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“We created a digital vision in 2017 to be ‘the most digital water company in the world’”

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Northumbrian Water provides essential water and sewerage services, meeting customer priorities while working to address the challenges of tomorrow effectively.

With sustainability at its core, Northumbrian Water aims to be a UK leader in the provision of sustainable water and sewerage services. As new challenges bring new opportunities, the water company aims to harness them to make a positive impact on their services and the productivity of operations. In this interview, we had the opportunity to ask Martin Jackson, Head of Digital Strategy & Product Management at Northumbrian Water, about innovation initiatives on the digital front – part of their efforts to implement better ways to do business.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 19 - September 2023
SWM Bimonthly 19

Please tell us briefly about your career path and your current role at Northumbrian Water.

I have spent the past 25 years working and being inspired by the possibilities that digital technology can enable for an organisation - holding a series of senior leadership, technology strategy and programme delivery roles through that time. I have spent roughly half of my career working in the manufacturing and automotive sectors, and the past 12 years I have spent in utilities with Northumbrian Water - where we have been on an incredible journey with our digital technology. I believe that technology can provide the answer to some of the biggest challenges for society and the environment, and it is incumbent on us as business leaders to ensure that potential can be realised for society today, and for future generations. I am currently Head of Digital Strategy and Product Management at Northumbrian Water Group, which means that I am responsible for three key areas:

  • Setting the technology vision, strategy and roadmaps that enable us to be a leading utility business.
  • Horizon-scanning to discover new and emerging technology opportunities that will drive digital innovation.
  • Continually enhancing our existing digital technology to gain the most value for our customers and colleagues from our significant investments in digital technology.

Can you provide an overview of Northumbrian Water's current digital innovation initiatives and how they align with the company's strategic goals?

Innovation is tightly woven into the DNA of Northumbrian Water Group, and this is best demonstrated by the fabulous NWG Innovation Festival which we ran in July for the seventh time. The festival alone has generated a portfolio of new ideas, delivering new possibilities for our customers, local communities and the environment. Innovation is not always about digital technology of course, but being able to successfully unlock the potential from technology often provides the catalyst to create a new way to deliver a better outcome.

We believe digital innovation is essential to enable a high-performing, sustainable and efficient water organisation for our customers

We created a digital vision in 2017 to be “the most digital water company in the world”. This underlined our belief that digital innovation is an essential tool in enabling a high-performing, sustainable and efficient water organisation for our customers. We subsequently spent five years, from 2016 to 2021, completely rebuilding our Customer Experience and Asset Management capabilities through two large business transformation programmes. These programmes were business focussed but technology-enabled, and this has led to us implementing the leading Customer Engagement, Customer Service and Enterprise Asset Management capabilities available anywhere in the utility industry. We have layered on top of these platforms a suite of self-developed digital experience channels by creating a series of unique and innovative mobile apps and web capabilities, offering rich and intuitive digital experiences for our customers and colleagues to engage with. This was a complex journey of change to deliver, but we are now reaping the benefits of this, with our industry-leading performance in areas like customer experience (CMex).

  • We are working with partners to develop an economically feasible self-powered smart meter module that customers can benefit from

The Hydro Powered Concentric Smart Meter Project aims to harness the flow of water to provide an unlimited power source for the meter. Can you tell us more about it?

The seed of the idea for the Hydro project came from an Innovation Festival sprint which we ran to look at the limitations of existing smart water meters in being able to support the emerging needs of our customers. The idea of an innovation sprint is to look at a challenge through different lenses and cross-pollenate existing expertise in the particular challenge area, with unconstrained thinking from a diverse group of participants. We assembled a group of metering experts, manufacturers and engineers from various backgrounds to strip back a smart water meter and think about the metering technology from the perspective of “how could we…?”. 

A problem that we were seeking to solve was the frequency of reads that can be achieved from a smart meter and how we could get closer to receiving a real-time data feed from meters. If we were able to achieve this then we can then provide better insights on consumption patterns for customers and further improve our leakage detection capability. The constraining factor today is the battery life of the device, which in order to ensure the meter remains economical, is expected to last 10-15 years before it requires replacement. This means that the frequency that the meter reads are sent is scaled back to often hourly or 30-minute reads, to use less power and preserve the battery life.  The idea was how we could remove that constraint by making the meter self-powered and also reduce the number of smart meters needing maintenance due to battery drain. We have worked with an ecosystem of collaborators to develop the self-powered smart meter concept further, which aims to harvest energy from the flow of water through the meter to power it. The project is entering a phase where we are working with partners with the intention of developing an economically feasible self-powered smart meter module that customers from across the industry can benefit from.

Another project in the digital realm led by Northumbrian Water that was awarded funding this year under the Water Breakthrough Challenge is Stream. What does it entail?

Stream is an open data initiative with 11 participating water companies who are dedicated to unlocking the value from sharing water data

The practice of converting contextual assets and operational data, into meaningful insights which will help achieve greater operational performance, is something that you see happening individually in each water company across the industry. Water companies have developed and matured their capability in the field of data and analytics in different ways. We believe there is more potential that can be realised from combining our individual data assets and expertise together to create shared learning that can then benefit all customers. Stream is the industry open data initiative which currently has 11 participating water companies that are dedicated to unlocking the value of sharing water data, to benefit customers, society and the environment. This ambitious project enables organisations to more easily share their data by creating a series of “data pipes” which enables data to be combined more easily, enabling richer insights to be created and enabling greater collaboration around some of the tough challenges faced by the sector. This will enable greater collaboration, innovation and opportunities to learn from outside of the industry too by making data available to a broader ecosystem of external collaborators. We were proud to lead the Ofwat Water Breakthrough Challenge submission on behalf of the industry group and the funding enables us to accelerate and amplify the benefits that can be achieved for our combined customer base. We have also taken the step of recently publishing our own Open Data strategy for Northumbrian Water which complicates the scope of Stream and sets out a vision for the value we see in open data and how we can unlock the wider benefits of open data for our customers. I believe this is an exciting well of previously untapped opportunity that can drive new possibilities for the industry as a whole.

Focusing on specific technologies. We are currently experiencing a boom in artificial intelligence. What role does AI play in optimising Northumbrian Water's operations and resource management?

It’s important that organisations have a clear view of how AI can be best leveraged by them sustainably and ethically, as it is set to have a profound impact on many facets of our lives. It’s incumbent on technology leaders to seek to uncloak the mystery of AI for their organisations, so that they can work with their colleagues to identify opportunities where AI can offer improved ways of working. The potential for water companies to create a truly smart water or wastewater network, relies heavily on the development of AI, alongside an ever-increasing tool-bag of related technology capabilities. The ability to take in multiple and often vast data sets, run complex simulations of a particular scenario, and then put forward a recommended action that can be passed forward into a control system to be actioned, is something that will drive better operational performance across a range of water industry processes.

The potential for water companies to create a truly smart water or wastewater network, relies heavily on the development of AI

An example could be better utilising the existing capacity within a sewer network during a storm event. This is clearly a key area for the sector currently and I believe that AI can help deliver shorter-term benefits alongside the engineering-based solutions which are being developed. We are currently doing some work with our partners on the control room of the future and the idea is that you can then use this AI model to forecast events and run scenarios sometime in advance to help with planning. As time moves forward and the data becomes more certain, the model output becomes more refined until you have a real-time view of what is happening in the network. I can also see great potential from AI in making our customer experiences more intelligent and personalised, and the same principles also apply to the experiences of our colleagues. We are looking at smarter ways that our colleagues in operations can capture important job and asset information from the font-line, by developing even simpler and more intelligent digital experiences in the field.

In what ways has digital innovation transformed your approach to customer engagement and service delivery?

Our product teams work closely with vendors to evaluate the future capabilities that are coming and define a roadmap of future deliverables

I believe the biggest factor in being able to unlock brilliant digital customer experiences, is to invest in platforms and channels that are flexible and can be easily enhanced in line with changing customer needs. This is primarily the reason why we chose to build our own customer website and customer mobile app, to have full control of our own roadmap for these channels. We can quickly establish what capabilities are most valuable for our customers and we have full control in introducing them into our channels. We are predominantly “buy, over build” in terms of our digital strategy, but we felt that having a unique platform to innovate on for our customers, would enable us to differentiate the experience that we could provide to them. This experience was therefore something we felt had a strong case for developing ourselves as we did not feel there was something in the market that delivered our requirements fully. The opposite is true in some cases and it’s much better to leverage the innovation created from the investment that big product vendors are putting into their platforms. In the case of our customer engagement platform that manages our phone, webchat and social channels, we are seeing some really powerful AI enabled capabilities that are being released by the vendor. They can be implemented often at the toggle of a switch due to the fact we selected products that offer flexibility. The technology is only part of this however and it’s important that you create the correct culture and delivery model too. We operate a product management approach in our internal digital team to unlock continuous value from our digital technology, which means our product teams work closely with vendors to evaluate the future capabilities that are coming and define a roadmap of future deliverables that will constitute the most value to our customers. This model means that we are seeing new business value delivery coming through from our existing technologies more continuously.

  • Co-botics leverages the unique strengths of both people and robotics, where the technology can help scale, accelerate or perform a task

Looking ahead, what are the upcoming digital innovation priorities for Northumbrian Water? How do you envision these initiatives will shape the company's operations and services in the next few years?

The next regulatory period (AMP8) looks set to be an ambitious period for the industry in terms of investment delivery. The most furrow environment for digital innovation often comes when a step-change is required quickly. We observed this during the pandemic when organisations were able to deliver technology change that could typically take months or years, over the course of a matter of weeks. An example of this for Northumbrian Water was our ability to create a virtual customer service team that protected our colleagues by enabling them to work effectively from the onset of the pandemic and continue to serve our most vulnerable customers. We learned a lot about how we can approach projects differently through that period and we have created brilliant digital foundations to build from, through the technology transformation and new digital channels that we have created. This means that the focus for us shifts more towards emerging capabilities that enable us to further scale what we do, collaborate more effectively with a broader eco-system of delivery partners and enable our brilliant colleagues to focus on the tasks that are most valuable for our customers. An area that we expect to bring great opportunities for the industry over the coming years, is what we are calling ‘co-botics’. Co-botics leverages the unique strengths of both people and robotics, where the technology can help scale, accelerate or perform a task where it is not suitable for our colleagues to do. A human can remain in the loop to retain overall control of the process, but they are acting on intelligence provided by AI and actioning the task through some kind of robotic capability. We recently held a design sprint which was co-led by the new National Robotarium in Edinburgh, where we are exploring a range of possibilities, from robotics that enable ‘no-dig’ pipe repairs, to robotics that can analyse water quality. This is an exciting area where I feel there is huge potential to improve the working experiences of our colleagues, deliver better outcomes for our customers and for the water industry to rise to shared challenges faced by the sector.