Sitting in a tepee under a cloudless sky in Ipswich Heidi Mottram, chief executive of Northumbrian the parent company of Essex & Suffolk Water, chatted about Innovate East – the three-day event from Anglian and Essex & Suffolk– and how collaboration is key to breaking the mould.
Innovation through collaboration was encouraged at the numerous hackathons taking place in tents around the site as well data sprints. Speakers included Carol Vorderman, Green & Blacks co-founder Jo Fairley and technology writer Kate Russell. There was a focus on wellbeing with yoga, country walks, sweets and even 3D printing chocolate faces. Refreshments served from food trucks added to the festival atmosphere.
Mottram says the two companies working together for the event represents how the sector can tackle challenges.
“The future will be much more about collaboration,” she says. “This is a powerful and visible signal of collaboration being a good thing. I’m super proud of that and Peter Simpson from Anglian would say the same.”
She says the nature of the sprints means the ideas keep coming until the end of the last day and the success is visible in people’s attitudes: “Walking around you’d have a hard job to tell who works for who because everyone is participating 100 per cent to find the shared agenda. I’m really pleased by that.”
Building on the success of the Innovation Festival, which Northumbrian has hosted in Newcastle for the past three years, the scope of Innovate East has been broader because of joining with Anglian.
The diversity of people involved means ideas from further afield, in the leakage sprint Southern Nevada Water Authority shared experiences of fixing leaks in a very water stressed location and mending leaks 14-feet down without digging up half the Vegas Strip.
With a focus on communities one team developed an idea for a community hub project called Noah’s Ark to connect people and ideas to drive community resilience around climate change.
The gap in digital skills is a concern across the sector as technologies advance and different talents are required. One tent conceived, developed and built an app for children to raise awareness of utilities in everyday life and for older students to learn about careers within those utilities. None of the group had been involved in app building before but by Thursday afternoon were demonstrating their prototype and keen to move it forward.
In the main tent on the screen above the bean bags the message “We are not just inviting you to be part of the conversation we need you to be part of the solution” was beamed in between presentations; reminding people of the importance of sharing.
The opportunities sharing data could offer for improving service, leakage, flood prevention and agriculturally were heralded but the standout data sharing concept was a labelling system to inform consumers about the carbon and energy footprint of the products they buy. “LifeMark” is aimed at helping socially conscious shoppers make informed choices.
Four of the ideas will be awarded a share of £20,000 to develop and advance their innovative ideas.
Mottram believes better understanding of the issues involved is also applicable to water consumption and conserving the world around us. She says a greater knowledge of water scarcity is therefore needed before people will cut consumption.
“Water companies do a really, really good job so in people’s busy lives they don’t have to think too much about water. Which is a big tick in the box, but in light of climate change and water scarcity we have to ask customers to have a greater level of understanding.
“Eighteen months ago people didn’t think hard about the heinous impact of plastic straws or bottles of water. That didn’t make someone a bad person, it just made them a person who hadn’t thought about it before. But, now, because of climate change in particular, it has to be more of a conversation.”
At the hacks, sprints and talks throughout the event, a sense of collected consciousness and shared responsibility for the future was apparent as was collective thinking to solve problems.
Mottram says there is evidence the message is getting through and is being seen in conversations with Northumbrian customers: “Lots of younger people are very environmentally aware, but more people of every age are thinking about it than ever before.”
As well as being deeply proud of the places they live including their local beaches and rivers, she thinks people care about the future of the planet too.
“Customers will always want value for money, but they would not want a cheap bill now if it meant damaging water supplies for their children or grandchildren.”