Published on in Energy & UtilitiesManufacturingInnovation

A few weeks ago I attended the Future of Utilities Summit 2018, where I presented my thoughts on innovation and delivering value through co-creation.

It was a great event and I was thrilled to be asked, particularly as it meant I got to see all the different things my industry colleagues are getting up to. Looking around you could tell this is an exciting time for the utilities sector – something I touched on in my talk.

I pointed out that organisations in the industry today have to cope with an unprecedented wave of social change, most notably in the increased calls for workplace flexibility. Currently just 18% of utilities business leaders think their workplace is flexible enough.

Part of this change is being driven by the new generation of employees who are entering the workforce. By 2025 millennials will represent over 50% of your business.

This means we will have to adapt to the new ways of working preferred by millennials, starting with changes to adjust work/life balance as 73% of business leaders are already doing.

All this change can seem daunting, but the key lies in co-creation. In this blog post I’ll explain why.

The future of utilities: innovation through co-creation

Co-creation is the answer to the unique challenge presented by today’s industry because it enables us to use the best resources and experience from multiple organisations.

The saying ‘two heads are better than one’ is an old adage, but it’s true. Working with partners is powerful because it acts as a multiplier for your potential.

If you have lots of people looking at things from different perspectives you are more likely to build something brilliant.

To demonstrate what I mean in concrete terms I’m going to share some examples with you. These are the a few of the best cases of co-creation in action and they highlight my criteria for successful collaboration.

  • Augmented reality (AR) at a water company

An organisation wanted to attract the next generation workforce. It realised it would need to introduce greater mobility in order to do so. It started by taking the paper clipboard away from its employees and replacing it with a tablet device.

Employees started to use their tablets to access and update service data. This progressed to the scenario we have today, where employees utilise two-way video on head-mounted display for step-by-step advice on how to make fixes.

This is an excellent example of innovation. It started as a small change and has since grown in an organic way, being led by employees.

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) for the wind turbine

Wind turbines capture the wind’s kinetic energy and convert it into electrical energy. This means the blades on a turbine are put under huge levels of stress, so any flaw or fracture in the integrity of the blade can prove catastrophic.

Checking to ensure blades are sound has typically been a very difficult job that takes up to eight hours.

We collaborated with an ultrasonic imaging technology provider to re-use existing patents we had in image recognition to create an AI deep learning platform capable of checking the blade, reducing the examination process to 1.5 hours in total.

And now we’re widening the usage of this AI so that it can be applied in a utilities setting. We’re starting to work with one company to process satellite data for leakage detection using the same software behind the turbine blade AI, along with a range of other observable factors.

In this way we can see that innovation isn’t all about creating something new all the time. Sometimes it’s more effective to redeploy an existing pieces of technology in a new scenario.

  • The digital ear at Heathrow’s Terminal Two

My last example is the ‘digital ear’ that we produced in collaboration with Heathrow airport.

Heathrow is trying to reduce emissions, but it struggled to detect and encourage aircraft not to use their auxiliary power units (APU) while they were on the stand on the ground.

So it worked with Fujitsu to design a way of identifying when aircraft were using their APUs. This was the digital ear, a device which listens to the machines operating around it and works out if they are plugged into the network or not. We think of it as a ‘Shazam for industrial things’.

It’s over 90% accurate at detecting APU running at a stand, and when rollout is complete will reduce around 12,500 kilos of emissions per year and save airlines c£480,000 in fuel savings.

Now Fujitsu is bringing this idea to the utilities sector. Water companies are using the technology to listen to pumping stations to detect when a pump might be deteriorating or when bearings are starting to fail on a piece of equipment whilst also identifying run times, cycles times and changes over time.

This is another great example of innovation as redeployment – taking a lesson that’s already been learned and using it somewhere else.

Five steps to co-creation success

Now we know what good innovation and co-creation look like, I’ll explain my approach for trying to achieve it. There are five steps to make it simple:

  1. Choose partners who have a similar culture

Working together is difficult, and you need to be sure your partner organisation is a good fit to collaborate with you and that you’re the right fit for them and that you both wake up worrying about how to make the same things better.

  1. Make clear decisions about ownership

Because often innovation is not about invention, not a lot of intellectual property (IP) is created during an innovation programme. However, you do need to negotiate ownership of newly created IP and of the programme implementation more generally. Who will be responsible for driving the programme after six months, one year, or two years?

  1. Innovation is not a project

Projects produce deliverables and outputs. Programmes deliver change and value. We need to focus on these things when starting an innovation programme, remembering that often the change only becomes evident after the programme has ended so ensure measures of success have lead indicators as well as the end benefits.

  1. Crowdsource from a diverse audience

The best ideas come from unexpected sources. Explore as many different possibilities for partnership as possible. But look for those with a partnership track record and a diverse patent portfolio.

  1. Remember implementation is important

Innovation is great but it’s not true innovation until you have managed to execute and deliver it. Don’t get stuck in technology trials and never get to the stage of rollout and deployment. The rollout is just as important as the ideas.

Looking forward to a shared future

It’s clear the utilities industry has huge potential for co-creation in future.

And it’s also clear that co-creation itself will take a new form as we move further into the digital age, with new ways of collaboration made possible by technology.

What will co-creation look like in 10 years? This is something I can’t answer. Instead I can throw the question over to you. How do you see co-creation changing the utilities sector? And how will you change your business to incorporate co-creation?

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