Following on from the success of Northumbrian Water’s fifth Innovation Festival, head of innovation Angela MacOscar identifies ten standout innovation trends for the water sector in 2022.

At the start of each New Year, while planning the festival, I look forward and try to predict what will be the biggest innovation trends to impact us – across the utilities sector and beyond – and for the last few years, my predictions haven’t been too far off.

Obviously, some things, such as a global pandemic, I could not have foreseen, but I do think that one consequence of Covid has been that it’s accelerated industry innovation and change and I think this will continue over the next few years.

At Northumbrian Water, we pride ourselves on our open innovation environment – and we use design sprint methodologies to create innovative outputs in order to further improve services for customers and bring fresh ideas to the utilities sector.

Over the past five years, our Innovation Festival has seen thousands of innovators from all over the world coming together to find solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the utilities industry.

Some of our most successful solutions include sensor-monitor Dragonfly and the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR), which has recently been adopted by the UK Government.

Last year was a fantastic one for innovation, as we saw incredible collaboration at the COP26 conference and some quick scientific solutions when it came to Covid-19 vaccinations.

Every year, the need for innovation gets greater, so in 2022, we will be continuing to build on the foundations that we built last year.

I can’t wait to see what 2022 has to bring, and I’m sure that our Innovation Festival will again bring forward a wealth of ideas and solutions.

So, without further ado, here are my innovation predictions for 2022:

Sustainable Solutions

COP26 has put climate change and sustainability at the top of everyone’s list. This is a code red for the world and we are all responsible for doing our bit.

As a consequence this is going to be a key decision-making factor on all we do in the water sector – especially relating to our operations, processes and the technologies we use.

At Northumbrian Water, we have projects in the pipeline such as green fleet replacement and management tools, nature-based solutions and ammonia recovery from waste – which was awarded OFWAT funding last year.

Grown-up artificial intelligence (AI)

AI has been around for a while, but it is now all grown-up and changing how we do business – and we are starting to apply this to our daily routine.

AI technology has enormous further potential, so in 2022 we will see this technology fully leverage the intelligence that has already been learnt to create much smarter models and applications. We are all also becoming smarter with the tech and it can now be used by more of our employees rather than just in specialist teams.

We continue to be excited about our work with Vyntelligence to apply AI to health and safety, leakage and flooding reporting and will be expanding this application to cover other business challenges.

‘Deep trust’

Last year was all about next-level collaboration. 2022 is going to see this shift into trust and deepening partnerships. In order to deliver the innovation we require as a sector we need to develop strong relationships and trust at the heart to get to new levels innovation success.

The launch of Spring (the sector’s centre of excellence) and the OFWAT Breakthrough challenge have kick-started this but relationships need to deepen, strengthen and trust develop so higher levels of risk can be taken together.

So, let’s get ready to take educated leaps of faith to jump the chasm and deliver what is possible. Our Innovation Festival has seen this work many times, and has been a great accelerator to build on this.

Massive ambition

Transformative innovation is rare in any sector (e.g. Kindle, smart phone, Netflix) but in the water sector this is even more challenging. However, in 2022 we need to work determinedly to raise the ambition and focus on the innovations that will have the most impact for the sector.

Our NUAR project is an example of a step change for the utility sector and we are busy exploring potential ideas that could be the next big one.

This will require new thinking, new ways of developing ideas to make this happen. The OFWAT innovation fund is critical here to open up bigger possibilities.

Total experience

The pandemic has accelerated our use of digital communication with colleagues, suppliers, and business – and also more increasingly with customers. This trend combines customer experience, employee experience and end-user experience.

In total experience, the idea is to increase customer and employee confidence, satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy.

Northumbrian Water’s strong digital capability has put us in a great position to pivot our workforce into a digitally enabled workforce, embracing new collaborative tools and finding innovative ways to support our customers.  We are using video calls to better help customers when there is a leak or flood, enabling a faster response and increased first time fix and an idea from Innovation Festival 2020 is now helping customers manage their bills, from an app created in the festival week.

Hyper-automation

In 2022, automation will be more readily applied across the business. This means tasks that can be automated and done as fast as possible, so that employees are able to work on more important problems or problems you never thought you could tackle.

This is going to be a huge enabler and will be focusing on quality and enhancing decision-making.

Northumbrian Water has been using rapid process automation (RPA) over the last few years and this will be increasingly applied in 2022.

Smart Networks

Our use of sensors and internet of things (IoT) significantly increased during 2021 and into 2022 this will expand so we have better knowledge of our invisible assets.

The cost of sensors has decreased, there are many more options coupled with better communication devices and power sources make this an even more interesting space to innovate.

Innovation projects such as Barnacle, Dragonfly and the Torpedo (smart sewer device) are capitalising on this to create sector leading possibilities.

In 2022 we will start to see the needle move from reactive to proactive. In addition it will make a huge difference to water quality, leakage and flooding.

Everything as a service

Innovating on business models and leveraging ‘everything as a service’ will continue to be big news in 2022. We need to look differently at how to finance projects and the water sector is now ready for new to make things possible. 2022 could well see water quality as a service as we are working with Siemens to look at just this.

Hybrid-isation

The coming year will see businesses optimising hybrid working arrangements. Remote working will continue to be business as usual for many but this will result in a split audience, with some employees in the office while others carry on from home.

To make this effective new technology tools and how we use spaces will be a space ripe for innovation. Northumbrian Water’s fifth Innovation Festival did just this mixing hubs and online working leveraging tools like Miro/Mural and the Owl conferencing devices.

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