To mark the launch of the water sector’s innovation centre of excellence, Spring, on 20 December, client programme director Shaunna Berendsen discusses the importance of customer buy-in to innovation and the need to make utilities ‘cool’.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

Working for Blackstone for their start-up water infrastructure private equity fund, Global Water Development Partners. They invested in companies, projects, JV or concessions which operated in the water sector – from desalination to sludge treatment.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

Being a part of establishing Spring. Working at a sector level to improve innovation and collaboration is no mean feat and at times a thankless task but one that has been very rewarding.

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

Anything worth doing is rarely easy.

How would you describe your creative process in three words?

No process creativity.

What do you think Utility Week Innovate readers would be surprised to learn about you?

I once did shots with Usain Bolt.

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

Deliveroo.

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

Not having any preconceived ideas about the outcome. Once you decide what you think the outcome will be, you’re closing yourself off to possibilities which flies in the face of innovation.

Innovation also needs to be top down and bottom up. You need senior level support and commitment along with providing an inclusive and supportive culture to allow people to feel like innovation is part of their core role.

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

That its much easier for people to adapt to change when they have no other option, myself included!

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

Innovation always links back to benefit for customers but when you have a direct and irrefutable link, it feels slightly different. I was involved in a project which aimed to solve the problem of streetworks and those with visual impairment. Engineers attended workshops run by guide dog owner and charity volunteer, Jim Watt, and his guide dog, Legend. As such, some of our processes changed for the better.

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

I would like to see the perception of the utilities industry change. We’ve had a bad rap in the media over the last few years – at times understandably – but we need customers on side if we want to make this world a more sustainable place.

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

I think having Spring, a third party organisation to help the process along will help with effectiveness, it means that utilities can lean on mentors and facilitators and no longer have the responsibility to collaborate alone.

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

I think getting the right skills into the sector is still a big challenge. Utilities aren’t seen as being ‘cool’ places to work and we need this perception to change.

What is Spring?

As reported by Utility Week, Spring – the water sector’s much anticipated innovation centre of excellence – began as part of the sector’s Water Innovation 2050 strategy, published in 2020. It received £250,000 funding through Ofwat’s innovation fund – a sum matched by UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) members.

The idea behind Spring is to create a central point for water companies, academia, members of the supply chain and innovators to work on common solutions for shared industry challenges.

The full site will launch on 20 December with two distinct areas – the first an Ideation and collaboration incubator to improve how ideas are created and how various stakeholders can be brought together and involved.

Second, the innovation adoption area will provide space for launching ideas into the marketplace by connecting companies with possible challenge solutions.

Spring will be a subsidiary of UKWIR with an independent brand and sustainable funding programme. It will, however, share resources and maintain strategic links with the research organisation.

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