Is the water sector in danger of forgetting the purpose of innovation? British Water Head of Programmes, Dr Mar Batista Seguí, reminds us of the reasons why we need to innovate.

Mar Batista Seguí, Head of Programmes at British Water

When the word ‘innovation’ is thrown around too freely, we can all lose sight of its core purpose. It is important to keep in mind the social and environmental value our global water systems provide to ensure that innovation is not for innovation’s sake and that we are always looking for the best possible outcomes.

In the UK, the water industry is gearing for the world-leading targets on carbon neutrality it has set itself for 2030 and beyond. Globally, governments are acting on climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the COP 26 conference in Glasgow saw a step-change as water moved up the agenda, with recognition that too much and too little water – flood and drought – is where the impact of climatic volatility will continue to be felt most keenly.

Not only does the sector need to play its part in meeting net-zero carbon targets and keeping the global temperature rise to under 1.5°C, it also needs to provide safe, reliable and resilient services to populations and support a thriving environment. It needs to transform the use and reuse of materials and resources and leverage the markets that will deliver innovation at scale.

Meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals for water and sanitation by 2030 will cost US$1,785 billion for rehabilitation and $4,056 billion for new infrastructure (GWI) and programmes at such a vast scale will require major innovation and, in some cases, radical thinking.

Improved collaboration and access for external partners to the water sector is a key route to achieving the necessary innovations. We need to act now, and British Water will be playing its role joining up utilities, companies, organisations, technologies and communities to activate transformational change.

Cybersecurity, nutrient pollution, micropollutants and resilience are just some of the challenges we face, and new ones will emerge in the coming years. According to the UK 2050 Water Innovation Strategy, there are also huge opportunities in energy, design, manufacturing, data science and food security.

Digital transformation will see the range, capability and specialisation of applications increase; and delivery of these solutions will boost efficiency for those utilities able to adopt quickly. This will bring additional benefits like improved health and safety, and enhanced security.

Innovation is vital to the water sector because it opens up sometimes unimagined opportunities to deliver value for customers. Digitalisation and data availability will help the water industry better serve customer needs and quickly respond to customer demands, including clean rivers and beaches, water loss reduction, environmental services and transparency on billing.

UK initiatives like the Ofwat water innovation competitions and Spring innovation hub will be watched keenly as they demonstrate how multi-stakeholder and cross-sector partnerships can deliver for communities and customers across catchments, networks,  cities and countries.

Dissemination of information and peer networking has never been more important, and given the perpetual pandemic we find ourselves in, more difficult to deliver face-to-face. This is why events like the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit and British Water’s own programme are crucial achieving the close working and strong relationships this sector thrives on.

It is also essential to build a culture that rewards not only innovation success, but also embraces the risks inherent in innovation and treasures the learnings we accrue from failure. For this reason, I am delighted to be chairing the closing plenary at World Water-Tech about ‘Success Through Failure: Fostering a Learning Culture’ on February 22 at 17.10 BST.

Innovation is complex, and perhaps water innovation is more complex than in other sectors; it operates in an ecosystem where everyone is a stakeholder and where the highest expectations on public health and environmental stewardship apply. However, the universality of water is its strength and if we can visualise and communicate a water rich, environmentally secure future as the outcome, maybe that will help build the trust to innovate effectively in the present.

Join Mar at the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit in London where she’ll chair a panel on ‘Success through Failure: Fostering a Learning Culture’ on February 22 at 17.10 BST alongside Kieran Brocklebank, Head of Innovation at United Utilities, Ganga Shreedhar, Professor Behavioural Sciences at the London School of Economics and Tom Ferguson, Managing Partner at Burnt Island Ventures.

Book now to join the summit here.