Friday, July 14, 2017

Getting your ideas to the races

Innovation leader Hans Moller described it as  history in the making. BT liked it so much they want to hitch their own innovation challenge to it next year. CEO Heidi Mottram claimed it as a global first.
A race course in Northumbria may seem an unlikely venue for ground-breaking of this magnitude but there’s no doubting the combination of festival spirit with design thinking AND a data hackathon created an open innovation festival the likes of which experienced participants had never witnessed before, including this writer.
In the final session of Northumbrian Water Group’s five-day Innovation Festival on Friday afternoon innovation outputs were described in video, song and prototype. The range included:
  • Flooding Ranger –a digital platform to inform and support people in the community, to help identify risk, act on it, and get real support when the worst happen
  • Rain To River – a sweeping commitment to creating blue and green corridors to keep water on the surface and return it to rivers without causing flooding in homes.
  • Hot Spots – by hacking open data and NWG’s own data the data scientists identified 20 key areas in Essex (part of NWG’s remit) where action would halt the rise in leakage. Targeting another 50 they found would reduce it to customer-targeted levels. (water leakage currently spirits away 20% of the flows through the network). Data hacking also revealed an unexpected truth – When they work on a repair the likelihood of leaks near where work has been conducted increases six fold.
  • Home Leak detector; If your toilet is leaking, you are wasting water. If you tweet about it NWG could listen to pro-actively respond cutting your costs and saving water.
  • Lab In A Box – Making use of the 65,000 holes currently dug by NWG every year – when the ground is open, take data on the conditions of soil, pipes and other factors which could help predict where future leakage may occur.
  • Breathe Easy; Part of the commitment to the environment all water companies must make, saw one group looking at solutions for greener living. The Judge’s prize in this case was for Moss Trees. Already in use in some parts of the world, these are structures on which moss can grow and be sustainably maintained with rain water. Moss is 275 times better at absorbing carbon dioxide than trees are – and take up considerably less space. Expect to see this one on the side of roads in Newcastle within the year.
  • E-Commute; To reduce unnecessary journeys for staff, E-Commute will provide simple text messages warning of delays, alerting to car share possibilities, and suggesting when it may be better to stay home.
  • Bradley: Provides hands free comms, advice and direction via voice – useful in conditions where touching anything can be difficult (around caustic chemicals, for example).
  • LISA: A personal life assistant to filter all the things you don’t need to know out until a time that better suits, while bringing key information to you at the right time.
  • Squirrel: Alexa meets Uber meets VR. An AI powered service which identifies your problems, finds a service provider, makes the booking knowing your movements, and provides the service provider with onsite support via VR to fix almost anything. It only stops short of enabling the user to do the same.
  • iThrive; Uses VR to create your preferred working environment while sharing a space with others or connecting you with others when working from home.
  • Womble: Combining underground robot data with overground sensor readings from vans and drones to make infrastructure visible and monitor it.
  • Community Portal: For communities to share the kind of infrastructure needs they indentify for themselves and direct NWG resource to resolution if and when in relevant areas.
  • Infrastructure Corridors: You and I may assume that each utility has access shared and permanent access to each others’ maps of pipework etc. Or even that they share plans for repairs to limit the number of times the roads are dug up. Sorry. True only in very rare circumstances. As a step toward resolutions Infrastructure Corridors will be trialled in a test location of new build where the challenges and regulations of bringing all the pipeworks together in an accessible but secure channel away from the roads will be tested. The data and other collaboration required to pull this off could serve as a template for roll out across the country.
  • Light from Dark: Dark Fibre-optic networks can be utilised to measure and monitor movements in the soil, changes in temperature and other dynamics which could identify leaks (as previously stated- a huge water industry problem, particularly in open rural areas where they may go undiscovered by human eye for many months.
  • I-Job: Bringing together customer data, past work at same location, skills matching and training for employees on the road. The intent is to also overcome the connectivity problem often experienced in rural areas by making use of updates to the van when passing back into connected spots. The group wants to supplement this with employee-made how-to videos to enable scaling of skills across teams.
And these are just some of the highlights presented in the final sessions by each team – each of which had started with hundreds of ideas. CEO Heidi Mottram intends to tot up how much value all these outputs could bring. Already the 'six months of innovation in one week' estimate made yesterday has been revised up to a year's worth at event's end. Crucially Heidi is committing to taking all of the outcomes forward (at least for further business case development).
And it doesn’t stop there. There were the results of an internal Invest Quest challenge. Five finalists were meant to fight it out over a £250k investment. The ideas proved so strong the business doubled the pot and committed to backing all five.
There were visions of the future from a teenager’s bedroom pov. There were customers who showed up to join in part of a sprint and found themselves so taken by the spirit they stayed all week.
The outputs inspired commitments from vendors, partners and other water and utility companies – all of which everyone involved will be watching with interest with plans for a grand reporting back next year – when it all happens again.
What has it taken to get to this. CIO Nigel Watson had the vision. But, as he points out, it has taken a brave boss (in Heidi) to create something of this scale.
As Nigel commented: “Someone told me when Glastonbury started it was smaller than this.”

They have 88 acres still to fill at Gosforth Park. But imagine a festival of innovation on that scale – what problems we might solve… in a week!

See also yesterday's post.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Six months of innovation in one week

Under starters orders for blue sky thinking
My first day (and a night) at Northumbrian Water Group's Innovation Festival has been both inspiring and informative. Critically, it is turning creative inspiration into tangible plans.

On arrival last night I was treated to traditional northern hospitality. Pie & Peas no less. And a series of bands, primarily made up of NWG employees, showcasing creativity of their own.

In the light of day today the range and scope of activity became apparent. From a full-on hackathon ,where available data is being interrogated to try to solve the problem of water leakage, to VR demonstrations, through the teenagers' bedroom of the future, everywhere there is a spirit of collaboration and creative building.
Where stickies go ideas must follow

This is the first NWG Innovation Festival. It's been sponsored to the tune of £250,000. NWG's commitment has been in bringing the event and the people together and committing as many as 180 of their own people to the full five days of the event (400 plus partners, academics, schools and customers are attending in total each day).

CIO and Innovation lead Nigel Watson is sure it's worth it and is already commited to delivering NWG Innovation Festival II next year.
Design Thinking is being applied to six sprints:

  1. How do we reduce flooding?
  2. How do we know about leakage from water pipes and how can we fix it?
  3. How do we upgrade our infrastructure effectively and affordably?
  4. What will living and working look like in 2030?
  5. What can businesses do to improve the environment of the North East of England
  6. How do we optimise a mobile workforce for a complex network business

Defining solutions
Design Thinking is far from brand new at NWG. It has been in practice for 18 months. Each month a new sprint is embarked on - always off site and always with a suitable and or eccentric mix of people and skills engaged. In one sprint on billing a baker and a gamer were involved, Nigel says.

NWG uses the Double Diamond approach, taking their inspiration for the initial problem from business KPIs - which in their case are focused on delivering improved customer service.

Where they see evidence they are under-performing, that's where they focus the Design Thinking approach, to deliver a step change. This means innovation always delivers against business need.

The first job is to unpack the initial problem and really work to understand what are the true causes of the problem. Using these, they define the area to focus on and reach what Alastair Tawn (who leads Design Thinking at NWG) calls the 'Critical Problem'.

With the critical problem defined, the team can then work up a range of solutions before focusing back in on the solutions that will work.

For Nigel, the Festival delivers six months of innovation in a week.
Each of the problems the sprints are tackling are ones the water industry as whole need solving. Which explains Nigel's other ambitions for the event

  1. To improve the industry 
  2. To give small businesses in the NE exposure
  3. To enhance NWG's own reputation

"And if just one idea come that makes a significant difference to our business we’ll judge this a success," he said.

With programs for dark fibre to monitor for leakage, movement in pipes and changes in temperature;  universal mobile sensors moving above and below ground and new approaches to getting utilities to share both infrastructure and data among those in development on Day 4 of the event, Nigel should be confident.

We'll get a clearer idea tomorrow when the final ideas are presented.
I'm also planning to share a bit more about the culture of innovation at NWG.
Watch this space, as we used to say when space was limited...

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?