Ahead of Utility Week WWT’s Smart Water 2022 Conference, Jeremy Heath, SES Water’s innovation manager and leakage programme lead at UKWIR, discusses the parallels between the medical sector and water companies, and innovation’s ‘incredible’ pace.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

Working for South East Water – or Mid Sussex Water as it was then – on new developments and mains laying. I had a lot to learn quickly.

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

I was a graduate mechanical engineer, but recognised that I needed some practical experience, so in the late 1980s I spent a few years travelling and working as a solar heating specialist, which included working with Afghan refugees on the Pakistani border.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

Being the first utility in the world to get a new Google remote working solution up and running. It was a bit of a perfect storm. We had three months and a tight budget to bring in a remote working solution for our repair and maintenance crews and we managed it with copious coffee, lots of late nights, first generation android tablets and some agile coding.

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

Change management. We have so many great solutions coming through, but we need to consider carefully how these are introduced into the workplace. If we don’t get it right, it means the new solutions don’t achieve their full potential.

  • Hear Jeremy Heath, innovation manager at SES Water, discuss accelerating innovation in leakage reduction and implementing smart water networks at Utility Week Live, 17-18 May 2022. Register here for free.

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

Make life easier for the team using the new solution. I was introducing an innovative solution some years back and a particular member of staff was being especially meticulous, which meant numerous re-writes. But he was completely correct! By using his suggestions, we ended up with a system that was so intuitive and straight forward to use that all the other operators immediately started using it by preference.

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

In a word – digitalisation! I joined an industry where everything – and I mean absolutely everything – was done on paper. Access to easily available data has totally transformed how we work.

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

A slum in Bangladesh. I do a lot of work with WaterAid and went there to see the difference the money we raise makes to other communities – which is a lot. I came back deeply impressed with WaterAid, their local delivery partners and also resolved to raise even more money.

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

“If you’re not falling off the bike frequently, you’re not going fast enough,” from a  friend who offered to teach me downhill mountain bike racing. As innovators, we need to be willing to take risks and try new things out. And if we don’t fail occasionally, then we’re not actually innovating at all.

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

At the beginning of the pandemic, the water company innovation managers started to collaborate to write the joint water innovation strategy.

This was only possible thanks to the swift adoption by all of the participants of video conferencing, online shared documents and virtual whiteboards. We were probably the ideal group to try this out on, but the pace of change and progress was remarkable.

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

We’ve looked at the medical world closely and how they handle innovation and sharing. There are a lot of similarities between UK hospitals and water companies. We are both benchmarked and directly compared to other similar companies, we are both working towards common goals, we both share expertise and experiences, we are both typically regional monopolies and we both provide a service to the general public.

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

The ‘iDMA’ smart network project here at SES Water. Five years ago our head of asset strategy and I stood up at a conference and presented our vision of a smart water network based on emerging technologies. As a result, we attracted some of the best companies in the industry to work with us and we now have a company-wide solution which predicts localised flows and pressures and then highlights any deviations in near real time.

Thanks to the very latest internet of things technology, we are collecting data across our entire distribution network at an unprecedented rate. For the first time, we know of events on our water network before our customers are aware, and I genuinely believe that no other water company in the world has such a solution deployed company-wide. True game changing innovation.

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

I certainly feel that the water industry is going through more change than it has in the previous 30 years. The pace of innovation is incredible. I’d like to see some really innovative approaches to how we manage our underground pipes, particularly in how we repair or replace them. I’m looking forward to robots in pipes.

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Delivering smart water networks is one of the frontline challenges at the heart of Utility Week Live 2022’s live content programme. View the programme.