Published on in Energy & UtilitiesInnovation

It’s not often that a panel session on the energy and utilities sector begins with a discussion of precision-guided munitions, but that’s exactly how Thames Water’s Euan Burns kicked things off at last week’s Fujitsu World Tour.

He was talking specifically about his educational history – he holds a master’s degree in Guided Weapon Systems – but related this niche bit of expertise to the challenge of maintaining energy efficiency.

The technological process it takes to send a missile thousands of miles and land on a pinhead, he explained, is unbelievably complex. And achieving it means that not a drop of energy can be wasted.

It’s this kind of different thinking that Euan said he’s trying to bring to his relatively new position at Thames Water.

What does innovation really mean?

Joining Euan in discussion were Innovate UK’s Jonny Voon, Andrew Quail from SGN, and Fujitsu’s own Adrian West.

Something that all the panellists could agree on was that how companies think about innovation has to change, and that change has to be carried out throughout organisations and how they think.

“I don’t like the word ‘innovation’,” said Andrew, explaining how he sees it as an overused and often inaccurate term. “I wouldn’t class robotic process automation as innovation, for instance, as it’s not doing anything fundamentally different,” he went on, “it’s just business as usual in terms of seeking greater efficiency.”

Instead, he argued, companies need to think about innovation in a much more radical, disruptive way.

Some of Jonny Voon’s favourite examples of innovative applications of tech being funded by Innovate UK (though not specifically energy-sector related) included the use of autonomous drones and robotics to completely alter farming practices in Shropshire.

Adrian agreed. “To me, innovation is the application of ideas somewhere new,” he said, highlighting the example of the ‘digital ear’.

The digital ear is a device that uses Shazam-like technology (most often used to identify songs you don’t know the name of) to listen in on the harmonics of industrial equipment and call out leaks, broken motors and the like to engineers monitoring the infrastructure.

It was first developed at Heathrow Airport before then being applied to water companies and the problems they face with aging infrastructure that can be cumbersome to monitor and maintain.

Technologies such as the digital ear and the smart sensors used to measure depth and conductivity in pipes are proving vital to energy bosses forced to find solutions that work with energy supply networks that are sometimes hundreds of years old.

A new approach

But it’s not just the infrastructure that can feel old fashioned.

There was a resounding yes from the panel when asked whether the culture of IT teams and organisations is having to change to reflect these new innovative approaches.

“My job has changed fundamentally over the last ten years,” said Andrew.

Increasingly, energy businesses are adopting (or being encouraged to adopt) an outcomes-based approach to innovation and procurement.

“People aren’t leading with technology because it becomes obsolete so quickly nowadays,” said Innovate UK’s Jonny, “You should lead with what you want to achieve, not how you plan on achieving it. If you start with the solution you want to achieve, you’ll always end up using the right technology.”

This approach was reflected in LIN’s rich communication services (or RCS) technology that was being showcased on the day.

Faced with the problem of communication breakdown between energy suppliers and PAYG customers – and the unpaid bills that can result from that breakdown – the team at LIN have developed a fully interactive SMS service.

The RCS solution means customers no longer have to download multiple apps to manage their energy bills, and instead can look after their accounts and access new deals all without leaving their phone’s inbuilt messaging service.

Working in partnership with Fujitsu, LIN will be able to offer their solution to a much broader swathe of energy suppliers.

Shaking things up

This open, collaborative approach – including collaborating with and learning from other businesses facing similar challenges – was the final key ingredient for the panellists.

“When everything is outcome-led and not IT-driven,” said Andrew, “you can start working with cross-functional teams: business and solutions architects coming together to solve problems.”

And then, in turn, innovation shifts from big, lumpy projects to something more agile, fair and fast. A slightly clichéd description perhaps, Andrew admitted, but a cliché that’s produced strong results so far.

At Innovate UK, Jonny aims to organise his team in such a way that innovation and collaboration are baked in – and transfer that mind-set to the organisations they work with day-to-day.

“You need to shake up the whole process of doing things,” he said: “Why would you continue to do things as they’ve been done in the past just for the sake of it?”

Why indeed.

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