Canals have been used in Glasgow, Scotland, as major trade routes for hundreds of years. But these waterways are not immune to the impacts of climate change. As severe weather events increase, canals are more prone to flooding, making the surrounding area undesirable and unusable.
Scottish Canals, the Scottish government body responsible for managing the country’s inland waterways, used digital twin flood modeling to regulate the Forth and Clyde Canal’s water-storage capacity and predict the drainage route to anticipate and compensate for flooding events. The area around the canal has now blossomed and includes a new housing development and nature preserve. After hundreds of years, the humble canal gets a much-needed evolutionary boost thanks to technology.
Peter Robinson, Head of Engineering, Scottish Canals: Being on water is my happy place. Sailing, paddleboarding, down at the beach, down by a river, near a canal. I always come back to the water. It’s really, really important to me. So when I go and visit the canals, there are some elements of it where you’re just completely in awe of what you’ve got.
The Forth and Clyde Canal was the world’s first sea-to-sea canal. So you look at the vision of the people who were creating this—no roads, no railway lines—so when it opened in 1790, it was almost the internet of its time. It was high-speed travel. It underpinned the development of the city of Glasgow.
But by the 1960s, the canals were effectively considered to be redundant and of no purpose for anyone. They became contaminated; they became abused; they became places that people considered to be unsafe.
Angela McCormick, Claypits Volunteer: The canal was dirty and covered in algae, and it wouldn’t be somewhere safe.
Margaret Mitchell, Claypits Volunteer: I remember talking to a friend, and she was saying that her cooker had broken, and she had no option but to chuck it in the canal! As if that’s what you did. It was just a resting place for junk.
Robinson: Ensuring that they have a purpose in the 21st century is key. They have to be valued by society, by people, by communities; otherwise, people turn their backs on them. So the aim of the project the Smart Canal is to repurpose the canals and make them support 21st-century society.
Rebecca Willey, Technical Solutions Engineer, Autodesk: Autodesk is a company that provides technology software to a whole range of industries. I think what makes the Smart Canal smart is that it’s using a whole range of technology that’s put in place to monitor it on an hourly basis, so it’s combining the real-time data as well as forecast data to be able to give that view of what’s happening now but what will happen in the future, too.
Robinson: One of the most critical components of the entire system is the software that’s been provided and created by Autodesk; that’s allowed us to create the digital twin. So we have a real canal that’s 230 years old represented in a digital twin model.
Willey: Digital twin software is a digital replica of the real world. The digital twin uses the live data from sensors in the canal, as well as forecast data, to see when there’s going to be flooding. It then is able to operate the sluice gates.
Robinson: So along the canal, we built three sluice gates so we can open those up, and the water then leaves the canal. So using technology to make the canal be ready for the rainfall, taking the water out of the canal before it rains, creates the capacity.
The approach of dynamically managing a canal for service-water management, it’s the first time it’s been done in Europe. Accessing the data remotely is brilliant; especially as an engineer, being able to look at a digital representation of the canal, understand exactly what’s going on at a certain point in time, is really valuable to us.
Without that software, the project just couldn’t exist. We’ve changed the canal, repurposed it, to support the development, the regeneration, of the north of Glasgow.
Willey: Prior to the project, if it had rained, the water would have had nowhere to go and the area would have flooded. Now, because of the Smart Canal, that’s able to drain efficiently to utilize the storage that’s created in the canal. So this has meant that the area is now free from flood risk.
Robinson: This scheme has unlocked the potential of all that development—3,000 new homes by utilizing the canal and repurposing it. We’ve estimated by using the canal and draining it by gravity, we’re saving about 500 tons of carbon per year.
So over the lifetime of the scheme, the 60 years’ lifetime of the scheme, we’ve estimated an avoidance of 35,000 tons of carbon.
Or even better, when we start seeing the development of areas like the Claypits Nature Reserve, the local communities are taking ownership of it.
McCormick: Right in the heart of Glasgow, five minutes to the city center, but when you’re here, you really could be anywhere.
Mitchell: As a volunteer at the Claypits, we do litter picking, which is more of a walk sometimes because we’re very enthusiastic picker-upperers. The whole thing makes me feel proud. It makes me feel as if now I’m part of a community.
Bob Alston, Claypits Volunteer: People are proud of their place and the area, and so we are thankful for that.
Robinson: For me, I only actually have to walk along the canal and go up to where the development is taking place and seeing houses being built. And there are people now living in those houses, so the community has started to grow as a result of this project.
Willey: I think it’s a great thing to be a part of, and we hope that because of that, and the enthusiasm and the interest that it has got, that it’ll help more people see how this can be applicable to them wherever they are in the world.
Robinson: The climate is changing, and the world has got some big problems coming at us, and I think everybody is starting to really wake up and realize that. And this project demonstrates the solutions that are out there. The technologies are there; it’s almost like we developed proof of concept. We’ve justified the canal’s existence and its purpose in the 21st century.
McCormick: So you start to think of water as being somewhere that you can enjoy.
Mitchell: It’s a haven for wildlife, a haven for people.