Plus other takeaways from a week with leading utilities in the UK

In the last week of November I spent a quick week in London and the UK to continue building connections with the UK water industry. Planned it perfectly to avoid the drubbing at Twickenham – but that’s a story for another day. Design sprints (one being the title of this blog), benchmarking, people and culture and renationalisation were all on the agenda.

My top 5 takeaways:

  1. Is the so called ‘economic level of leakage’ past its use by date? The utilities in the UK seem to think so, certainly not many in their customer base, nor amongst stakeholders understand it, nor do they think it makes much sense when customers feel they are being asked to do more and more.
  2. The top utilities in the UK are driving innovation really hard with a huge emphasis on people and culture – more on that below.
  3. Our leadership in commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been noticed – and emulated
  4. The Labour Party policy of renationalising the water sector is a real and unambiguous reality if there is a change of government in the UK, and who knows with Brexit still to be debated....
  5. The UK approach to plastic pollution is clearer and certainly has more urgency

First stop was Anglian Water in the driest part of the UK, flat as a pancake and growing faster than any other region. I first met Peter Simpson, Anglian Water CEO in Tokyo for the IWA Awards, although we did both work at Anglian Water in the 90s. Peter was a very engaging and welcoming host and generously gave up a good portion of his day to discuss emerging issues with me - as did the other CEOs.

Newmarket in the UK is well known as one of the horse racing centres of the UK, and I was treated to an inspiring day with Anglian Water staff who showed how they have transformed this town of around 20,000 people into an all-encompassing dedicated water innovation live trial site. Yep, the whole town has a range of innovation trials going on right now. 95 projects and over 100 organisations and companies. Setting ambitious goals of zero leakage, a demand of 80 litres per person per day, carbon neutrality and backed by 100% customer satisfaction.

I was particularly impressed with the people - led by Ghislain Juvanon and Nick Sexton, every staff member I met was passionate and engaged about trying new things, the successes – and the learnings – they’ve had along the way. While I was the Aussie moaning about the cold and rain they had waited in the elements to show me the innovative Pressure Reduction Valve Trial producing great results for the local customers.

Image: Nick Sexton, Anglian Water 

The approach to achieving 80L per person per day covers all the bases. Fujitsu has been utilising Artificial Intelligence to look at alternative ways of using aerial imagery and analytics to detect land uses change and leak detection, thermal imagining with drones has produced big water loss savings and avoided a multimillion dollar pipe replacement, and with 60% of Anglian customers receiving water through pumped supplies, Sheffield University has linked transient events and operational problems. On the customer side, a collaboration with the multinational GSK identified through customer research that turning off the tap while brushing makes a statistically significant dent in water use – but this also helps GSK as it attempts to lower its own water footprint. Smart meters have driven water use down from 119 to 98 litres per person per day. Customers are also expecting carbon neutrality from Anglian who are trialling lithium ion storage for solar energy through Flow Machine which increases solar energy capture by 80%. Anglian are actively seeking collaborators and partners to maximise GWh opportunities from energy from bioresources, plus a plethora of other initiatives.

I have hardly done the Shop Window justice but it’s worth recognising what an innovative approach this is for the urban water industry. Anglian also have commitments to the SDGs and have committed to a very modest increase of less than 1% on bills with a 30% increase investment on their Price Review 2014. Clearly innovation is in the veins of the people at Anglian and to achieve those high targets it will require a whole of team effort.

Image: Adam with the Northumbrian Water team

Next stop Northumbrian Water and their Innovation Festival. With headquarters in a place called Pity Me, just outside of Durham in north east England, Northumbrian Water has been quietly working away to be a powerhouse utility focused on regional prosperity, providing an unrivalled customer experience and leading in innovation. Northumbrian is roughly the same size as say Sydney Water, with around 4.5 million people to serve and about 3000 staff. I met with CEO Heidi Mottram along the way too and I was impressed with their >400,000 touch points with customers, across many different engagement mechanisms, during the development of their most recent price plan. Heidi has set the organisation the goal of being the leading water utility in the UK and one emerging renewable energy trend I saw from them was new gas to grid projects at their major treatment facilities, but methane isn’t just methane so there have been some technical challenges.  But the risks are worth the potential rewards. Heidi is also a committed Board member for WaterAid, contributing to their work in Malawi.

Alastair Tawn, their Business Transformation Lead, was enthusiastically talking about the Northumbrian Water Innovation Festival they held in July last year. With more than 2000 attendees over a week they pull in the best and the brightest from the education and research sectors, SMEs and industry and challenged them all with some burning issues. Here’s what stood out to me:

  • The use of ‘design sprints’ to tear each problem apart, build it up again and come up with solutions in a week is punchy, inclusive and delivered results.  For the Innovation Festival there were 13 design sprints, and 2 hacks including for example:
    • Starting from scratch - How do you create the ‘perfect' water company?
    • Green planet - How can we become a carbon positive company?
  • In the same way many Australian water utilities are looking to their carbon and water footprints, the Innovation Festival was a zero waste event;
  • A major commitment to STEM meant that many schoolchildren attended the event, including their own design sprint based on the ‘Blue Planet’

If you’re interested, take a look at here - I’m sure the Northumbrian Water leaders would welcome a few more for 2019.

I think it’s easy to get hung up on the technology itself when we talk about innovation. But Anglian and Northumbrian have set themselves up to focus on three core objectives of a future water utility: technology – that’s a must, customer satisfaction – the ultimate reason why, and people – without their support, innovation is a nothing but a buzzword. Both utilities encourage SMEs and technology providers to get on board for trials but it’s not IP they are chasing – its customer satisfaction!

Last top London and a meeting with Liv Garfield, CEO of Severn Trent Water. Liv is driving a strong theme of social mobility through the people that work with and are associated with Severn Trent. On top of that Severn Trent will be setting aside 1% of their profits for community funds backed up by 40% of their employees volunteering to improve local communities.  As numbers of vulnerable customers rise they are increasing their focus over the next few years on ways to help them. Liv is rightly proud that Severn Trent is 4th on the FTSE 100 for gender diversity.

I was really pleased to hear that Severn Trent had joined the growing list of utilities around the world committing to the SDGs. That’s real leadership and by sharing our progress and learnings across the globe, this will be the industry that glues the others together through partnerships to ensure by 2030 most if not all of the SDGs are achieved.

Image: Adam with Michael Roberts, WaterUK and Peter Simpson, Anglian Water

With other meetings including Michael Roberts from WaterUK talking about the renationalisation debate and Steven Kaye from UKWIR talking about research and innovation, it was an energising week. The trip to the UK said to me there’s always someone else pushing the boundaries and its exciting to learn from those forging ahead, yet still, there’s plenty of space to carve out your own leadership initiative and deliver great service to your customers.

As we head into Christmas and the summer holidays I wish you and your families and all the staff in the urban water industry a relaxing break and time with your loved ones and friends.

See you early in 2019!

4 Dec 2018

Adam Lovell

Adam Lovell

Executive Director