministry of the Environment and other stakeholders, started to look for solutions to accelerate the transition in autumn 2022.

The time is ripe

According to Ivar Annus, Professor of Construction and Architecture at Tallinn University of Technology, the need for a digital transition stems from two simultaneous developments. Firstly, there is a generational change happening in the water sector, both in Estonia and in Europe. ‘New designers or water treatment plant operators are more eager to use digital solutions in their daily work processes. This does not always mean an immediate increase in efficiency compared to the current situation, but if solutions are implemented correctly, the potential benefits are obvious,’ the professor pointed out.

As examples of such applications, researchers from the Tallinn University of Technology, in collaboration with Tallinna Vesi, developed model-based decision tools for water system performance assessment and a data-based pipeline reconstruction strategy to ensure water system performance. They allow to automate working processes and analyse different scenarios before investment decisions.

At the same time, however, there has been a change in the way systems are operated and managed. Drinking water, rain water and sewage systems are no longer just pipelines that can be operated by a workman with a hammer and a wrench, but have been transformed from physical to cyber-physical systems. ‘There will be more data-based decision-making, a variety of sensors and actuators that operate systems automatically,’ Annus listed.

For example, smart pipelines can detect faults and changes in advance and reduce the chance of flooding during major floods. In Estonia, such pipelines have been built in Haapsalu and Rakvere as part of a pilot project. More broadly, however, according to the professor, the deployment of solutions is slower than in other areas.

Main issues

According to Ivar Annus, a survey among stakeholders showed that the digital competence of water companies is higher than that of local governments. They also have greater capacity. The latter is understandable. When a local government deals with many different areas, it is not always possible to keep up with innovation. ‘This problem can be seen more clearly especially in smaller local governments,’ the professor said.

Based on the experience of other countries, standardisation poses serious problems. In other words, you can collect a lot of them, but if they are in a different format or not machine-readable, there is nothing to do with them or it means doing everything manually.

The same wider problem was highlighted in the analysis of the European Commission. As a rule, standards governing the water sector are not incorporated into other regulations. Even where frameworks exist, there is no obligation to follow them. There is also a lack of a clear vision at political level for implementing innovation.

In Estonia, the law obliges local governments to draw up public water supply and sewerage development plans. However, they are mostly static PDF documents that are over hundreds of pages long and not automatically readable. According to Annus, development plans are also not directly linked to public databases. It is difficult to monitor compliance, and the documents are rather cumbersome for decision-making.

Standardisation, a common cooperation platform and political will

According to Ivar Annus, the situation could improve in the future. Thus, the Ministry of the Environment, in cooperation with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, has launched a project to review all Estonian environmental databases, their compatibility and the logic of data collection. ‘The aim is that in the future it would be possible to display data in real time and take the necessary baseline data for decision-making or analysis. This is the basis for digitalising the sector in general,’ said the professor.

The parties have also recognised the need for a common platform for cooperation. ‘For example, a digital public water supply and sewerage development plan is a predefined form in a digital environment, which the consultant, the water company or the local government will then automatically fill in field by field,’ said Annus.

However, the descriptive part, which is currently an important part of static development plans, should become trivial. Existing and necessary information can be automatically generated from different databases and linked to, for example, geographical information system databases.

In addition to making plans on paper, the ongoing project will create a data-based digital prototype of a public water supply and sewerage development plan based on the Jõgeva water company. This would provide practical input to the Ministry of the Environment on how to change legislation and regulations in the future. Also, a guide for the development plan of the public water supply so that it is actually implemented.

However, when the current development plans expire, according to Annus, a political decision is needed on how and in what form new ones will be drawn up. One way or another, this should also be reflected in legislation and various guidelines.

What are the current major challenges?

  • The water sector is fragmented – solutions are found for specific individual problems and in different ways in each city/region, but this does not encourage broad-based innovation. It is costly and irrational to act separately. One of the reasons is the lack of standardisation of data. However, the Berlin solution, for example, cannot be directly transferred to Tallinn or Paris, as different countries have different regulations.
  • Pipelines are old, dating back to the post-World War II era in many European cities. A large number of them, including in Estonian cities, are reaching the end of their operating time. However, there are no resources to replace them all. Digital solutions can help to solve this problem, and to reconstruct the pipelines where it is most needed to ensure a continued high quality of the service.
  • The impact of climate change and changes in the urban environment, which are not adequately taken into account in the planning of new solutions or in the reconstruction of existing ones. Digital twins of systems allow future scenarios to be analysed before intervention.

Who is a good role model? A good example is Denmark, where the city of Aarhus has switched to data-based decision-making in water management. Every one of their plans starts with the question of where the water is going to be diverted to when we start planning a building or fill up a property. The Danes have also built digital twins of the urban environment, which allow them to act out different scenarios in real time, then analyse them and make the best decisions.