United Utilities’ head of innovation, Kieran Brocklebank, reflects on a quarter of a century at the company, canine collaboration, and the need to focus on customer comms.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

Administration assistant for our purchasing function; it was a temporary position for maternity cover and was supposed to last for 10 months. Twenty-five years later I am still in the same company. In fact, the baby that was born all those years ago now works for the company!

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

I had worked in two supply chain functions – one during a University placement year and one for a retail supermarket. Having that experience helped me to bring some new perspectives and energy to the team. I had studied in business and computing and computers in manufacturing – which has been very relevant although the technology I first used is now in museums.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

Any person working for me that then gets promoted into a position where their strengths shine is a great day. More corporately, Ofwat giving united Utilities the only “A” rating on innovation was amazing and was the external accreditation we deserved as a team for our hard work and creative thinking.

How would you describe your creative process in three words?

Fast, unstructured, enthusiastic.

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

Naked, running from a hot sauna into an ice-cold river! I was lucky to be at The Ice Hotel in Sweden as part of a knowledge share with several utilities. Looking back, it is a perfect metaphor for innovation – vulnerable, at pace and moving from one environment to another – with the adrenaline that it can create.

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

Find your strengths and put yourself into positions where the role and team relies on them.

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

Smartphone, Microsoft Teams, Twitter, Just Eat

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

Any customer-facing industry.

  • Hear Kieran Brocklebank, head of innovation at United Utilities, discuss the future of wastewater and bioresources at Utility Week Live, 17-18 May 2022. Register here for free.

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

Bringing sniffer dogs in to detect leaks. The project cost was modest compared to some projects we run; yet it has returned the most “value” and is another one where we brought an idea from one sector into water.

As a sector, we sometimes find it hard to explain our innovation work to customers.  Explaining our work on Nereda – a ground-breaking new wastewater treatment process – can be hard to follow, whereas dogs are easily understood AND well liked.

What’s really pleasing is that, for us, dogs are not a gimmick or a press opportunity – they are another tool in our fight to reduce leaks – and so we have changed our business processes to match this opportunity. What’s even better is that my 10 year old daughter thinks I am cool for once.

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

Measurement of emissions today in our operations – especially treatment processes.

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

A governmental drive to align the Industrial Strategy to stimulate more technology development for the water sector. Our sector is a great one to work in – but I don’t see the same acknowledgement from government backed up with investment.

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

We already co-operate and collaborate a lot – but it is not always visible. The Spring initiative is good start to moving this on even further.

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