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Culture change needed for water innovation to be ‘business as usual'

A cultural change is needed in the water industry if innovation is to become ‘business as usual' and give the maximum benefits to the customer, delegates heard at the WWT Water Industry Technology Innovation conference.

Innovation is one of Ofwat’s four priority areas for water companies to address in their PR19 plans, and is a pillar which supports the other three priorities of customer service, affordability and resilience. But while there is plenty of innovative activity – technological and otherwise – going on the sector, water companies have work to do if they are to develop a truly innovative culture which can harness this effectively, speakers agreed.

Sarah McMath, Managing Director, Strategic Planning and Investment at Thames Water, said that research and development had been behind some of the utility’s key improvements since privatisation, with technology solutions developed including GAC layers in sand filters, sewer blockage alarms, advanced energy recovery, alternative coagulants and smart meters. But while R&D would continue to play a key role, she said that to deliver AMP7 priorities innovation would need to be “embedded in everything we do”, with staff and delivery partners equipped and empowered to embrace new ideas and solutions.

“A culture of innovation is not simply about creating the processes and systems that enable innovation to happen,” said McMath. “it requires us to change our behaviours both organisationally and as individuals. As an industry we have shied away from risk. We have a duty to spend our customers’ money prudently and so we have traditionally made safe bets; often investing in low risk, incremental improvements that deliver a guaranteed outcome. In doing so, we have sometimes missed the opportunity to truly push the boundaries.”

She added that the water industry has a “great track record” of developing and demonstrating new solutions, but found it much more challenging to move these solutions to “business as usual”.

She gave two examples of recently-announced Thames investments which showed greater ambition: a new test rig for testing trunk main technologies which can help with pipe condition assessment, and plans to develop indirect potable re-use of wastewater at Deephams Sewage Treatment Works.

Speaking on the subject of creating an innovation culture, Jeremy Heath, Innovation Manager at SES Water, referred to an Ofwat paper which described such a culture as one which “every process is geared towards innovation”. He said that internal employees are a vital source of new ideas: his water company has a scheme for staff to submit ideas and see the results of them being followed up. It also has a regular survey of all its staff to measure how they felt about the company’s openness to innovation, with the findings driving innovation strategy.

“There is an analogy between creating an innovation culture and creating a health and safety culture,” said Heath. “To make it a reality, you need senior management buy-in, with everyone from the CEO to the guy in the postroom understanding that it is part of their everyday work.”

The morning session at the conference also heard from Steve Kaye, chief executive of UKWIR, who talked of his plans for the organisation to provide a “platform for innovation” for the industry and to help water companies find collaborative answers to their biggest challenges.

“There is a problem I believe in the UK industry around fragmentation – there are a lot of organisations doing similar things. We need to come together around common themes, and this is what a platform for innovation could give us,” Kaye told the conference.

The WWT Water Industry Technology Innovation conference was held on 27th November in Birmingham and sponsored by Hitachi, Novotek and Xylem.

Topic: Innovation
Tags: Innovation , technology , PR19 , water companies

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