Innovation approaches in the Water Industry

We have seen several different approaches to trialling and adopting innovative technologies or solutions, so here are some of our insights on innovation in the water industry.

In-house innovation

Who is better to understand the day to day problems than the people who are experiencing them? Hackathons and internal innovation projects are a great way to understand the challenges that are being faced, but also to identify and trial potential solutions without getting anyone external involved. One of the challenges with this approach is that water utilities and councils are typically not set up to support these “proof of concept” projects into “business as usual”. This is mainly because the person/people who develop the solutions need to have the ability to pass on the required knowledge to maintain the solution within an organisation that may not have people with the required skills to do so. 

Water utilities with open tenders

A longer term approach to innovation is where a utility will identify areas within the business that may need to be refreshed, and put out an open tender to see what solutions are on the market. This procurement method is quite common and is a staple for utility and government organisations, and its application to bringing in innovation is a growing area of interest. A great example of this model being applied for innovation adoption is the United Utilities Innovation Lab in the UK. This brings in potential innovation and implementation partners for utilities and helps United Utilities to understand the capability in the market across a range of options. The challenge with this approach is that typically open tender processes are prescriptive in nature, especially considering the ‘scope’ of the project that the utility is requesting services for. The low flexibility in this procurement process can however be less of an issue if, as with the United Utilities Innovation Lab, the utility has done a thorough ‘ideation’ process with internal SME’s to refine the problem statement as far as possible so that adoption of solutions can be streamlined.

Open Market Challenges

Where a water utility feels there is an opportunity for non-traditional suppliers to provide a solution, another approach is to put a ‘challenge’ out to the open market. This is less formal than a tender process (and therefore puts less pressure on the water utility for adoption) by inviting organisations and individuals to participate who may not be typical suppliers to the water industry, but have particular technical capabilities relevant to the problem statement. This model is also a transparent opportunity for suppliers to hear from water utility customers directly about their specific business challenges. An great example of this model is what Wessex Water (UK) do with their Wessex Water Marketplace Challenges. The main areas that organisations considering this approach should plan for is the volume and quality of submissions as well as information security management with the data that is disseminated to the open market.

Third Party Innovation Organisations

Having an ambitious innovation agenda is one thing. But delivering innovation is quite another. Another option is to bring in a third party organisation to streamline the innovation adoption process. This allows water utility internal staff to focus on the ‘strategy’ of adopting a successful innovation, without dealing with the finer details (e.g. sourcing innovation partners, legal, IP, etc.) that can delay pilot projects and trials. WaterStart, a water innovation technology aggregator, is an example of a third party organisation that partners with water utilities/municipalities as well as technology vendors to arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome. 

Utilities forming innovation groups

If you have ever sat at your desk thinking “I can’t be the only person with this problem”, then you’ve hit the central driver behind why water utility organisations that have similar challenges aim to combine their effort on the innovation and problem solving front. In addition to knowledge sharing between SME’s, pooling of funds to run pilot projects and trials is another advantage of this model. The learnings and outcomes from these projects can then be shared between the group. This option can also benefit the innovation vendor by providing them the opportunity to showcase their solution to a number of potential customers in a single project. An example that we have here in Australia is Victoria’s Intelligent Water Network, made up of 16 water utility member organisations.

As a summary of our experience, what works best is when the operations teams who will be affected are actively involved in trials and communicate what “success” of a trial will look like. Also, given the similarities between utilities, it makes sense to share in trials and results. For those who don’t have any innovation strategy, the risk is that existing approaches become outdated, and the adoption of new solutions could be a poor fit for your needs. Staying informed of both your internal staff needs, and external opportunities is key to maximising the efficiency of operations.

There is clearly a big push for innovation in the water industry, as it should be. It’s great to see the shift worldwide to adopt new solutions to operate more efficiently and keep our environment healthy.

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