David Watson – Cadent Gas’ head of energy transition – discusses the role of curiosity, openness and agility in sector innovation.

What was your first job in the utilities sector? 

When I was a teenager, I made spending money selling things door to door, and even after I left university all my first jobs were in sales.  My first job in the energy sector was training door to door salespeople for a large energy company.  It was right in the aftermath of the misselling scandal and I had to not only get the sales but also drive a complete culture change.  I learned so much from roles like that; how to listen, how to adjust communication styles and just sheer perseverance. These skills have been vital in all my subsequent roles.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

I’ve just come back from COP26, and while I don’t think my presence will have had any bearing whatsoever on the discussions just being there, meeting senior leaders I’ve looked up to and respected across the energy sector, sharing thoughts on how we get to net zero and speaking at a few events, has been a real career highlight.

What is the most significant way that today’s utilities sector differs from the one you first joined?

The rate of change in technology is phenomenal – it’s still under-estimated to this day. If someone had said renewables would be the cheapest power generation ten years ago they would have been dismissed as an evangelist. Now it’s just accepted. Innovation is also and how that is leading to convergence of different sectors differs. When I started you needed scale and to be integrated across the value chain to win. Now digitalisation and data are making it easier for smaller and more agile companies to come in and compete for specific parts of the value chain. Arguably the largest competitor to energy retailers in the coming years will be auto and appliance manufacturers. That would be unthinkable when I started.

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

Having worked for both large and small companies before, I can say it was harder as a large company trying to implement the cultural and organisational change necessary to compete with smaller and more agile entrants. Ideally you need to start from scratch and then migrate everything to the new structure but there’s a lot of institutional resistance to this and so often you end up trying to unpick or reform it all from the inside which is difficult and slow.

What is your golden rule for overcoming challenges at work generally?

Fear is such a barrier. If people are scared of looking stupid, asking questions or failing it’s paralysing and you’ve no chance when things get tough. You lose great ideas and things that need to stop never get challenged. Leaders to create a culture where challenge is a positive and failure is an opportunity to learn. That starts with listening, with empathy and with gratitude.

How would you describe your creative process in three words?

Ask ‘what if’

What’s the strangest place that working in the utilities sector has taken you?

Inside a nuclear reactor

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Life is more interesting when you say yes

Which piece of technology, or app, could you not function without?

The technology we have today undoubtedly means that those with access to it have it better than anyone in the history of humanity.  But there’s nothing I couldn’t do without.  You need to unplug.

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

Curiosity is a much under-rated quality. If people lost their ego and their hubris and started listening and asking questions from others – inside and outside of utilities – they’d get a lot further.

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

Hydrogen is something that we have and use today, but it’s small scale and carbon intensive. The next ten years are going to see a fundamental change in that, and it’s going to happen at scale and with speed. The decarbonisation benefits will be significant.

What do you think will be the defining factor in the UK hitting its net zero targets?

We’re going to need a range of technology to get to net zero, so instead of choosing one of them I will say the defining factor will be demand side action. Getting people to want to get off fossil fuels and on to clean alternatives such as hydrogen or electricity will make or break us.

What is the change you’d most like to see within the utilities industry?

If all utilities took a customer first approach, I think we’d see a lot of changes for the better.

How do you feel utilities companies can collaborate more – or more effectively?

I’d love to see gas and power utilities stop planning in silos. Right now, gas networks do one thing over there, and power companies do something over there. What if we all came together with local authorities and work out the plan for an entire area? We’re already doing this with some of the power utilities in our region and it’s powerful. We need much more of this.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the utilities sector at present?

I still see too much resistance to new ideas and ways of working. When change is happening faster on the outside than on the inside, you know the end is coming.

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

Blockchain has the potential to revolutionise we run the energy system. From enabling real time peer to peer energy trading and flexibility services, providing the basis for future low carbon energy certificates and enabling an EV charging network that covers not just forecourts but individuals and their home charge points – the potential benefits and disruption is huge.

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