NIGEL WATSON LOOKS AT PLANS FOR NORTHUMBRIAN WATER’S SECOND INNOVATION FESTIVAL

There’s no doubt that last year’s Innovation Festival was one of the best weeks of my career.

It was incredible to see so many people from different organisations and perspectives come together and really throw themselves into solving some really big problems. The spirit of the participants will stay with me forever.

However, it will all have been for nought if we didn’t follow through on the great ideas that it generated. The last month then has been especially pleasing as we have seen some of those ideas come to life.

On the 14th March we put England’s first Moss Tree into the heart of Newcastle. We will very soon be able to see what kind of impact it has had on the air quality in what is one of the most congested areas of Newcastle.

Our analytical work on Leakage is just starting to generate some fascinating insights. We’re now taking a very targeted approach to leakage, recognising the very different characteristics that different parts of our network exhibit.

Lastly, we had Mark Ireland (one of our degree apprentices) and Hedgehog Labs bring the new Alexa customer experience back to the Executive Leadership Team last month. I think that opened everyone’s eyes as to the possibilities of the voice interface as a way of engaging customers in a new and exciting way.

Looking ahead then, excitement is definitely building in regard to this year’s festival. The first thing to say is that it is clearly going to be much bigger.

That’s frankly a fairly scary thought because I clearly remember arriving on site last year on the day before the festival and not being able to speak – I was that overwhelmed.

The number of sprints for this year is more than double and we’ve vastly increased the size of the marquee village. We’re building it… will they come? That’s really the next stage of our planning.

We’re ready now to go out and recruit the participants for the sprints. We’ve learned from 2.5 years of using design thinking that the diversity of the audience is one of the most important factors. We need participants that have varied backgrounds and experiences, participants that will look at these problems with a different locus. Combining that thinking is the art of facilitation, which results in great ideas.

This year’s festival is not just about generating ideas though. We’re taking the opportunity to try to accelerate some initiatives that are already underway. Once such ‘sprint’ is the one we are doing with our good friends at the Ordnance Survey. This is going to be a mapathon, where we attempt to stitch together an underground map of part of the UK.

We’re also hoping to take a quantum leap in our work on Digital Twins during the festival. How often do you get to put 50 experts to work for a week, all in one tent?

We’re really proud of what we did last year, but also realistic enough to know that it could be improved upon. I think we’ve got the bones of another great event thanks to the headline sponsors and the content we have jointly chosen. Now is the moment when we take it out to our employees, customers and ecosystem. The event programme is an outline sketch. I can’t wait to see what colours get added to the canvas.

Nigel Watson is Group Director of Information Services at Northumbrian Water.