Northumbrian Water won the 2018 Transformation and Innovation Award. Utility Week takes a look at what it achieved.

  • Category title: Transformation and Innovation Award
  • Category sponsor: Microsoft
  • Award winner: Northumbrian Water Group
  • Annual company turnover: £805.5 million
  • Employees: 3,163
  • Customers: 4.5 million
  • Entry criteria:
  1. Quality of entry (clear, evidence-based)
  2. Clear goals set for innovation projects that were met or exceeded
  3. Evidence of innovation being embedded into the wider business
  4. Measurable benefits for the business and/or customers and other stakeholders
  5. Evidence of going beyond business as usual

Showcasing a constant desire for innovation throughout the company, Northumbrian Water was selected first by the judges for the depth and breadth of the company’s innovative culture.

Among applicants they held a unique commitment to improving all aspects of their business, from technical inventions to ecological campaigns, and even looking outside their boundaries on ventures with other organisations.

The company says they believe that innovation is the process of turning ideas into business value, and that this is everyone’s responsibility. To this end, they try to “engage and empower all our people to be curious, creative and open to ideas from other geographies and sectors.”

Powered by this philosophy they have been keen to foster discovery at every level, whether it has been employees in their own sheds or multi-agency cooperation and collaboration. Innovation has come through a broad array of technologies and initiatives, with Northumbrian’s Innovation Festival as its crowning achievement.

One aspect of this culture has been the creation of an internal portal, IdeaBase, that allows anyone to put forward ideas to be considered by Northumbrian Water’s Innovation Panel. Those accepted are taken to InvestQuest, an annual dragons’ den-style event, where employees can pitch to directors and external specialists for part of a £250,000 fund towards their vision.

In further efforts to foster an innovative culture, Northumbrian Water says it has trained all managers to promote innovation and follow the LITE approach, which stands for Lead Improvement Through Employees.

In terms of innovations to the service Northumbrian Water provides, June of 2017 saw the launch of its Utileyes app, which has reduced the need for initial assessment visits by allowing operators to view problems through customers’ smartphone cameras. The app has been used to validate around 400 leaks so far and Northumbrian Water says it saves £50 per use while halving average repair time to 1.5 days.

Pushing towards greater use of renewable energy, Northumbrian Water claims to be the only major water and sewerage company that repurposes 100 per cent of its sewage sludge for energy generation. With this investment into its advanced anaerobic digestion programme, the company exceeded its 2015 target, of 20 per cent renewable energy, two years early. As a result, carbon emissions have been reduced by 30 per cent and bought-in energy costs are reportedly down by £10 million per year.

Some other notable examples of business improvements include:

  • The installation of a fibre-optic “nervous system” for Northumbrian Water’s live sewers, which will allow proactive management and pre-emptive repair work.
  • #Pumped – a hackathon that took place in 2016 and had competing teams working with open data to create predictive models of pump deterioration to aid proactive maintenance. The campaign has resulted in an 80 per cent reduction of incidents in pumping stations, a £4 million decrease in ongoing cost over the next five years and a 15 to 20 per cent increase in pump efficiency.
  • The adoption of ice-pigging, whereby an ice-water slurry is used to clean water mains. Northumbrian Water says the new technique has reduced the time needed to clean a 2 kilometre section of pipes from three weeks to just hours.
  • The invention of Armstrong Baskets for clearing sewers, Porcupines for preventing blockages and a rainwater harvesting system on roofs to supply their cleaning jetters – all by a single employee.
  • The establishment of the Run2 Innovation initiative – a cooperative forum that facilitates sharing of insights into new technology and services with contractors in order to accelerate adoption.
  • The creation of an external panel featuring experts from companies such as Apple, Amazon and IBN as part of Northumbrian Water’s PR19 business plan.

NWG Innovation Festival

The NWG Innovation Festival, returning for its third year in 2019, is thought to be the world’s first event of its kind. Doubling in size in 2018, the festival drew in 510 organisations and nearly 2,000 attendees.

The festival combines a series of activities including design sprints, tackling major social and environmental issues, and data hackathons, where over 100 data scientists gathered together to solve leakage and flooding problems.

After hosting six sprints in 2017, the number increased with the broadened scope of the festival, jumping to 14 the next year.

Outside of the Northeast, the company held a “Day of Innovation” in September for its Essex and Suffolk Water team and stakeholders.

The festival has proven to be an effective breeding ground for new ideas, with 34 projects started in the wake of the inaugural event in 2017. These include:

  • England’s first moss tree installed in Newcastle City Centre, seeking to highlight and tackle the problem of urban pollution.
  • An in-toilet sensor to help pinpoint leaks.
  • Usage of data-led heat maps, which have been implemented to allow greater targeting in response to leaks, as well as giving the ability to prioritise responses to the most impacted areas.
  • The creation of the Refill campaign to cut down on single-use plastics by offering fountains in major towns and cities where people can top up water bottles for free.
  • Utilisation of dog waste as a fuel for power generation.

Winner’s comment:
Nigel Watson, group information services director, Northumbrian Water

“We see transformation, innovation and a culture that supports both as the main ways in which we can continue to improve the service that we offer our customers. We have invested a lot in transformation over the course of the last four years and we are now starting to see the benefits of that come through.

“Driving innovation opens up countless opportunities for us, from working with partners to deliver ground-breaking underground mapping, to helping us accelerate the shift from being reactive to issues, to predicting and resolving things before they become a problem. Our Innovation Festivals have ensured that innovation is engrained in the way we identify and implement change throughout the business, so this award is something that we can all be proud of.

“We are also really proud of the culture that has developed here, and that involves being open to future change that has the potential to improve the lives of our customers and the environment that we all live and work in.”

What the judges said…

Judges described the Transformation and Innovation Award as a hard-fought category. They praised Northumbrian Water for its flagship ‘Innovation Festival’ which made headlines and embedded innovation throughout the business.

Other shortlisted companies in this category were:

  • Anglian Water for The Innovation Shop Window in Newmarket
  • Business Stream in partnership with Capgemini for their Robotic Process Automation
  • Electricity North West
  • SP Energy Networks for Future
  • NetworksUK Power Networks for FutureSmart
  • UK Power Networks for its Training in Virtual Reality
  • United Utilities for Systems Thinking

The Utility Week Awards are held in association with CGI, Capgemini and Microsoft

The 2019 Utility Week Awards will be opening soon. Sponsorship opportunities are available – contact Utility Week business development manager Ben Hammond on or 01342 332116 for more information.