Inclusivity, energy-saving technology and citizen partnerships are set to become the biggest innovation trends for 2023, according to a North East Innovation expert.


Northumbrian Water Group’s Head of Innovation, Angela MacOscar, has shared her predications on what technology, approaches and behaviours she thinks will be making waves in innovation over the next 12 months.


The water company, which is leading the way when it comes to innovation in the industry thanks to its now globally recognised Innovation Festival, uses a design sprint model and format to create innovative outputs to help improve services for its customers and bring fresh ideas to the utilities sector.


Over the past six years, the Northumbrian Water Innovation Festival has seen thousands of innovators from all over the world coming together to find solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the utilities industry.


Some of the most successful solutions to come from previous festivals include leakage solution, No Dig, and the National Underground Asset Register, which has recently been adopted by the UK Government.


Angela said: "The global water sector is pulling together to tackle the huge challenges we share. For 2023, we now need to up the pace of putting ideas into action to start seeing the benefits.  


“Watch this space, because I think that 2023 is going to be very exciting.” 


According to Angela, the top innovation trends to watch out for are: 


1. Citizen partnerships

We will see a change in conversation with our customers, moving to more of a partnership with trust and shared responsibility on some of the important challenges where they hold the key – such as flushing wipes that cause blockages, water efficiency in the home and keeping our bathing waters in tip-top condition. At Northumbrian Water, our Bin the Wipe campaign has already seen great results in blockage reduction by working hand in hand with our customers. We also have a number of projects in the pipeline that will engage customers in new ways to develop this partnership on things such as lowering their water usage and boost environmental interest.


2. Sustainable and circular solutions

Our water and wastewater treatment processes emit a number of valuable by-products that can and must be recycled. Long-term impact and sustainable solutions need to be at the top of the list for any new project, we need new business models to make these options the go-to choice. Northumbrian Water has already secured OFWAT funding to explore the capture and re-use of phosphorus and a scheme to capture ammonia to create hydrogen fuel. These projects will be well under way in 2023 and you will see much more of this as the year unfolds.


3. Energy and chemical efficiencies

Need drives change, and this year we have seen unprecedented increases in energy and chemical costs. This has prompted action to tackle these costs, so expect to see many radical new solutions and different approaches to be taken to manage these costs and make our processes more efficient too.  At Northumbrian Water we seize the opportunity to do things differently and this challenge presents the opportunity to re-write how we operate our treatment plants, and we are pulling out all the stops!


4. Smart sewers and environmental monitoring

To have the best rivers and beaches, we need to leverage technology so we can better understand water quality in our environment.  This is a very tough challenge to crack.  There are some brilliant technologies available that do the job well, but it is not viable to deploy them at the volume required across our > 50,000km networks. We are working on some exciting projects that are exploring new ways of getting the data needed, and new ways of sharing this information with our customers and bathing water users.  Expect to see some big news on this in 2023.


5. Inclusive innovation

Innovation is a team sport in Northumbrian Water and there is a need to make this a place that is inclusive for all so that an innovative culture can truly thrive.  If this is not done, and only a small number of people are involved, the potential lost is huge.  At Northumbrian Water we have been working hard to bring this alive at our innovation festival and in our workplaces.  We have looked at quiet innovation, how we can create design sprints that include all preferred styles of participation and thought processes – which has included slowing down the sprint activities, allowing space for meaningful reflection and quiet spaces.  We have also explored diversity and inclusion and neurodiversity as we strive to innovate with purpose with all our employees and partners. 


6. No Dig solutions

Annually the utility sector digs more than a million holes in the road which causes disruption to our customers and can be a costly solution.  Everyone has been searching for innovative solutions in this space. At this year’s festival we unveiled a technology we are working on with Origin. This game changing, mineral based solution reduces the need for excavation and has been successfully applied to a number of live trials in 2022.  We will be developing this solution further for the water sector during 2023.


7. Open AI

AI (Artificial Intelligence) has been in the charts for a number of years, and we are now seeing this powerful technology applied routinely across the business to fast-track learning and improve services.  AI will become more prevalent in 2023 with natural language processing and machine learning advances and improvement in its understanding of us and ability to perform more complex tasks. Open AI is available to everyone in the form of ChatGPT. It is a sophisticated artificial intelligence system, made by the Microsoft Corp., that responds to complex queries with the appearance of striking intelligence and accuracy.  It does have rules but could easily be mis-used as it is able to create very plausible human responses.  Like with all new technologies the full power is still to be realised but the learning curve with millions of users will be very steep and will develop uses we can’t even imagine today. AI is definitely here and will be a part of everyone’s jobs and can be used to drive massive efficiency and innovation in the water sector.


8. Regulation innovation

We need regulation in this sector and water companies are working together on many of our biggest challenges as part of the Ofwat innovation competition especially so we can deliver resilient and reliant services for all our customers. In doing this we see opportunity to work with our regulators more closely to drive up performance of the whole sector that will benefit all our customers.


9.  Robotics

This is not a new technology as it is applied in the water sector today for tasks such as process automation and asset health assessment.  However, today the cost is a barrier and mass application has not been realised yet. This is an opportunity that we will be looking into in 2023, technology advances in this space will enable to water sector to leverage this technology more, especially for dangerous and difficult tasks in our operations and in the management of our assets.


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