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CIO podcast: Nigel Watson’s festival turns on the innovation taps

CIO Nigel Watson presents to peers at the Horizon Innovation Leadership Summit.

“I’m here to tell you about a week of fun I had in a field in the summer,” CIO Nigel Watson told the Innovation Leadership Summit, the annual CIO summit produced by the Horizon CIO podcast. Watson took on the CIO role at major utilities company Northumbrian Water Group in January 2017. In the summer of 2017 Watson and his team created an innovation festival, a major acceleration for the company from the two day events it had run previously.

Northumbrian Water Group (NWG) is a privately held company with revenues of over £800 million and also owns and operates Essex and Suffolk Water in East Anglia.

“We have 350,000 customers, 2,500 employees and we provide water services, clean water to the tap and waste water services taking the dirty stuff away,” Watson told the UK’s largest gathering of CIOs and CTOs. “As you might expect we are a heavily regulated industry Ofwat, Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate keep a close eye on us.”

“The idea for the Innovation Festival did in fact happen in the shower and I am responsible for innovation within the organisation and the ring holder for that on the executive leadership team,” Watson says.  “I like festivals and the best three days of my year are when I go to Edinburgh, I am totally in my element there. So I had this idea of what happens if I bring innovation and a festival together, what sort of mashup would come together there?

“The Innovation Festival was a week long event. By sheer coincidence I was in a taxi with our CEO Heidi Mottram and I just sort of float this idea and see what her reaction is, because there is no doubt that when you are a very public organisation and you float an idea like this there is an element of risk,” Watson admits of the challenges for the utilities sector which is as closely monitored as financial services.

“Mottram said I like it, and I elaborated and the scope was set in the back of a taxi on the way to a Christmas party.”

The Innovation Festival was not a first step into bringing outside influences into the Northumbrian Water Group. For the previous five years NWG has operated conferences in partnership with suppliers. Disclosure: Icon Business Media, publishers of the Horizon CIO Podcast provided media support to NWG at its 2016 innovation event.  The 2017 Innovation Festival was a step up in pace. Five days long and double in size from any previous event by Northumbrian Water Group. But the festival was not the only way  the utilities firm bring innovation into its Newcastle business.

“We do innovation all the time, we use the Google Ventures methodology around design sprints and we do one of those a month. We typically take one of our more vexing problems such as having a pollution incident, how can we reduce or eliminate those?  We go off site and we take some of our people, we take some external people, some SMEs, and we put those people together in a room and we step through this process to understand the problem, day two start to come up with some solution ideas, day three priorities and day four prototype and test and we always try and build something,” he says. Watson says it is crucial that any innovation programme has something at the end to take to the customer, whether that is the end customer buying water or sewage services or an internal customer needing an improvement to the business processes. “It won’t be industrial or something that we would roll out, but something that is a proof of concept in that time,” Watson says.

“We have been doing that for two years now and we have run data hacks, we take our data, put it in a space that is available and have a data hack over a weekend, it is amazing that the data scientists will rock up and compete over the weekend in teams. We have done things that are broad and open like our asset data,” Watson says of when NWG provided its purchase and maintenance history data and asked data scientists to: “tell us something that we don’t know”.

“We have also done things like a failure on a sewage pumping stations, can you look at the data to help us predict those sorts of failures. We have been trying to improve our business,” Watson says.

The aim of adding an Innovation Festival to this flow of new ideas was to do in one week what six months of hacks and meetups achieve.  

“We had some secondary objectives. The event was a bit of a shout out for the water industry. We collaborate with the whole water industry and we invited the whole industry to this festival and we regularly work with them. As a sector we endemically shy and we wanted to shout for the region in the North East and wanted to raise the digital acumen of our employees.”

Support network

“You can’t do this alone, we had to get sponsors as we didn’t want to spend our customers money and that wasn’t easy, as no one had done anything like this before. I tried to be charming and quickly gave up on that, and went to IBM and said, I work with you a lot so you are just going to have to do this and then once they were onboard went to others and said well IBM are doing this.  Bit by bit we landed the sponsors and we put out to them a range of sprint content, half of them were water industry specific and half were societal. We have an aging society, how do we avoid falling off a knowledge cliff edge,” he says as an example.

Watson says that the festival setting meant service providers like IBM chose to tackle major problems, in big blue’s case climate change and the way this threat will involve a cross section of organisations to find a solution. Like IBM, major service provider CGI used the event to look at big topics like the way we will work in 2030. Other partners used the event as an opportunity to investigate energy production from the NWG network. Microsoft focused on leakage: “It is a problem for the whole industry, 20% of the product we produce and clean is lost on route and that is something that we all need to tackle and we did that as a sprint and a hack,” Watson says. Other partners included BT, who looked at the mobile workforce and Ordnance Survey.

Festival feel

“We picked broad topics like flooding that then subdivided into other topics within that. Each one of those problems was broad enough to spend a day briefing in and then subdivide into different teams,”

Watson and his team put a great deal of effort into ensuring the event was a festival “and not corporate”. Local music venue Sage Gateshead brought their band to the festival and taught 400 people how to sing Learn to Fly by the Foo Fighters. There were also cooking sessions and massages. “We thought that would be an interesting way to kick off the festival and ensure it was a different type of event.”

The event was held on Newcastle racecourse and being outdoors benefited the event, the CIO says. Each tent hosted 50 attendees on a topic, 40 more attendees than Google Ventures recommend.

“We picked broad topics like flooding that then subdivided into other topics within that. Each one of those problems was broad enough to spend a day briefing in and then subdivide into different teams,” Watson says.

At the end of each day the festival continued with inspirational speakers, improvised comedy and bands. These though continued the theme of innovation, a professional poker player focused on risk, improvised comedy requires quick thinking as did the pub quiz set by NWG apprentices, bands from the NWG community demonstrated the creativity of the people within the business and guest speaker 80s pop star Toya Willcox sang and spoke about having to reinvent herself, just as the staff and the organisation of NWG will have to as it approaches 2030, a theme of the event.

Watson told his CIO peers that it is important to focus on the well being of attendees, NWG had yoga and healthy food available at all times. “A week is intensive for working in this kind of way,” he says.

At the end of the week NWG had a number of new ideas and concepts and Watson told CIO peers at the Innovation Leadership Summit that moss trees to reduce CO2 emissions were being adopted, leakage hotspots were identified at the festival and they are now being focused on and a new practice of pre-planning the fitment of instrumentation to its manholes is being implemented as well as new methods for assessing and when to dig and stents into pipes.

As a result, Nigel Watson and Northumbrian Water Group will be hosting its Innovation Festival again in 2018, between the 9th and 13th of July in Newcastle.  Innovation leaders are invited.



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