Advancements in Artificial Intelligence, carbon reduction strategies and closer collaboration between businesses and water companies are set to be among the biggest innovation trends of 2021, according to Northumbrian Water's leading experts.
The impact of COVID-19 on businesses, communities and people right across the world has led to a greater need for innovation than ever before.
With the introduction of the OFWAT innovation fund, the water sector is gearing itself up for a big year when it comes to innovation.
Leading the way is Northumbrian Water and their Head of Innovation, Angela MacOscar.
She and her team are planning events such as the Innovation Festival 2021 and Innovate East, as well as pushing through a number of game-changing projects from last year's festival including a wearable safety device, a burst prediction model and changing business model for smart networks.
2021 will see Northumbrian Water's fifth annual Innovation Festival, as well as the second Innovate East - a stream of collaborative events with Yorkshire Water and Anglian Water.
While planning these for these big events, innovation lead Dr MacOscar has looked forward to the innovation trends of the year.
She said: "During 2020 the need for innovation was greater than ever and we took the changing work landscape as an opportunity to move even faster, whether it was used when working from home, or even to connect with friends and family.
"We will continue to build on everything we learned from last year throughout 2021, and we will take it to the next level.
"Last year was all about collaboration - something we have already seen massive benefits from as a result of working with businesses from around the world at our Innovation Festivals. This is definitely going to be a strong theme that we will see carried through 2021. The pandemic has shown that businesses are stronger when they join together to implement ideas.
"I think we will also see some brand-new trends surface this year. Carbon reduction will be a massive focus across all industries this year, and we will certainly be at the forefront of that with our journey of becoming a carbon neutral sector by 2030."
Angela's top 10 innovation trends to watch:
- Collaboration - 2021 is going elevate this to new levels as the first £200m innovation fund announced by OFWAT is up and running. This will be a great enabler for collaboration across the water sector and will kickstart more collective innovation. Collaborations will turn into fruitful partnerships - as demonstrated by the Innovate East 2021 event!
- Thinking bigger and further out - Working together and sharing the risks will focus the sector on tackling some of the biggest and most difficult challenges. The OFWAT fund will encourage the water sector to look at some new innovations and take on projects that were never possible before. This will be incredibly enabling as some of the biggest challenges faced by the sector such as climate change and ageing infrastructure are going to need big solutions with big risks and price tags. This will also have us looking at what future generations might think of innovation.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) - In 2020, we applied AI to many areas around our business to see the true benefit. We are still on this journey and in 2021 we will be really leveraging all the work in progress as we amass the data required to have robust AI in place. We are particularly excited about our work with Vyntelligence where we have leveraged AI to health and safety, leakage and flooding reporting.
- Digital Twins - Digital Twins will cement itself as THE decision support tool for operational applications going forward. NWG has twins across operations and in customer. Our use of digital twins is really coming to life and bring real value. In 2021 the leverage of these will continue and grow.
- Improved human interface - This trend played out massively in 2020 given the global pandemic. Our strong digital capability put NWG in a great position to pivot our workforce into a digitally enabled workforce. Whether it's our homeworking teams using the latest tools to work effectively, or our field-based workers who are still able to work safely with our customers on emergency call outs. Even our Innovation Festival took place digitally for the first time in 2020. The tools which allow us to seamlessly collaborate with each other and our customers all leverage improved human interface.
- A focus on health and safety - Building on the great underground mapping project, we furthered this theme in the Innovation Festival 2020 and have a number of exciting digital tools to significantly improve street-works for our employees and for our customers. Watch this space in 2021 to see some exciting innovative developments.
- Better employee wellbeing - Last year we focused massively on well-being support for our people. Working remotely has upped the need for us to be more thoughtful and inclusive, and leverage digital tools to implement this. The Innovation Festival project ‘Tapp On The Shoulder' is a brilliant example of how we are looking at using wearable devices to enable an employee to be more self-aware and to increase safety.
- Super IoT (Internet of Things) - Our use of sensors and IoT will significantly increase as reducing costs make the mass use of this technology more possible. Innovation projects such as Barnacle, Dragonfly and the Torpedo (smart sewer device) are capitalising on this to create sector-leading possibilities. In addition, this trend will be seen more as ‘smart homes' are finally taking off due to standardisation across platforms and they have come down in price.
- Carbon reduction - As we journey on our mission to be carbon neutral as a water sector by 2030, much innovation will be seen in this space, including fleet replacement and management, nature-based solutions instead of the go-to concrete projects, and the use of hydrogen. Innovation in this space will be big, watch out for our progress as this takes centre stage at our Innovate East events in 2021.
- Outside In - The idea of bringing ideas from other sectors and melding them with our own challenges and our creative thinking. This is something we will be building on from Innovation Festival 2020, and we will certainly be looking at more deeply during our fifth annual Innovation Festival this year.
To register your interest for the Innovation Festival 2021, visit - www.innovationfestival.org/register/