Running our Innovation Lab is helping us find new ways of improving services

Water companies have been challenged to push the boundaries of 'business as usual' during the price review process for the next regulatory period. To deliver more for less, we have to do things differently.

The biggest challenge is how to find new innovations when, historically, it has been difficult for new entrants to implement their ideas in the water industry. Our procurement processes are set up to define the scope of the services we want very precisely, which can be counterproductive to creativity. To address this, last year, we ran the UK water industry's very first Innovation Lab, working with technology accelerator partner L Marks.

Our first challenge was to loosen the procurement constraints. We used EU Innovation Partnership Procedure legislation to develop a revolutionary new procurement framework for the industry, which won the Utility Week award for Supply Chain Excellence. This allowed us to procure ideas rather than specific services. The Innovation Lab did not look for fully formed new services or technologies. We were clear from the outset that we wanted ideas that could be nurtured and co-created with and for the water industry.

We defined five areas where we had identified a challenge in need of a solution:

  • Connected customer: such as smart devices and 'Internet of Things' – water is lagging behind other utilities in this area.
  • Proactive customer: providing better and more timely updates for customers when they need to hear from us.
  • Predictive asset maintenance: finding less invasive ways to monitor performance of our assets without needing to dig them up or switch them off.
  • Safe and healthy worker: protecting our employees when they are working alone, at night, or in dangerous locations.
  • Future of water: this final category was intended to be a 'catch all' to attract ideas, however radical, that could have applications for the water industry.

The Innovation Lab provided a safe, supportive environment for the shortlisted suppliers to access our sites, data, systems, experts and experienced senior employees. It helped foster a culture where we work together to bring these ideas to fruition.

We advertised the Lab to some 1,500 fledgling, small and large businesses and received applications from 80 organisations. We narrowed that down to a shortlist of 22 ideas from UK and international applicants. Seven finalists joined us at our head office for an intensive 10-week Lab process. Five of these suppliers were new entrants to the UK water sector.

So far, we have signed contracts with three of the suppliers. UK-based firm Typhon is installing a power-efficient LED UV system for water treatment. Canadian firm EMAGIN is rolling out its artificial intelligence platform HARVI to all of our water pumping stations across the North West. Manchester-based Datatecnics is rolling out its intelligent pipe system that uses printed electronics and artificial intelligence to report pipe integrity and predict pipe failures.

This process has proved so successful for finding and proving new innovations that we are repeating it. We launched our second Innovation Lab in April 2019 to find more great ideas that we can co-create with their originators for the benefit of our company, our customers and other stakeholders, and the water industry as a whole.

The process has proved so successful for finding and proving new innovations that we are repeating it.