Tony Harrington, Director of Environment, Welsh Water
Spring – the UK water sector’s new Innovation Centre of Excellence – was launched on the 20th of December (https://spring-innovation.co.uk/). Spring has been set up to deliver the outcomes detailed in the water sector’s 2050 Innovation Strategy. Spring’s ‘minimum viable product’ is now live and illustrates the potential value it could bring for the sector and its customers. They are effectively throwing open the doors to all parts of the sector to join and support the innovation journey the whole sector needs to make for providing fully sustainable services to the UK’s water customers. Spring will also be a hub to enable business growth around the UK water sector. The successful innovations it supports can be highlighted to the international water community and hopefully add value in other countries.
Spring’s stated mission is to ‘connect, integrate and augment existing excellence within and outside the water sector, injecting innovation into the industry through learning and implementing best practices.’ Spring, it is hoped, could be game-changing for the innovation efforts of the water sector - welcoming in new players, sharing knowledge and best practice, hastening change, helping to deliver regulatory change, eliminating duplication and driving resource and cost-efficiency. It targets transformational change, aligned to the overlapping but distinct strategic innovation themes set out by Ofwat (the economic regulator in England and Wales for water services) and the sectors own 2050 strategy. These include major challenges such as mitigating climate change through achieving net-zero carbon, enhancing natural systems and the water environment, and ensuring infrastructure are resilient into the future. If Spring can land its remit, its implications could be felt well beyond water.
Spring is a subsidiary of UKWIR (the Water Industry’s UK research company). This enables some resource sharing – for instance, IT and back-office systems. The two organisations are also obviously complementary; Spring can do in technology development what UKWIR already successfully does in research, tackling pressing common challenges centrally and efficiently.
“Spring’s stated mission is to ‘connect, integrate and augment existing excellence within and outside the water sector, injecting innovation into the industry through learnings and best practices.’”
So far, the team has co-created Spring under the careful eye of the UKWIR Board, and with the help of a wide range of stakeholders, including regulators, from across the whole sector and beyond. It has been designed through a series of collaborative workstreams using the Innovation Strategy published by UKWIR and Water UK to set the framework for delivery.
The Spring team has engaged with over 80 organisations to understand their needs in more detail; before defining and validating user requirements; and engaging with specialist innovation organisations to ensure the services launched in December were just what was needed.
As part of this ‘getting it right first time ethos’ the soft-launch of a skeleton website in the Autumn of 2021 set out the bones of what will become Spring’s service offering – which as of this year are two main services, underpinned by two cross-cutting ones:
• An Ideation and Collaboration incubator seeks to stimulate, create, and nurture new ideas by facilitating clear lines of communication between water companies and potential innovators.
• An Innovation Adoption incubator will take promising ideas into practice, including through signposting innovators to practical assistance in companies and elsewhere, for instance, on funding and intellectual property management.
Using these, the key differences that Spring will make compared to what happens today will be centralising points of contact and operation; demystifying the sector; offering a third-party space to have conversations and explore options; facilitating the sharing of experiences and ideas; removing duplication and inefficiency, and speeding up change.
Underpinning the two primary services, Spring will also seek to improve innovation skills and training, including signposting stakeholders to existing offerings within and beyond the sector; and supporting the sector’s journey on open data.
The obvious beneficiaries to Spring will be the UK water companies and their customers, in finding new and better ways of doing things, and the supply chain - in providing services and technologies more efficiently and at a lower cost. But Spring’s work is centred around delivering benefits for customers, society and the environment. As such, along with financial benefits, success will be measured against broader outcomes-based criteria. These are yet to be tied down with KPIs but may well include carbon reduction and measures such as how much of an economic boost has resulted from the support provided to startups.
It is also hoped that Spring could offer a “safe voice” in feeding collective experience back to UK regulators in a way that would be more difficult and less powerful for an individual company to do. Seeking and helping to develop innovative regulatory change is very much part of Spring’s remit.
For Spring to move to its full functionality, it has submitted a circa £4m ‘enabling’ bid to the Transform stream of the second round of Ofwat’s Water Breakthrough Challenge innovation competition. This would help carry Spring through the remaining years of the AMP to 2025 by when it should be broadly self-sustaining. Spring will not rely purely on water industry funding; Spring will look to increase funding from other sources over time. Spring sees many options here, with potential funding sources in the supply chain and academia, from innovation specialists like Innovate UK and sectors like energy and agriculture where there are obvious synergies with water. Indeed, in framing the organisational design of Spring, its founding team have been mindful of the benefits and opportunities that are operating at arm’s length from the water industry can bring.
In April 2022, Spring will find out if its funding bid has been successful and whether it can expand its services to deliver the water sector’s Innovation strategy deliverables and, from there, start to drive significant value for the whole UK water sector and its customers.
Rebecca Delaney, P.E., Associate Director and Operations Leader for Sustainable Engineering Studio, and Luke Leung P.E., ASHRAE Fellow, LEED Fellow, BEMP, P Eng, Director of Sustainable Engineering Studio, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill