Utility Week Innovate catches up with Utility Warehouse’s recently appointed chief commercial officer, David Walter, about an imminent ‘decade of complete reinvention’ and his grounding in groceries.

What was your first job in the utilities sector? 

My first taste of utilities came through two summer jobs I took on to help cope with the cost of life at university. During that time I worked for both British Gas and Thames Water.

What work experience or qualifications did you have before moving into the industry? 

I grew up working in my dad’s shop. It was a grocery shop serving the local area, and it was brilliant.  The grounding that I got in dad’s shop taught me a lot about customer closeness, teamwork, and about how businesses need to constantly innovate and change.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your time in utilities?

The biggest challenges I think often centre around complexity and customer delivery. It can be pretty challenging to properly understand issues in ‘averaged’ customer data, and to fix problems quickly in monolith technology stacks.  But all that is changing very fast, and will only accelerate from this point forwards as tech and data enable progress.

How would you describe your creative process in three words? 

Empathy, innovation, iteration

What do you think is the key to creating the conditions for innovation within the utilities sector? 

My overall perspective on innovation is that it can only really flourish where diversity and inclusion exists. That’s true when thinking about creating diverse teams, and it is also true when thinking about how utilities is set up overall.

In energy, for a long time innovation was held back because the big six were too similar to each other. And now, as we need to solve new grid decarbonisation problems, potential players may find it hard to get involved because they don’t neatly fit into traditional definitions of ‘supplier’ or ‘generator’.

Did you learn anything new about collaborating or innovating as a team or business during the pandemic?

I was part of a new team through the pandemic, because I moved across from SSE to OVO as part of OVO’s acquisition of SSE Energy Services at the time. So it was a massive period of change for me, along with so many others. In that time, we together did some quite extraordinary work, and being forced to do it remotely I think actually added to freshness.  I think all innovation relies on freshness.

Which other industry do you feel that utilities can learn most from when creating the conditions for innovation? 

Regulations in utilities tend to be quite prescriptive, and that inevitably stymies innovation. I think the huge shift that financial services made to principle based regulations has helped. And it is wonderful to see the rate of innovation in fintech that has blossomed under those conditions.

Is there a standout innovation or collaboration project that you’ve worked on during your time in utilities – what made it special? 

At SSE we ran a very cool ‘energy as a service’ pilot called Predict & Fix. I loved this one because the team took all the complexity of smart data history and contextual customer data, and used it to underpin a radically simple customer proposition. Customers loved it too.

Is there a standout innovation or collaboration project that you wish you’d had the chance to work on during your time in the sector – what made it special?

I would have loved to have been involved in the process of choosing the roll-out strategy for smart meters across the UK. We have to question an approach that has led to a roll out that is stuttering on all these years later.

What excites you most about the next 10 years in the utilities sector – any trends, tech or specific innovations? 

We are heading into a decade of complete reinvention. For energy that centres around decarbonisation. And for connectivity that means full-fibre roll out, and a convergence between mobile and fixed-line services. And for utilities as a whole we have a Cost Living Crisis that will challenge us all.  I think that is such an exciting landscape.

Which issues or opportunities within the industry don’t you feel get enough airtime? 

For a long time I think there has been an issue brewing around the cost of living and utilities. That has been disguised by unsustainable pricing from new entrants in energy. But the need for millions of families to take action to address the costs of their essential services will really come to the fore in the coming months and years.

What is the most significant way you think the utilities sector of ten years’ time will differ from the one we see today? 

I am relentlessly optimistic about the future. So I imagine a utility landscape with a connected grid in advanced stages of decarbonisation, and fast-fibre in the majority of homes. I envisage consumers who are more engaged than ever with their essential home services.

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