Breaking down the barriers to new ideas in the water industry

Our Head of Innovation, Kieran Brocklebank, shares his views on innovation in the water industry and the launch of our Innovation Lab 10 week programme.

Water companies are being challenged to push the boundaries of ‘business as usual’ when they submit their business plans for the next five years from 2020. If services are to improve and efficiencies are to be made we will need to do things differently.

This is why we need fresh thinking in the industry. We need to innovate and embrace new ways of working and technology. But where are these new ideas going to come from?

Innovation centre united utilities

We don’t make it easy for new entrants to bring their ideas to the table. Our procurement processes are set up to define the scope of the services we want very precisely. But what if we don’t know what we want?! And if you are a bright and talented new start-up, would you even know how to go about getting your idea heard?

That’s why we set up the United Utilities Innovation Lab - to break down these barriers and encourage some healthy disruption. There’s new EU legislation now called the Innovation Partnership Procedure, and we’ve used this to go about procuring “ideas” rather than services, setting a new framework for the industry.

We’ve defined our first five areas where we see a challenge that needs a solution. Connected Customer, things like smart devices and IoT – water is lagging behind other utilities here; Proactive Customer, in other words giving our customers better updates when they need to hear from us – think Amazon’s approach to delivery updates; Predictive Asset Maintenance, how do we know how our assets are performing without having to dig them up or switch them off? – we need less invasive solutions; Safe and Healthy Worker – how can we better serve our workers when they are out at night or working in dangerous communities or locations?; and Future of Water. The last category is a bit of a wild card - show us what you got!

The Innovation Lab isn’t looking for fully-formed new services or technologies - we don’t want any square pegs that would need shoving into round holes. We’re looking for great ideas that can be nurtured into really useful technologies, co-created with and for the water industry.

So the Lab will provide a safe, supportive environment for the teams behind our shortlisted ideas to access our data, our systems, our senior people and our legal and financial know-how. Together we’ll bring the next generation of ideas to fruition, not just in North West England but around the world.

We advertised the Lab to some 1,500 fledgling, small and large businesses, starting last spring (2017). We wanted to reach people who have been working in other sectors and other countries who might not have considered how their big idea could be developed for water or even considered the UK as a good market. We had applications from 80 outfits, 55 of which we had never heard of - which is great! We narrowed that down to a shortlist of 22 and in December they came from far and wide, on international flights, trains and Skype to pitch to us in a speed-dating kind of fashion. We’ve pulled out 10 finalists – 7 of whom are joining us today at our Warrington headquarters for the intensive 10-week Lab process.

It’s been quite a rollercoaster to get to this point, in fact it’s been hard work, but now we’re looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in. Some of the ideas might not germinate, but some will. Watch this space! To keep up to date with progress follow us @uugroupplc on twitter or visit our innovation lab webpage