We know how important it is for the water sector to innovate – and thankfully that innovation goes on around the country on a daily basis. It is so diverse. From collaborating with the University of Cambridge on the UK’s largest rainwater harvesting system to sharing our performance with customers every month online for the things that matter most to them, we are certainly playing our part. At its heart, it is most often about culture and the conversations we are prepared to have with customers, suppliers and our own teams. This creates the diversity and the energy to continue looking for more.
For example, last year we launched what we believe to be the most comprehensive Alexa skill in the sector. It provides an excellent opportunity for us to communicate with our customers directly in a new interactive way, enabling them to understand when their next bill payment is due or why their water may have an unusual colour. But what sets this work apart from other technology innovations was the co-creation with a group of customers. It came about as a result of a conversation between a member of our community engagement team and representatives from the Sandwell Visually Impaired group, enabling us to think about the benefits of using voice-activated technology to help our visually impaired customers on a more personal level – for example, to inform them in advance about visits from us. Our dialogue has led us in new directions and enabled us to look at innovative opportunities to deliver more meaningful services.
But innovation is not just about technology. Sometimes, it is about revisiting things that have worked in the past to see if they still resonate with customers. So last April we launched a pioneering start-up project and opened our first community hub on the high street, in one of the most socially and economically challenged parts of our South Staffs region. The hub enables us to engage face-to-face with many vulnerable or traditionally hard-to-reach customers. I am left wondering if so called hard-to-reach customers are labelled that way because, in the relentless pursuit of efficiency, we have inadvertently disenfranchised those who legitimately prefer not to access services either online or through contact centres. We have also been delighted to share this space with the Citizens Advice and Jobcentre Plus each week, and even made it available as Santa’s Grotto to more than 600 families one cold December evening. What’s that got to do with running a water company, you may ask? Well, in this particular grotto, the elves were ready to give out water efficiency advice and sign people up to have a meter. As a result of this, we are asking ourselves again what it means to be a public service organisation embedded in its local community.
We are continuing to innovate in other areas as well. For example, we are currently trialling a new and radically different leakage technology that seals pipes from the inside without the need to identify the exact location of the leak or dig up roads. This, in turn, has led us to think about the nature of our pipes and how we lay them – looking globally for innovative solutions. During the course of 2019, we will be looking at new pipe technology that we think will be a game-changer, particularly in dense urban areas and difficult soil conditions. We will share more details of this in due course.
Finally, innovation is often about just listening hard to customers. That is why, after much careful debate, our business plan offers them the certainty of flat nominal bills for each of the five years from 2020 to 2025, with us taking on the risk of inflation. Our customers wanted this. And we are the only company in the sector to do this. It is just one of the ways we are making water count for all our customers – now and in the future. Have a great 2019.