Collaboration and Co-Creation: The key to water sector research and innovation

Collaboration and Co-Creation: The key to water sector research and innovation

Published On 15/02/2021

Listening to the presentations at UKWIR's inaugural Annual Conference in December made it clear that the water sector's approach to research and innovation has fundamentally changed.

This was encapsulated in the keynote speech by Heidi Mottram, CEO of Northumbrian Water on why the utilities need to innovate and collaborate.

She stated that climate change is one of the biggest challenges and meeting the net zero carbon emissions by 2030 requires bravery and ambition. This can only be achieved if everyone comes together, share ideas, and use the knowledge and technology to break down barriers. 

She was excited to announce that the soon to be launched – Centre of Excellence (CoE) will provide an excellent enabling platform.

She added that ‘the CoE is going to be followed very quickly by OFWAT's Innovation Fund that is going to give the industry an even bigger boost. One where we can work together and perhaps make projects fly that we never thought would otherwise be possible. The fund is a great opportunity and we all need to get behind it.’

Richard Warneford, Wastewater Director at Northumbrian Water and Chair of UKWIR, told delegates about UKWIR's work and its research community and how it is in a position to bring different organisations together. 

He saw ‘a real opportunity to think in a less fragmented way to be truly collaborative right across the whole research and innovation continuum’.

Mike Elliot, Technology Director at the Mercedes Formula 1 Team, had some clear advice for the water sector. Their success was measured in seven successive F1 championship wins amid the most intense competition. They had to continuously innovate to keep their lead.

He contrasted adaptive and technical challenges. Technical challenges are relatively easy to deal with and don't require a lot of management. An adaptive challenge requires organisational behavioural changes to solve and are much harder.

He added, ‘really it's about our role as leaders to look at the big picture. We need to create a compelling vision, a case for change.

We want people to buy into the changes we're trying to make and get them to form the change and be a part of that change. If they do that, they are more likely to stick with it when the going gets hard’.

Innovate UK is an important facilitator for innovation. Ian Meikle, Director of Clean Growth, said how they co-fund around £1.5bn of public money per annum to help UK companies grow. 

The £315m Industrial Energy Transformation Fund targets energy innovation and decarbonisation in the industrial sector with competitions in 2020/21 with the water sector potentially eligible.

He had looked through the UKWIR Big Questions challenges and although he thought they were good, he said ‘it would be helpful to see more emphasis on opportunities and market growth’ e.g. the emerging hydrogen economy will require a significant amount of high quality water.

John Russell, Senior Director - Strategy and Planning at OFWAT, took the opportunity to inform delegates on their £200m Innovation Fund, whose details are on page 4.

Other presentations included Dragan Savic, CEO, KWR on collaborating overseas on common challenges, Ivan Stoianov, Reader, Imperial College London, on innovation and collaboration – a view from academia and Jon Rathjen, from the Scottish Government, giving a Scottish perspective and how it’s worked successfully. 

All this fed into two lively and productive panel discussions.