Towards water-smart industrial symbiotic systems

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy aims to design waste and pollution management with new value chains by keeping products and materials in re-use and regenerating natural systems. Water plays a central role in achieving these goals, thanks to its natural origin and involvement in many processes. Switching from the traditional linear production-consumption-disposal chains to circular water systems is key to success.

Industry accounts for circa 40% of all water abstractions in Europe, making it one of the most significant water users next to agriculture and households. The industry has already been implementing Circular concepts, and the European Commission (EC) is now giving specific attention to ‘Water Smart Industrial Symbiosis (WSIS)’. The aim is to create economic value and increased sustainability by stimulating and demonstrating circular symbiotic cooperation between industry and the water sector. This approach will further enhance the opportunities for recovery and re-use of water-embedded resources and stimulate new circular business arrangements (public-private partnerships, new service providers, specialised technology suppliers, etc.).

ULTIMATE ( is a four-year EU-funded research and innovation project supporting the transition to WSIS by systematically addressing technical, digital, socio-economic, governance and business systems interdependencies. The project aims to:

  • show-case successful high profile WSIS projects where water and industrial sectors collaborate to deliver innovative resource-efficient, circular solutions.
  • demonstrate cross synergies, transferability and applicability of the WSIS concept in a broader context.
  • develop, optimise and present more than 25 novel technologies for water reclamation and re-use, exploitation of energy and heat, nutrient and material recovery/re-use
  • assess the technologies’ impact with life cycle and risk-based tools within crucial industrial sectors (agro-food processing industry, beverage industry, heavy chemical/petrochemical industry and biotech industry).
  • develop and apply digital support tools to improve the design, control and operation of industrial symbiotic schemes, such as: an ontology model, a stress testing tool building on hybrid modelling and simulation to experiment with alternative socio-economic/environmental scenarios, an interactive gamified 3D visualisation tool to support the (co-)design of circular systems across industries, and immersive, eXtended Reality (XR) built narratives to learn about complex issues.
  • develop and demonstrate novel exploitation/valorisation schemes (value chains) for the recovered resources through a range of business models and symbiotic arrangements, linking them to ongoing investments and plans for industries and water utilities.
  • design, promote and accelerate the business transformation to WSIS, through active stakeholder engagement, innovation co-creation, and drawing on transdisciplinary knowledge and capacities from Art, Technology and Digital Humanities. The aim is to increase business-to-business, citizen and Living Lab engagement.
  • reduce existing barriers for recovery, re-use and commercial exploitation of valuable water-related resources (incl. requirements and standards for re-use) through WSIS novel governance approaches and best practice guidelines.

The specific setup of ULTIMATE supports uptake in and transfer of WSIS knowledge and experiences to other industrial environments, different regional and cultural settings, and the upscaling of current case studies. ULTIMATE actively contributes to the green and digital ‘twin’ transition promoted by the EC in the EU and beyond.

Gerard van den Berg, Project Manager at KWR and Coordinator of ULTIMATE

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ULTIMATE project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement N° 869318.