Richard Vestner: Merging the virtual and physical water worlds

 

Fostering a passion for digitalisation

During his civil engineering studies, Dr Richard Vestner discovered the exciting world of water and his scientific ambition led to a PhD in advanced wastewater treatment from the Bundeswehr University Munich. Spending his entire career in the water sector – with a small respite as a business consultant – he says he has “never looked back”.

"Digitalisation efforts yield success only when there is value creation for users, and the environment is positive. I think we are still scratching the surface.”

Over the last five years, he says he is embracing the digital transformation of the water industry and the leadership challenges that come with it. Below is a small summary of the full interview with Aquatech Global Events ahead of the Innovation Forum.

You are a prominent figure within the German Water Partnership (GWP) – tell me about this role and activity?
Dr Richard Vestner (RV): Well, I am a founding member of GWP and an elected Board member. In this voluntary role, I had the opportunity over the last five years to contribute to the strategy and activities of this association, that promotes international business development in the water sector. My passion for digitalisation led to a working group "Water 4.0" which pursues digital solutions for the entire bandwidth of global water challenges.

This GWP working group has produced reports on Water 4.0. How do you think Water 4.0 is perceived outside of Germany?
RV: I observe that for the past three years the term Water 4.0 has also been increasingly used abroad. It comes from the analogy to the German "Industry 4.0" initiative, so we have a great role model to learn from, and the 4.0 approach continues to become more international.

In your role as Chief Digital Officer, how do you see digitalisation efforts in water progressing within Europe?
RV: I would say, slowly but surely. Europe is not a uniform market and water has many segments and users, so we recognise different speeds. Good approaches prevail, but digitalisation efforts yield success only when there is a cost-benefit effect, and the value creation for users and the environment are positive. I think we are still scratching the surface.

In your own words and in the context of water, define a Digital Twin?
RV: The definition is independent of the application environment, actually: A Digital Twin is a real-time technology that virtually represents the real elements as well as the dynamics and performance of an object, machine or system by deploying an interconnected ensemble of models for a targeted purpose.

For a water utility, where have you seen the best example of where a digital twin has been created and is leading to operational improvements?
RV: That is our longstanding client Aarhus Vand in Denmark, and a representative is presenting their strategy in Amsterdam at the Innovation Forum. This Danish Utility was one of the first movers in digitalisation and DHI had the chance to support many steps of their journey. Today, a set of forecasting-models connected in real-time with sensors and actuators enable the operators to make faster and better decisions and allow for a high degree of automation in a data-based environment.

The phrase 'digital twin' is becoming very fashionable and is often overused/misrepresented. Agree/disagree and why?
RV: As new technologies become more prevalent, there is always a marketing push to occupy terms and use them for new products or services. So yes, the term now is being used widely. However, I see that as a positive signal of being sensitive to and interested in innovation. However, sustainable value and full potential only come with applying Digital Twins in Cyber-Physical Water Systems, where virtual and physical worlds merge.

You’re moderating the session on Water 4.0, smart cities and digital twins at the Innovation Forum. What are you most looking forward to in the event?
RV: Meeting with passionate water professionals, exchanging ideas, learning from users and identifying the next collaborations. My session is titled 'Future Cities & the Role of Water 4.0', and we have some great speakers from Spain, Sweden, the US and also Germany. It promises to be a thought-provoking discussion.

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