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Moving Towards Decarbonized Infrastructure: Interview with Rodrigo Fernandes from Bentley Systems

Moving Towards Decarbonized Infrastructure: Interview with Rodrigo Fernandes from Bentley Systems

How can the construction industry achieve sustainable development goals, address climate action and decarbonize infrastructure? We interviewed Rodrigo Fernandes, Director of Empowering Sustainable Development Goals at Bentley Systems and European Climate Pact Ambassador, to better understand the future of construction and how digital technology can help integrate sustainability.

Decarbonizing infrastructure is the biggest challenge for the construction sector. The infrastructure engineering software company Bentley Systems recently announced innovations to its iTwin platform. In order to support the sustainable development goals of infrastructure projects, the platform has integrated workflows for lifecycle assessment and embodied carbon calculation capabilities The software can be used for buildings, infrastructure, renovations, and construction products and materials. This is a sign that the construction industry is increasingly integrating sustainability.

Software such as the one you develop allows you to test constructions before they are built. Up until now, the digital twin has been presented as an indispensable tool for testing the technical resistance of buildings or for better considering population flows in large areas. Today, how can environmental data be integrated into digital tools?

“Environmental data is obviously linked to infrastructure, and the way we manage infrastructure will influence the environment. Since we believe that digital twins are the most efficient way to manage infrastructure, we think environmental data needs to be integrated into infrastructure digital twins.”

What environmental data are we talking about and what will digital twins enable the modeling of?

“It can be anything,  it can be water, it can be weather, it can be materials, it can be trees. Digital twins enable the modeling of multiple aspects of infrastructure. We have some examples of the integration of environmental data in different types of digital twins.

For example, Mendoza City in Argentina used drones to collect images of the whole city and its infrastructure. They then built a reality mesh model for the whole city including the trees. Now they can analyze the trees in terms of their health condition: whether they need to be cut and whether they need any treatment. So the city can now manage the condition of the trees virtually with the digital twin that they have. This means instead of going there and taking pictures or analyzing directly, they  basically have a digital twin of the green infrastructure so they can manage that. 

Another example is the mobility, air quality and public health in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco wanted to better understand the CO2 emissions in the city which entail air quality problems and public health issues. So they used our technology to study the patterns around mobility: people,  cars, even  the movements in the port, and they were able to establish hot spots in terms of bad air quality.

Digital twins of the water system in Porto, Portugal / Bentley Systems

A last example is the city of Porto in Portugal which used digital twins to manage water as a utility. Managing water is complicated for the city as it is facing both efficiency and environmental issues. They have water losses and problems with the water quality in coastal areas as they sometimes have discharge from sewage treatment plants or stormwater drainage networks. So they need a way of reducing these problems as well as energy consumption. They have used our technology to make what we call urban integrated water cycle management. They have a digital twin for the whole water network in the city with a lot of data, for example weather data. So when it is going to rain they have that information in the model and can control the water that is in the pipe network for water supply but also from wastewater treatment. They can therefore verify any anomalies in the system and understand if there is going to be a pipe leak or if there’s a probability of having a pipe leak. In coastal areas, they can be aware of the discharge that is expected to happen as a result of rainfall events. So they have new ways to manage water as well as a more sustainable water management system.”

And what about new constructions?

“Several companies are using some of our technology so they can understand the carbon footprint and how this can be reduced if they change materials for example. 70% of greenhouse gas emissions come from infrastructure. They come from the building stage, from what is called the onboarded carbon which is the carbon that is spent in the construction process involving the materials that are used. 

If, for example, a construction player reduces their use of steel for a new building, they could improve the efficiency of the building and reduce its carbon footprint. For instance, our OpenBuildings software is a tool that can now be used for building energy performance. So you can optimize the energy performance in the building, reduce energy consumption, be more efficient and reduce the carbon footprint.

4D planning construction is also very important in terms of environmental performance. Planning tools like SYNCHRO, for instance, are being more and more used in construction to help optimize all processes, for example reducing the time of construction,  waste and materials as well as optimizing the transport of  fuel etc.

Companies can now export a lot of data and information directly into life cycle assessment tools so that they can understand more and report the carbon footprint, but also establish immediate analysis like: “If I change the design of my structure now, I want to see immediately what it is going to reflect in terms of life cycle assessment.” 

OpenBuildings software interface / Bentley Systems

A few years ago you bought the company LEGION to help you integrate the idea of population flows.

LEGION is an interesting technology because during the pandemic we could use pedestrian simulation to better understand aspects related to social distancing. But pedestrian simulation is obviously also an important part of mobility. For instance, when building railway stations we want to ensure that we have an efficient way to manage pedestrian mobility and optimize the movement of people. That’s how we see pedestrian simulation right now at Bentley—as an important part of the sustainable mobility sector. Public transportation is really important from a clean and sustainable mobility perspective, and pedestrians are a strategic part of how you manage that.”

What other technologies could be mobilized to improve digital twins? 

“Satellite-driven data is an important element. Imagine using satellite data to understand a pipe leak. It’s possible right now, so that’s one example of a technology that can be used. You can also use satellite data to detect if a dam is at risk of failure and to reduce the risk of fire for vegetation management.”