Giving Digital Twins the IMPETUS to become regional

, , , | |

Photo: Professor Christos Makropoulos (©KWR)

Interview by Rinske Potjewijd, KWR

The phrase ‘Digital Twins’ has become common in the water industry to describe creating virtual replicas of physical assets, such as water treatment plants or water networks. However, another potential lies in ‘digital twinning’ an entire region, initially connecting ‘hard’ ground sensors and ‘soft’ satellite sensors to regional environmental and infrastructure models. This could help eventually connect multiple utility digital twin models to help with long-term water decision making.

That’s according to Christos Makropoulos, a professor at the National Technical University of Athens and a principal scientist at KWR, both organisations that are partners in the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project IMPETUS.

“The solutions we develop aspire to help regions develop adaptation pathways – and regional digital twins are an important piece of this puzzle. Rather than ‘twinning’ a particular treatment plant or water solution network, this is about a digital representation at a regional scale.”

Christos Makropoulos, Professor at NTUA and a Principal Scientist at KWR

In the context of water, digital twins are an “actively integrated, accurate digital representation of our physical assets, systems, and processes with a constant stream of data linking them to the physical counterparts for continuous model update and calibration – and vice versa”.

Taking a broader view, Makropoulos believes that a digital twin of a region could eventually be used as the evidence base for discussions between stakeholders. “Imagine a region as a puzzle board, with the environmental situation updated in real-time. Relevant information can be added so that the stakeholders can access a shared picture of what is currently happening and how things may evolve.” he said.

One of the aims of IMPETUS is to help turn climate commitments into tangible, urgent actions to protect communities. This includes helping accelerate Europe’s climate adaptation strategy and meet ambitions to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

A convergence of [software] worlds

The professor believes that we are witnessing the convergence of software ‘worlds’: BIM (building information modelling), GIS (geographic information systems) and environmental and infrastructure modelling (e.g. simulations of water distribution systems). “The term ‘digital twin’ has caught up faster than the technology has matured. But it promoted an increased realisation that more system integration is needed to see real value. Although we don’t have full blown (off the shelf) digital twin technologies, we are taking steps toward this integration. The idea of digital twins provides a point in the horizon to help with our integration course,” he added.

Despite the ambitions, legislative and commercial challenges remain, as well as cyber security issues.

Makropoulos participated in a previous, related H2020 EU project called STOP-IT (Strategic, Tactical, Operational Protection of water Infrastructure against cyber-physical Threats), which addressed water infrastructure as a cyber-physical infrastructure. A toolkit was developed that allowed utilities to explore interactions between the cyber and physical systems from a security perspective.

“The more we create digital twins, the more relevant cyber, physical and whole system approaches to security becomes – it’s important to go in with our eyes open,” the professor concluded.

About KWR

KWR Water Research Institute generates knowledge to enable the water sector to operate water-wisely in our urbanised society. Read more about KWR.


High temperatures

Record-breaking summertime temperatures have been recorded in the Netherlands in recent years. With global temperatures rising, such extreme weather events will occur more often, and for longer periods. Prolonged high temperatures, with warm nights as well as hot days, can cause heat stress* and related health issues, particularly among city populations.

*Heat stress occurs when the human body cannot get rid of excess heat and can impact wellbeing through conditions such as heat stroke, exhaustion, cramps and rashes.

"We want to enable municipality decision makers who are working on spatial developments to identify heat stress 'hot spots' and cool areas, analyse the future effects of climate change, and model the effect of different heat stress-reducing measures. The tool must provide them with an easy starting point to integrate heat stress risks in their projects."


Despite the cooling effect of the sea in the region of Zeeland, the growing risk of heat stress has become a concern.

Elderly and other vulnerable people are more impacted by the effects of prolonged heat, which can cause headaches, dizziness, insomnia and other health issues – even death. Excess temperatures also affect general comfort and liveability of cities. Water quality can be reduced, both for drinking and swimming, and infrastructure can be affected. Buildings and concrete surfaces trap heat, potentially leading to damage, and release it during the night, keeping temperatures warm.

During heat waves, it is important that everyone has access to a cool and comfortable place. Appropriate spatial planning can help to decrease and deal with heat stress. Environmental factors like water bodies, trees, and shade have a major impact on stress caused by high temperatures. Therefore, planting trees, removing concrete surfaces, creating green roofs and cool spaces can improve our comfort and health. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is developing a digital tool to support regional decision making for city planning to address these needs.


Flood risk

By 2050, sea-level within this region is predicted to rise by 15-40 cm, with more frequent extreme weather and more (severe) storms triggered by climate change. These changes will exacerbate the natural risk of flooding in the IMPETUS ‘Atlantic’ region, because it is surrounded by rivers and the sea, and is below sea level.

*Risk takes into account two aspects; the chance that an event will occur and the negative impact of such an event once it occurs. When there is a low chance that an event will occur, but its impacts are huge, the risk is still significant.

“In the Netherlands, an extensive system of dikes protects us against sea and river flooding. We have always put our faith in this defence and focused almost solely on flood prevention. However, pressure on our system will increase with climate change and rising sea levels. To adapt and maintain a safe living environment, we should develop other safety measures, like more robust spatial planning and contingency plans."


Rotterdam city, is located in Rijnmond – ‘mouth of the Rhine’. The Rhine river flows through this densely populated area and characterises the region. Protections such as sea dikes and storm surge barriers have been constructed to protect the region, but flooding still occurs.

People living in the city are accustomed to seeing smaller floods. The changing climate affects the interplay between rainfall, river levels and sea storms, increasing the flooding risk. Water levels could rise by a few metres, even in populated areas, with potentially massive impacts. 

Mitigation measures such as storm surge barriers reduce the chance that high water reaches the city, but to minimise the impact of floods when they do occur, adaptation strategies are also needed. A city that can adapt to be safe from floods must be carefully designed. How best to design such an adaptive city?

Critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and evacuation routes, must be accessible at all times. Planning how to best protect them, homes and lives is complex. Flood water behaves in a complex way and flood risks show strong spatial variations. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is developing a digital tool to support regional decision making for adaptive city planning. 


Energy and waste water

To become climate-neutral by 2050, climate mitigation* efforts are crucial in our strategy for how to deal with climate change. Reducing our energy consumption is a significant mitigation step. In the Netherlands, 15% of energy is consumed in the Rijnmond area around the port of Rotterdam, in large part by a major petrochemical industry cluster.

*Climate mitigation encompasses measures such as technologies, processes, or practices that reduce carbon emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.


The Rotterdam port petrochemical industry cluster is Europe’s largest. It consumes 70% of the Rijnmond region’s energy. A large part of this energy is wasted (64%, 203 petajoules). More than half of that energy is lost with wastewater. In addition, most energy processes within these industries rely on fossil fuels, which has a significant impact on the climate.

Energy use must be minimised and fossil fuels should be replaced by renewable sources if climate change is to be mitigated. Electrification of processes opens up the possibility to use more renewable energy and can greatly impact decarbonisation. Recovering wasted heat would significantly reduce energy consumption and is a first step towards a more circular industry. 

Supporting industries in a transition towards climate-neutrality depends on identifying how best to reduce their carbon footprint without sacrificing production or performance. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is creating a digital tool that supports decision making about pathways towards an effective energy transition for EU industry.