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Innovation: The New Rock and Roll?

In this feature interview we talk to Nigel Watson, Group Information Services Director at Northumbrian Water, about the water company's recent Innovation Festival

Nigel Watson on stage at the innovation festivalNigel Watson on stage at the innovation festival

Nigel Watson, Northumbrian Water

- Nigel Watson joined Northumbrian Water in March 2015. He has had a 30-year career in technology, change and innovation, including senior roles for GE Capital in California and Vodafone in Turkey.

- As Chief Information Officer and Group Information Services Director for Northumbrian, one of his initiatives has been putting in place a private cloud-based IT system to boost the water company’s customer service

- With responsibility for the innovation function in NWG, he has overseen the development of ‘innovation sprints’ and ‘data hacks’ to solve particular problems and challenges within the business. These concepts have now come together in the five-day Festival of Innovation, which was held between July 10th and 14th at Newcastle Racecourse

- The six themes at the festival were reducing flooding (sponsored by IBM), detecting and fixing leakage (Microsoft), creating infrastructure for the future (Reece Innovation), the workplace of the future in 2030 (CGI), living in greener cities (Ordnance Survey), and optimising a mobile workforce (BT).

Interview by James Brockett

If any more proof was required that water industry innovation is the new rock n’ roll, it was forthcoming in mid-July when more than 1000 people took part in Northumbrian Water’s Innovation Festival.

The five-day event, held in a series of large marquees at Newcastle Racecourse with around 400 people attending each day, saw participants take part in innovation ‘sprints’ around themes of water, work and the environment. The Glastonbury-like surroundings, with music and comedy entertainment in the evenings and sideshows offering Indian head massages, yoga and mindfulness meditation, meant that the atmosphere was about as far from an average day at the office as it is possible to get.

But talking to Nigel Watson, Northumbrian’s Group Information Services Director and the man who originally came up with the idea, it becomes clear that this was very much the intention of the exercise.

“The feedback from the week has been outstanding – people have never seen anything like it,” says Watson, speaking to WWT on the fourth day of the five-day festival. “Like other innovation events we hold, it’s all based on solving problems and collaboration, but giving it the feel of a summer festival was a little bit different. We wanted to get people to be innovative by moving people away from their typical work environment, putting them in different clothes and breaking their daily routines.” The offbeat entertainment, which also included talks from inspiring innovators in other fields, all helped to feed the creative minds, he adds.

But amid all the fun and games, thinking was going on about some serious water sector and environmental challenges. The six themes, each with their own dedicated tent, were flooding; leakage; how to integrate future network infrastructure; the challenges of a mobile workforce; how to bring about greener cities; and what the workplace will be like in 2030. Participants were a mixture of Northumbrian’s own staff, the supply chain, innovative SMEs and individuals, academics and students, and those from other utilities and sectors.

Innovation sprints

The activity under each theme follows the format of a “design sprint”, a concept which was originally popularised by US tech firms in Silicon Valley and is particularly associated with Google. This five-day process involves outlining a problem on the first day; exploring solutions on the second day; choosing the best solutions on day three; prototyping those solutions on day four; and testing those prototypes on day five.

“We’ve been using design sprints for 18 months or so, previous to this, looking at problems as diverse as recruitment, combined sewer overflows, and customer billing,” says Watson. “We’ve been going through all kinds of areas on our balanced scorecard where we’d like to improve, looking at the underlying metrics, and defining a problem from those that we can take into a monthly sprint. The other technique that we’ve used is data hacks – where you invite teams of people from companies, universities or skilled individuals, give them access to our asset data and ask them to tell us something we don’t know.

“The idea of the festival was to see what happens if we put six months of that activity into one week. What kind of cross pollination would happen between the sprints? We’ve really seen that take off. People have been saying ‘hang on, I was talking to a guy last night and they are looking at that in the other tent’ and then popping across into one of the other tents to ask them for information. That’s been one of the most pleasing aspects of this week.”

Hacks and solutions

The ideas and solutions that have been discussed in the tents have been too many to go into great detail, but some highlights include using carbon to make soil more absorbent and help build flood resistance; segmenting the customer base so that the water company can offer tailored flood advice; using ground-penetrating radar to detect leakage; using an Uber-style ‘gig economy’ platform for leakage services; the use of artificial intelligence in the workplace; and how to make the most of power generated in the water network. A ‘data hack’ which was employed under the leakage theme explored correlations as obscure as whether leakage was more likely along bus routes or on sites where bombs had fallen during World War Two.

A group of teenage schoolchildren were invited to take part in the challenge, as well as some older students, as part of efforts to engage the next generation in water issues; there was also a related STEM workshop for younger children. Personnel from six sponsoring organisations (IBM, Microsoft, CGI, BT, Ordnance Survey and Reece Innovation) acted as facilitators for the sprints while guest speakers included Professor Roy Sandbach and Hans Moller of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership. Participants came from as far afield as Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Germany.

Watson says the festival idea was only conceived in December last year (“like all good ideas, I came up with it in the shower”), and its delivery has been a great achievement by Northumbrian colleagues. It is already planned to do it again next year, and there are no shortage of potential innovation topics, he adds.

“I don’t want it to become routine that quickly - and it is a big thing to organise – but we want to do it again next year,” says Watson. “Some topics may reoccur – we are not going to solve flooding, for example, in the next 12 months – but I think new ones will also emerge. I would like to think that over the course of the next year we don’t lose the momentum of this, we carry forward a lot of these good ideas and implement them.”

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