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Why innovation is needed in the water sector

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Ofwat has launched a £200 million Water Innovation Fund for England and Wales this year. Alison Fergusson from Ofwat explains why.

In the 1940s, the inventor, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral, was out walking his dog when he wondered why burdock burrs (a type of weed) got caught on his dog and his coat. He quickly realised the potential for whatever it was to hold objects in place.

He developed a new loom for synthetic material, patented Velcro, and developed the hook and loop fasteners that we now use in various aspects of our lives. What started off as an inquisitive observation on a walk in the woods is now a product widely used in space, on kids’ shoes, and on medical devices such as blood pressure cuffs.

What is clear is that small ideas can lead to hugely impactful innovations, and you never know where those ideas might come from. Fresh thinking is essential for transforming essential services such as water and wastewater.

The current situation

As we think about where the industry is now, we can’t ignore the impact the pandemic is having on the industry and its customers. We are seeing an increase in the number of water consumers in vulnerable circumstances, posing questions about the affordability of these essential services.

In addition, water and wastewater services need to be resilient to a range of risks to their continuing operation.

We just need to look at the state of Texas to see what happens when there isn’t a resilient water service in the face of severe weather and associated electricity cuts. Frozen pipes causing a shortage of drinkable water, water treatment plants being offline and hospitals moving critically ill patients when taps nearly ran dry were merely some of the many water-related problems the state faced due to recent atypically cold weather. The New York Times reported that “much of the statewide concern had turned to water woes”.

Combine these with the risks posed by climate change directly on the amount of water available – either not enough in water stressed areas or too much during floods. The future of this is uncertain, and with a growing population to serve, we recognise the intense pressures on our services. Doing more of what we have been doing in the past simply won’t be enough.

Fresh thinking needed

So, in Ofwat we’re stimulating new ways of tackling these difficult issues and bringing new voices to the conversation.

Firstly, we are running a number of innovation competitions over this year and the next few years, seeking a step up in investment in innovation that is shared across the industry.

Over the 2020-25 period, there is £200 million available in the innovation fund for water companies to collaborate with others and run innovation projects. And by innovation we are not only talking about new technologies, but also new processes, systems and ways of working, or bringing learning from other sectors into the water industry.

We have recently announced the judges for the first competition, the Innovation in Water Challenge, which will be chaired by the current Institution of Civil Engineers’ president, Rachel Skinner.

We’ve also developed a particular innovation in the water sector by encouraging different ways of investing in large infrastructure projects through what we have called the Direct Procurement for Customers’ (DPC) approach. Water or wastewater companies tender for services, leading to a selection of third-party competitively appointed providers. The direct procurement of more aspects of an infrastructure project will leave the companies to focus on delivering day-to-day services, reduce costs paid for by customers and promote innovation.

Input from the others

These approaches, the innovation fund and DPC, give a huge scope for organisations and professionals to get involved that haven’t previously worked in the water industry. Their expertise and fresh thinking can drive the change needed to tackle the urgent issues, and can help provide resilient water and wastewater services that are essential to all of us.

I look forward to discussing these issues and Ofwat’s approaches more in the Dugald Clerk lecture in a few weeks’ time.

Register for The Dugald Clerk Lecture.

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