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...

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

If innovation should be fun, this should be innovative

As Glastonbury lays fallow, I'm preparing for a very different kind of festival, a festival of innovation.
A quick jump around Google will show you (ironically) there is not a lot that is either new or novel about a festival of innovation.
However, what this particular one does is focus on a series of questions that are important to the sponsors and those taking part. And in applying Design Thinking they aim to have built things (at least Minimum Viable Products) within five days.
The Northumbrian Water Group Festival of Innovation runs on a dedicated site (at Newcastle Race Course) for the week of July 10-14, 2017.
It's taking on some pretty hefty challenges - with a wide range of thinking being brought to bear (from universities, consultancies, industry and beyond) in an agile framework;

  • Sprint 1 – ‘Rain, Hail or Shine’: How can we reduce flooding? 
  • Sprint 2 – ‘Keep it flowing’: What do we know about leakage from water pipes and how can we fix it? 
  • Sprint 3 – ‘Preparing for the Future’: How do we upgrade our infrastructure for the 21st Century effectively and affordably? 
  • Sprint 4 – ‘Tomorrow’s World’: What will living and working look like in 2030?
  • Sprint 5 – ‘How Green is Your City?’: What can businesses do to improve the environment in the North East? 
  • Sprint 6 – ’21st Century Reach’: How can we optimise a mobile workforce for a complex network business?
I'm planning on being there for Wednesday evening to witness the conclusions of the process on Thursday and Friday.
The festival vibe will be enhanced with a tented village, live comedy and music and inspirational talks.
The best innovation comes from fun - the most creative sparks from clashing ideas and approaches. The Play Ethic at play.
I've been invited to blog from the event - so watch out for more here and from my twitter account (@davidcushman).

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Transformation without innovation isn't enough

When we think about the great business tasks of our time Digital Transformation is the must-do. It is often heralded as some kind of future-proofing excercise. But without innovation as both its beating heart and foundational principal, it can be little more than a retro fit.

Digital Transformation is the widescale response to Digital Disruption - ie a disruption that has happened. That disruption is often to the way people behave: People, machines and information now connect in such a way that a human behaviour has changed - ie how people consume content has been disrupted by new connections between people, machines and information. That has created new needs. To meet them is to transform to meet the needs of digital disruption.

Each strategic goal in digital transformation is therefore a response to a need created by a digital disruption.

But if you take an innovation-first approach to digital transformation, you create the space to become the disruptor.

Consider the impact of the technologies we know of today. Prepare for them to impact faster and more broadly than the web ever did. Imagine and expect the improbable.

The opportunity, for those who will understand the potential of AI and who can imagine its possibilities, is not to be digital - but to be the disruptor.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Why robots are essential to kick-start our next age of innovation

Yamaha's Robot rider could one day end the  chore
of riding fast motorbikes... er, ok it's not all good.
There is an argument - and a well made one at that - that our era is not an age of great technological change - but actually one that is quite stagnant.

Robert J Gordon made the case in his book 'The Rise and Fall of American Growth'. He points out that the Great Inventions that caused real change arrived between 1870 and 1970.

The internal combustion engine changed the way we travel (removing the growing threat of horse manure - which experts predicted would reach 9 feet deep on London's roads by 1950 if allowed to go unchecked). It changed the way we travel much more than any subsequent improvement in performance or styling.

Urban sanitation similarly had a greater impact on our health than medical inventions of more recent years. The invention of the telegraph versus the written message carried by ship, horse and hand which preceded it is a far bigger shift than fax to email or phone to mobile.

The impact was that we got to live (US childhood mortality tumbled from 1/3 in 1860 to 1/200 today), we got to live longer, and we got more time to do with as we pleased (being liberated from household tasks such as washing clothes and preparing meals which had taken 58 hours in 1900 - and 18 in 1970).

Jesse Frederick argues in his assessment of Gordon's ideas that our blindness to the comparative stagnation of the modern era can at least be partially attributed to the fact that the technology of the past mainly created time, whereas today’s technology fills it.

Gordon, published in 2016 - sees this stagnation as permanent. Mostly because the big wins for technology have already been won. But part of the problem is for all our technology we feel as though we have less time. And time is essential for the ideas that make real change.

Enter Robots. the AI revolution and the robotics it is driving are about to answer Jesse's criticism of today's inventions. They are certainly not a technology that fills time, they will create at least 18 hours for us (finishing up the last bits of housework our inventors have failed to resolve so far - ironing, dusting, food prep and cooking, physically moving the devices about etc). The internet of things completes the picture in shopping.

Ok, an 18 hour saving isn't as great as the 40 hour leap that got us here - but this one will come in 5-10 years. The last took 70.

And we haven't even considered the saving in time AI will bring to our working (and commuting) lives. Finally, the time technology promised to free for us will actually arrive.

And yet, even for the slam-dunk win our robot friends will provide, there's an even bigger opportunity for genuine life change: How we organise is changing.

How we organise is society and society is how we live.

As I have long argued; the web enables adhoc self-forming groups to get things done. That's a fundamentally different form of organisation than preferred by 1870-1970. That era was also an era of centralisation and mass production. The next 10 years is about decentralisation and personalisation; whether it be through micro factories in every home (3D printing), the move away from public transport (driverless cars, drones) medical technologies that self diagnose and repair (nanobots) or how we learn, get justice, make contracts and exchange value (blockchain).

We will have the opportunity to live entirely unique, separated lives. But all the evidence of the world since the web is that we will use it to become closer and better connected - without the need for central organisation.

A future without centralised or top-down direction is being enabled through the technologies of this decade and the next. 

Very soon we will have the collective time to carefully consider what our future should look like and imagining how we can reach it - kick-starting the next age of innovation.

And that, when we pause to reflect on the shift from 2010 to 2030, will, I believe, provide us with a case to say we really do live in a time of not just fast, but radical change.

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?