Innovation in the water industry

Posted on by Mark Smith

Water innovation

Mark Smith – Managing Director – WRc plc

The water sector in the UK has a poor reputation with respect to innovation but it also possesses an enviable record of successfully delivering safe, clean drinking water 24/7, removal and treatment of wastewater and vast improvements to the quality of our rivers. It is true, however, that while these successes are real and should be celebrated, the industry faces some immediate daunting challenges. These include, among others resilience issues due to climate change, extreme weather events, population growth and changing demographics. The challenges cannot be tackled with traditional solutions so the industry must become better at adopting innovation.

Some of this has already happened with Ofwat linking innovation and the drive for innovation to customer requirements in the PR14 process. By doing this, it hopes to drive the delivery of excellent services in an economic and political environment that is hostile to increases in bills. To succeed, we must make innovative thinking a core function of the industry.

The water companies and their delivery partners must outreach in a constructive manner to the supply chain. They need to be open about their challenges and innovation needs through dialogue and closer working relationships with trade organisations such as SBWWI and EUA. The delivery vehicles must be open to new ideas and partners and not presume that they have all the solutions within their alliance. Innovation moves very quickly but unfortunately the water sector does not; however, this can be combatted by being ever vigilant to new developments. Assigning someone whose job is to look for innovations may be a very efficient investment!

The Environment Agency must also get behind the innovation agenda. Whilst they cannot compromise their statutory enforcement duties, they can encourage innovation through local engagement exercises and partnerships to ensure new ways of thinking are encouraged and trialled.

Academia needs to come out of its ivory tower and engage with the real world. Research programmes must be aligned with the needs of the customers through the utilities and, finally, the supply chain must learn the language of business. Large water companies do not have the time to listen to interesting technology that is looking for a problem. The SMEs, through their trade organisations, must start talking about value propositions rather than technology.

The message is clear and unambiguous: the water industry has huge challenges to overcome and innovation is required to meet these challenges. We can all retreat to our silos and complain that it is someone else’s fault that innovation isn’t happening fast enough or we can change our behaviours and work collaboratively to solve some of the biggest problems society faces today. It is up to us which choice we make and we should begin with the person we look at in the mirror every morning!

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Mark Smith

WRc provides sustainable and robust solutions to new or difficult problems to enable clients to innovatively provide a safe, reliable and efficient service to their customers. It operates in the UK and Europe in the water, environment, waste management and gas sectors. Its clients consist of the UK water and gas utilities, their trade organisations, manufacturers and resource industry, their regulators, UK government and the European Commission.