After more than 30 years in the utilities sector, UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) CEO Steve Kaye reflects on the optimum conditions for innovation and the importance of shifting mindsets from new to renew.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

If I had to choose one, apart from becoming UKWIR CEO it’d have to be setting up Anglian Water’s innovation shop window and water innovation network. They’ve got such a positive legacy across the sector, and I’m really proud of the work we did and the lasting impact we’ve had.

The shop window especially showed how important it is for an organisation to really embrace innovation as a culture, at every level.

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

The most significant – and I think positive – change is that it’s much less dominated by engineers. And I’m saying that as a chartered mechanical engineer!

When I joined Anglian in 1990, the focus was on bringing engineers in to deliver big capital projects being driven by then-new environmental and regulatory standards.

Now, our drivers are much more diverse. Investment and priorities are much more reflective of customers’ preferences, environmental needs, and really ambitious societal goals like net zero.

As a result, the sector feels a lot more open, a lot more collaborative and is taking a much more holistic view which is better for everyone involved.

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

I think there are three key aspects to the right conditions for innovation:

We need to have aspirational challenges – things like net zero, zero waste and the circular economy and delivering wider, societal benefits all drive increased innovation

Senior leaders have to be united or innovation is doomed to fail. The most successful innovation programmes have full, senior-level support

And we must be open and collaborative and create win-win situations across companies and the supply chain. If you want to go quicker, go on your own, but if you want to go further – and the sector does – we have to go collaboratively.

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

I think the sector we can learn the most from is Formula One.

Not just for how they embrace innovation and constantly push to be the best, but how they learn from failure.

At our first conference a couple of years ago, Mike Elliott from Mercedes Formula One team shared a quote from their Chairman Niki Lauda: “From success you learn absolutely nothing. From failure and setbacks, conclusions can be drawn”.

I don’t think nothing can be learned from successes, and it’s really important we share wins when they happen, but I agree that we can learn a lot more from failure, so we need to change our mindset so we’re not afraid to fail.

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

Aside from Anglian Water’s innovation shop window and setting up water sector innovation centre of excellence, Spring, I led a team that developed, introduced and rolled out an advanced sludge treatment process which vastly improved the amount of energy we could generate from treatment.

What made this special is the process was developed within the company. Usually, utility companies will introduce innovation developed elsewhere. The idea was born within my team and we developed it from paper, to trials to building it at full scale.

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

It might not seem exciting, but I think the shift away from new assets to taking much better care of what we’ve already got will drive a lot of innovation – shifting our mindset from new to renew could be a really big contribution to net zero.

This will be enabled by the huge digital transformation across the sector, which I think we’re just on the cusp of.

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

I’d like to a bigger coming together of regulators across industries, particularly much closer alignment between energy and water. Energy claims to be further ahead in terms of innovation, and as we switch to new energy sources we’ll see much bigger demand for water which will need much closer regulatory alignment to manage.

I’d also like to see us really embrace the shift to long-term thinking, bearing this quote from Sir David Attenborough in mind: “Is this how our story is due to end? A tale of the smartest species doomed by that all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals?”

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

We, collectively, must change our mindset and show there are real benefits in open collaboration on research and innovation – not least the significant financial savings – and companies can still compete by how effectively they implement those solutions. I think Spring will really demonstrate this is possible in the sector and accelerate this change.

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