Northumbrian Water - NWG Festival of Innovation

Nominee Name:
Nigel Watson

Nominee Position:
Thank you for voting for NWG Festival of Innovation


Some of the world’s leading businesses came together to tackle major social and environmental challenges at a unique, potentially world first, week-long Innovation Festival.

The event, organised by Northumbrian Water Group (NWG), saw major national and global companies working with other businesses, universities, schools and members of the public to look at a range of issues, including flooding, the environment and social inclusion. In all over 140 separate organisations and 1000 people attended the event, the diversity this brought was fundamental to its success.

The NWG Innovation Festival brought together the best innovative minds, using design ‘sprint’ thinking to explore and create new solutions to some of the biggest social and environmental challenges we face as an industry and a society. Also involved in running the special focused ‘sprints’, and the special hackathon on the subject of water leakage, were the headline sponsors, IBM, Reece Innovation, CGI, Ordnance Survey, BT and Microsoft.

The Northumbrian Water Group Innovation Festival took place at Newcastle Racecourse July 10 to July 14 2017, with c.400 people in attendance on each of the five days. The work to tackle six key problems took place in a true festival environment that also featured live comedy and music, as well as inspirational talks to give it a more relaxed and creative feel and one where you recharge your brain after a day of hard thinking!

The big questions tackled during the week were:

  • ‘Rain, Hail or Shine’: How can we reduce flooding?
  • ‘Preparing for the Future’: How do we upgrade our infrastructure for the 21st Century effectively and affordably?
  • 'Keep It Flowing’: What do we know about leakage from water pipes and how can we fix it?
  • ‘Tomorrow’s World’: What will living and working look like in 2030?
  • ‘How Green is Your City?’: What can businesses do to improve the environment in the North East?
  • ‘21st Century Reach’: How can we optimise a mobile workforce for a complex network business?

Also supporting the NWG Innovation Festival were Newcastle University, Genesys, Interserve, Costain Resources, PC1, Tech Mahindra, Mott MacDonald Bentley (MMB), Wipro, Virgin Media Business, Schneider, Wheatley Solutions, Sopra Steria, Accenture and 1Spatial.

What was the in-market status quo before the proposition was created?

The sector regulator OFWAT has long said the water industry lacks innovation and falls short on thinking differently and working collaboratively. Although a tough stance as there has been great innovation in NWG, as a sector it was true and NWG were acutely aware of the need for differential thinking, diversity of knowledge and experience and the power of collaborating to innovate.

Before the NWG Innovation Festival there’d never been an event that was remotely like it in terms of ambition, scale and approach and it is one that really set the bench mark for the industry moving forward. In terms of design thinking NWG even created a new approach for the festival where we fused together two different approaches, the ‘hackathon’ and the ‘sprint’, to tackle our leakage question. This proved to be a great success and the interwoven approach accelerated idea generation during the festival itself.

What challenges were you facing as a business?

Despite being a company that’s able to be proud of our innovation exploits, we knew we could go faster and further by collaborating and harnessing the power of diversity and differential thinking. Subject matter experts have always been a great source of insight but the ideas they generate are often seen as traditional and often don’t lead to step changes in performance. We wanted to tap into more diverse thinking and cross pollinate expertise from traditionally unconnected sectors to lead to even more exciting and impactful innovations.

We know from experience you cannot underestimate the power of diversity to create disruptive innovation. Even during the festival itself we had ‘busy bees’ whose role was to cross pollinate ideas and thinking from one sprint tent to another. Remember innovation is not invention, it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from, as long as it can create difference, you can ‘pinch with pride’!

What impact has the proposition had?

More than 20 ideas were presented at the end of the week, for multi-party working groups to take forward for development. Some are already being developed, and many of the biggest benefits could take years to realise, reaching far beyond the organisation through long-term partnership projects.

These are some of the opportunities we are excited to be working on right now:

  • We will deploy England’s first moss trees in a NE city centre to mop up pollution and alleviate surface water run-off which can cause flooding.
  • We are currently collaborating to generate the first multi-utility underground map and are also co-creating a design for a 21st century intelligent sewer.
  • When tackling leakage we have developed a number of propositions which range from introducing an industry first ‘street level’ leakage monitoring approach through to using data analytics to predict where the leaks are most likely to be saving valuable field time. Nine projects have been shortlisted and seven business cases requested. Two are longer term research. Over 13 suppliers/contractors are involved in progressing the concepts.
  • We are developing a proposal for an industry first ‘voice’ assistant which could benefit both customers and employees.
  • The Green Cities sprint identified opportunities to save an average of £400 p.a. per employee through car sharing and reduce the estimated £600,000 spent on casual mileage and 2million litres of fuel used by NWG’s fleet annually.

    Less-quantifiable benefits include:

    • Stakeholders, including Ofwat, the Environment Agency, CC Water, and customers, better understand our innovative and collaborative nature and our desire to improve and enhance operations and the environment within and outside of our own operations.

    Around 250 young people also got involved in the festival. We ran a ‘design thinking’ challenge to design a teenager’s bedroom of the future which really captured the creative minds of local school children. We had some great concepts proposed and we are in the midst of picking a finalist which we hope to bring to life with the aid of Newcastle University.

    Beyond that, we’re proud that our inaugural event has already started driving a new more innovative and collaborative culture within the industry and North East and we look forward to many more successful festivals to come.

  • Comments

    Sarah Salter Sarah Salter
    2 days ago

    Awesome event, combining serious innovation challenges with an environment that really unleashed some of the best brains in the industry, with music, comedy, yoga and mindfulness, facepaint and food! An amazing way to bring people together creatively and inspire young people with STEM to develop the workforce of the future...