A sector championing innovation; key takeaways from the Water Innovation 2050 launch

Formed of 19 UK water companies with an objective to reinvent and reimagine the sector over the course of the next 30 years, Water Innovation 2050 officially launched its strategy via an engaging and vibrant webinar on Wednesday 14th October.

Hosted by Lee Pitcher, Head of Partnerships at Yorkshire Water, the event brought together the key organisations and representatives from across the UK, who have worked together in building and rolling out the finalised strategy document.

Now is the time to act

Pitcher set the scene by calling out the major challenges faced, not only by the water sector, but by society generally, drawing attention to Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. He proclaimed that ‘now is the time to act’ if the industry is to convert these threats into opportunities by leveraging its assets.

But it was Water UK’s Business Transformation Director, Bryan Halliday, who highlighted the barriers to change specific to utilities in the UK, most notably its aging infrastructure. He suggested that the trinity of transformation, collaboration and innovation would be required to overcome these, but that Water Innovation 2050 represents a chance for a sector championing innovation to be ‘truly world leading’ and a ‘magnet for talent’.

Building on this suggestion, UKWIR CEO, Steve Kaye highlighted that while some organisations had taken significant steps to deliver innovation, this has not been widespread across the nation. He commended the Water Innovation 2050 programme, stating that it will enable the collaboration required to consolidate a ‘very fragmented sector’, especially alongside the £200m innovation fund announced by Ofwat.

End-to-end innovation at the right pace

In drawing specific attention to the strategy, Karen McDowell, Research Development and Innovation Manager at Northern Ireland Water, introduced the four principles which will determine how the alliance delivers on its vision:

  1. Opening access to collaboration
  2. Leveraging data and new ways of working
  3. Making space for innovation culture
  4. Being led by environmental, social and economic purpose

These are required to guide and inform innovation activity, which in turn should lead to additional growth and enhancement of strengths. She continued to highlight the seven themes which will determine exactly where innovation is most in demand. These are led by social, economic and environmental challenges and are listed as follows:

  1. Providing the services society needs, expects and values
  2. Providing clean water for all
  3. Protecting and enhancing natural systems
  4. Delivering resilient infrastructure systems
  5. Achieving net zero carbon
  6. Taking a whole life approach to responsible consumption and production
  7. Enabling diverse future-ready people and partnership working

McDowell introduced the notion of a virtual Centre of Excellence which Rose Jolly, Innovation Ecosystems & Knowledge Manager at Severn Trent, later described as a central hub from which the visibility and transparency required to understand the extent of progress achieved against targets will be available to all.

Jolly explained that a leading aim of the Centre of Excellence was to promote ‘end-to-end innovation at the right pace’, while simultaneously facilitating collaboration to optimise the working culture, and attract talent and investment globally. It’s hoped this should be fully established in early 2021 in collaboration with Water UK.

Accessible to all

The idea for the Centre of Excellence was born out of consultation with Ofwat, as revealed by Jon Brigg, Manager of Innovation at Yorkshire Water. He continued to stress the importance of understanding blockers in order to address the pace of innovation, and that visibility and connectivity between projects would be imperative in doing so.

By sharing knowledge across the sector and taking an open data approach, it’s believed that maximum value can be achieved for all, both from the view point of organisations operating within the sector as well as the customers they’re serving.

Stating that the Centre of Excellence and everything within it ‘should be accessible to all’, Anglian Water’s Innovation Integration Manager, Michael Taylor, applauded the wealth of testing and research facilities already in existence, suggesting that the sharing of data garnered from these will help benchmark success and drive widespread innovation.

He also implored the importance of inclusivity, revealing that the Water Innovation 2050 strategy was based upon information gathered from hundreds of subject matter experts and general consultancy from all those who accepted the group’s open invitation to be involved.

Cross-sector collaboration is fundamental

In addition to inclusion and accessibility, Brigg also touched upon the importance of diversity of thought; a theme championed with the open consultation element of the development of this strategy. Oli Raud, Program Manager at South West Water, built on this, suggesting ‘cross-sector collaboration fundamental’ for Water Innovation 2050 to achieve its goals.

He recommended that water companies should absolutely look to innovate with their existing associates. And that they should also seek to evolve with new partners in order to discover new and alternative ways of working. One participant drew upon research suggesting evidence exists that diversity breeds innovation, while a second called out the telecoms sector as a good example of an industry which could offer valuable insight.

We certainly hope this is the case, and believe our work to date with the water companies involved in the Technical User Group, demonstrates the benefits diversity of thought and working together across industries to achieve shared goals has to offer.

Indeed, our chief recommendation following the recent announcement of the ATI Regulations review was for greater cross-sector collaboration to be encouraged, so it’s reassuring to know our philosophies are aligned. As the host called out, ‘interplay with assets can be hindered by regulation’, so it’s also great to hear that the sense of collaboration, inclusivity and accessibility promoted by Water Innovation 2050 encapsulates industry, regulators and the general public in the quest to build a better future for all.

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