Pushing on an open door to innovation

The water sector this week collectively launched its 2050 Innovation Strategy - the starting point for reimagining and futureproofing the industry. Utility Week spoke to some of the architects of the strategy to hear how it came together, how coronavirus accelerated the work and what the next steps will be.

The call for greater innovation has been a long time coming. The push by Ofwat to improve performance and services for billpayers and the environment in PR19 necessitated a new approach. A £200 million innovation fund was launched – after years of speculation – for annual competitions throughout the five-year period, beginning next January.

However, the strategy is intended to go beyond Ofwat’s fund or other eligible financing to be a new way of thinking. It is a call to existing and new partners to innovate, co-create and co-design and to be a platform for sharing and creating.

The authors are clear it is not a detailed delivery plan with a list of solutions, nor is it fixed – it will evolve and develop. Neither is it designed to replace existing innovation strategies but rather to draw together existing work for the benefit of all.

The centre of excellence envisaged as part of the plan will be a virtual space because, as United Utilities innovation strategy manager Selwyn Rose puts it: “there’s no sense spending money on more concrete”.

The essence of the centre will be open access for innovation to act as a “front door” for the strategy to communicate its themes, share projects and where each company can benefit from existing work and previous experiences as well as new ideas.

Rose says: “If we open the doors and create the space for people to come in then they will. We have seen that in our Innovation Lab, at Northumbrian’s Innovation Festival, with Southern’s BlueWave and Anglian’s Shop Window.”

Steve Kaye, chief executive at UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR), describes it as “pushing on an open door” with no lack of interest and enthusiasm in the opportunities the sector has to offer – the only thing missing was the platform.

“Now that we have opened up, people will fill the space,” Rose says.

While the details of the centre, such as governance and how it will be used, are still being finalised, the alliance has agreed on the vision for an open-data platform. It will build over time as the people use it so can respond to the needs of the users and the industry.

Paul Horton, chief executive at Future Water Association, explains the thinking behind the centre and indeed the strategy could have been different if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.

He says the events of 2020 meant the logistics of getting all participants in the room changed with the shift to homeworking. Rather than being a hinderance, the level of engagement improved as meetings were held virtually.

“Maybe going back 12 months having a physical space would have been higher up the agenda but working remotely has made people think differently. The centre can support innovative products, services and research as a place to co-ordinate with suppliers, academia, research groups and other stakeholders,” Horton says. “There are things we’ve all learnt that we would not have done seven months ago, now we can take the best of that and turn it into business as usual.”

The lifeblood of the strategy is collaboration, having been written collectively by the 19 UK water companies and stakeholders including regulators – coordinated by UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) and Arup.

Industry veteran Tony Conway, former director of curiosity at UU and consultant with Twenty65 says that in the 40+ years he has worked in the water sector, there has never been anything like this before. He called it “real, tangible collaboration in practice” that has the power to move the sector forward.

The four overarching principles of the strategy are:

  • Opening access to collaboration
  • Leveraging data and new ways of work
  • Making space for innovation culture
  • Being led by environmental, social and economic purpose

The strategy looks ahead to 2050 – as far into the future as privatisation was in the past and the landscape is certain to change greatly in that time, escalated by the pressures of climate change and population growth as well as growing environmental concerns.

Rose says getting there will take cognitive diversity from a more diverse workforce – an area the sector has lagged other industries.

This was reiterated by Horton, who mused on the workforce of the future.

“We aren’t sure what the world in 2050 will look like but we do know we need the tools and the minds of people. It’s an unknown for utilities as we are moving into a world of dynamic changes,” he says. “Of course, we will always need engineers, but we will need other people too,” he adds there could be a place for artists and architects.

Under a rallying cry to “fresh thinkers” the alliance has talked with and received input from more than 150,000 stakeholders since publishing its draft strategy in July and worked their ideas into the 2050 Water Innovation strategy.

But the journey does not end there, the alliance was keen to express this work was never designed to be fixed or to replace any existing innovation schemes or be a basis for the Ofwat’s innovation fund.

Rose: “We have done the thing we have never done very well before, which is communicate outwards,” Rose says. “In the past we’ve not shown off what a vibrant sector this is or the opportunities available.”

Water has been a “silent service” that consumers do not need to worry about or question, but Rose thinks the sector has missed a trick in attracting skills and talent and that now is the time to shout about the opportunities offered by the industry.

The strategy is ambitious and could be the catalyst for the greatest change since privatisation with fresh thinkers transforming the silent service into an industry that is visibly making a difference for customers and the environment.

Innovation in the water sector will be explored in more depth at Utility Week Live, running online from November 24-26.To find out more and register for your FREE pass visit www.utilityweeklive.co.uk/UWLO