Colin Chapman, Queensland Urban Utilities's Innovation, Research & Development Manager, recently visited the US to participate in a workshop for the WaterRF project 'Fostering innovation within utilities.' Colin talks to Gayathri Ramachandran, WSAA's Research and Innovation Coordinator about his trip.

Can you tell us a little about the project?

Queensland Urban Utilities is a participant in the Water Research Foundation (WRF) project, Fostering innovation within water utilities. The aim of the project, which involves 39 water utilities from North America and around the globe, is to develop a practitioner’s guidebook to establish and mature innovation. As part of the program’s benchmarking review, all participants completed an innovation survey. A summary of key findings from the survey were presented at the first Fostering innovation within water utilities workshop held in Los Angeles.

How did the opportunity to present at the workshop arise?

Following the review we were asked, along with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, to present an overview of our program to 39 participating water industry and utility representatives at the workshop. Queensland Urban Utilities is seen as a very progressive utility with a formal, centre-lead approach to innovation, while Metropolitan Water District of Southern California utilises innovation based on its adhoc, informal approach. 

What did you get up to while you were over there?

While I was there, I managed to get out and experience some of the cultural aspects of downtown LA. On my first day, I decided to walk off some of the jet lag on a walking tour. Thankfully, the city is sign posted, which enabled me to undertake a self-paced trip around the key landmarks and learn some of the local history. The thing that I was really struck by was how the districts (equivalent of our suburbs and aptly named) quickly changed as per their naming from Civil District to Banking District to the Jewellery and the Toy District. I was staying in Little Tokyo, which was located near the workshop venue, and I managed to learn a lot about the history of the community, the challenges they faced as a minority, and the significant contribution they made to World War II efforts.

The following several days were spent with the workshop co-ordinators preparing for my presentation and attending presentations at the workshop, along with meeting our friendly North American peers.  Everyone I met at the workshop was so welcoming and we spent a significant amount of time outside the forums talking about our respective water industries and local and national efforts, seeing the commonalities and the differences in our operating models, understanding the challenges we face, and sharing insights on the activities we undertake.

As California is in its sixth year of drought, I was also asked to present at a smaller forum following the workshop on some of the lessons learned from our own South East Queensland drought experience. It was very insightful to learn how California’s source water is managed, as it is dependent on snow falls and melts for topping up supply. Also the implications this has on their planned response, as water allocations upstream need to be negotiated with the farmers who own the water rights adjacent to the Colorado River scheme.

What were some of your key learnings from the workshop?

Based on results from the benchmarking review, it was interesting to learn that:

  • 37% of the program’s participants have a formal innovation program in place, while the majority (63%) operate an ad hoc innovation program, both of which support a range of “blue sky” and “focused” innovations.
  • Participants from around the globe represent a broad array of utilities characterised by different sizes, governance structures, asset values, and annual budget resources.
  • Sustainability has become a significant business driver, nearly equal with compliance. Regional differences were noted with sustainability superseding compliance outside of North America.
  • Nearly half of the utilities reported engaging customers directly into their innovation programs, and many reported broadly engaging universities, consultants, research foundations, and peer utilities.

From the statistics it is clear that all organisations are different, that there is a strong interest from informal agencies to develop formal programs, and that sustainability is emerging as significant driver in the development and delivery of innovation programs outside of North America.

This innovation project provides a significant opportunity for all water utilities to collaborate and share information to drive operational excellence, and I am keen to establish a global innovation-sharing network where all utilities can access their peers and information to progress their innovations. 

Was there one highlight that really made the trip special?

The presentation of Queensland Urban Utilities' formal innovation program provided a unique overview of the cultural aspects of the journey thus far, and showcased the unique collaborative outcomes achieved both internally and as a result of partnering with customers, universities, the community,  industry partners and other Australian and overseas water utilities.

At the networking event following the presentations, I was both humbled and overwhelmed by the positive response to the content presented. It really highlighted to me how progressive we are at Queensland Urban Utilities and that our pursuit to be a utility of future is well underway thanks to the support provided by the Board, the CEO and Executives, and the great people we have in our organisation.  

Has anything come out of the trip since your return? Have you developed stronger relationships with other utilities?

There are several opportunities that have come out of this trip. Right now, we are looking to trial an information-sharing arrangement with Metropolitan Water District of Southern California on a proposed a range of collaborative opportunities. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s innovations include a successful on-boarding program for staff and their development, significant water quality management advances, and a number of applicable engineering solutions for water supply and distribution.

There is a collaborative opportunity with DC Water regarding Innovation and R&D.  DC Water has a well-established R&D platform and over 15 years’ experience in research brokering, partnering and IP management.  In return, they are very interested in establishing formal cultural approach to innovation.

A collaborative partnering opportunity also exists with Alexandria Renew Enterprises. Renew is progressing with mainstream anammox processes, and the partnership could potentially fast-track the generation of data to inform our future capital program.

Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and Water Research Foundation (WRF) would like to publish a feature article on Queensland Urban Utilities and its research innovations. 

5 Feb 2016

Gayathri Jasper

Gayathri Jasper

Liveability Program Advisor