Angela MacOscar: Leading the innovation dance of utility culture change
Angela MacOscar is on a mission to drive entrepreneurial spirit from within the Northumbrian Water Group. She speaks to Tom Freyberg about why everyone has a part to play in water innovation.
Innovation as business as usual
With bright pink hair and an eccentricity often breaking into an infectious laugh, you could say Angela MacOscar stands out in the typical water utility engineering crowd.
Fiercely intelligent, articulate and with a strategic vision to boot, she’s not afraid of shaking things up. And, as the head of innovation at the Northumbrian Water Group (NWG), you might say this is precisely her role.
A chemist by training with a whopping “30 years experience in innovation”, she was appointed to make innovation “business as usual” and drive internal culture change.
One of her inspirations is American writer, musician and entrepreneur, Derek Sivers and his ‘How to create a movement’ video (below).
“I feel like that's my mission at Northumbrian Water,” she says. “I'm dancing in the field and there was a little group of us. But now we've got a nice little head of steam going. And by the end of my mission, everybody in the company will be up dancing with me. I feel we're making strides in that way.”
Rather than have an “innovation team”, NWG uses a “hub and spoke” model. In the space of the last two years, she has increased the number of NWG folks, or “innovation ambassadors”, as she refers to them, dancing with her.
“We believe that everybody has a role in innovation, whether it is coming up with the idea or supporting ideas being rolled out. There's a whole host of different skills that are required.
“The team of innovation ambassadors includes people in all of the business functions, at all different levels. Everybody is welcome to join. When I first started, there were about 12 or 14, mainly senior managers. Now there are more than 60 with lots of diversity.”
Diversity is key
Recently speaking at the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit, Jan Goosens, CEO of the Flemish water company, Aquafin N.V., said that introducing entrepreneurs into water utility operational teams to be more innovative can lead to "culture clashes".
Also speaking at the event, MacOscar is externally recruiting but also seeking to foster entrepreneurial spirit from within. She wants to light an entrepreneurial spark in all employees, even the hardened operational folk doing the job for three decades, in some circumstances.
“It's very much about diversity and inclusivity and about enabling people,” she enthuses. “We have everybody who ticks all of those boxes, which is an essential thing because we need the operational staff to be part of this.
“They're often the ones who are having to use the new ideas. I've wanted to get away from the belief that innovators are in an ivory tower innovating for the operators. We then hand over this kit, and it's not what they need at all. That's absolutely the wrong way around.”
Executive support for innovation is crucial
The Northumbrian Water Group is a sizeable operation. It provides water and sewerage services to 2.7 million people in the North East of England as Northumbrian Water, and water services to 1.5 million people in the South East of England as Essex & Suffolk Water.
For MacOscar to take on the challenge as innovation manager, it was necessary to see immediate buy-in and belief in innovation from the top.
“When I started, my first job was to make sure that I had buy-in from the senior leadership team. Otherwise, anything you do is not worthwhile.”
“I'm thrilled to report that I have a very, very supportive executive leadership team, which I'm sure you see in all of Heidi Mottram, the CEO’s speeches. When I started, my first job was to make sure that I had the senior leadership team's buy-in. Otherwise, anything that you do is not worthwhile.”
While facilitating at NWG's first Innovation Festival, often dubbed the "Glastonbury of water innovation events", she met Nigel Watson, the chief information officer.
“Northumbrian Water’s senior leadership team are 110 per cent supportive of innovation, which is why I can function and why it's an interesting role because I have 110 per cent their backing. The stuff that they do at the festival is just incredible, and I guess I was one of the key attractions to this role because it's so outward-facing, so embracing.”
A lavender and camomile scented swan song
MacOscar started as an apprentice at the petrochemical company Shell, aged 16. Thinking that she “knew it all so didn't need to stay on at school", she admits it was one of her earliest and best decisions.
“I loved that role, and Shell encouraged me to go to university, which I hadn't thought of doing, to be honest.”
At 18 she studied chemistry at Manchester University, eventually getting a PhD sponsored by Volvo, looking at catalytic converters' surface chemistry.
Seeing an "interest in applied science rather than in pure science", she "leapt and sold her soul to work for a large corporate". This large corporate was none other than the US multinational consumer goods company, Procter & Gamble (P&G).
Remarkably, during the next 17 years, one of her significant breakthroughs – arguably her "swansong" at P&G-was creating the lavender and camomile washing detergent.
What does washing powder have to do with water innovation, you’re thinking? The coupling of these flavours might seem commonplace to anyone walking down a supermarket aisle, but many years ago, it wasn’t. And it was the process of the product development, navigating a bureaucratic labyrinth with innovation to (ahem) freshen up a commoditised market, that taught her many lessons.
“If you ever have been to the supermarket and perused the laundry aisle, I am the mother of Bold Lavender and Chamomile - that is my product,” she quips like a proud parent praising a successful child.
“I am the mother of Bold Lavender and Chamomile – that is my product.”
“I had an idea, and nobody told me to work on it. I whipped up a prototype and managed to get a good enough head of steam to persuade the many management layers that it would make the business money, which it did do very successfully. It’s still on the market now, 21 years later.”
Indeed, this “innovation” went onto strengthen the brand to help spin it out from a commodity market and add value to the laundry aisle, “which all manufacturers benefitted from”.
Reflecting on the experience, NWG’s head of innovation doesn’t question the seriousness of a highly regulated business providing safe water to the public. Yet, she acknowledges we can speed up the process of innovation.
“Being a regulated business has its challenges,” she adds. “You can't just experiment perhaps like I would have done in the lab back at Procter & Gamble to whip up a washing powder or two. I can't just put in a few new kit pieces - great care needs to be taken.
“You have to proceed with a lot more caution, but it doesn't mean that nothing should ever happen or ever change. We're working to see how we can best work with the regulations that are in place to improve things with perhaps a little bit more pace.”
Taking the “Glastonbury of water” virtual
NWG’s flagship event is the Innovation Festival. Promoted as "big, loud, exciting", it brings together innovative minds from the worlds of business, science, tech, engineering, utilities and customer services.
It’s a combination of Live Music, hackathons, comedy and tech demos. Gigabytes and glitter, wellies and wastewater (NWG's words) collide in a fun and fruitful week where formal business attire is frowned upon.
In 2020, due to the pandemic, the festival had to go online. For a concept based on human interaction, some may question whether this would have worked. It did.
CEO Heid Mottram recently said that this “fast-tracked” the event’s virtual switch and enabled people from 900 organisations from 37 countries to participate.
“Last year, we could have just downed tools and thought, "Ah, it's too difficult in a pandemic. We won't bother," adds MacOscar. “Instead, we put together a digital event and literally on Monday morning when we started, we had no idea what was going to happen. But the uptake was incredible.”
One of the outstanding elements of the Innovation Festival is the collaboration between water and non-water folks. In past festivals, water, gas, telecoms and national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, joined forces. This resulted in creating a detailed map of underground assets, now used nationwide across the UK.
Clearly, the coupling of typically "non-water" people to the water sector is welcomed at NWG. In fact, so much so that MacOscar struggles to contain her excitement when talking about it.
“What we need in innovation are disruptive thinkers from other sectors to help us think differently about the challenges we face.”
“Diversity of thought is the most important thing. We have a company full of incredible expertise in water. We know that 110 per cent. What we need in innovation are disruptive thinkers from other sectors to help us think differently about the challenges that we face.”
She adds: “So the amount of knowledge and expertise those big businesses bring in is great, but we need people of all sorts of shapes, dimensions, sectors, and types of thinking. We're always on the lookout for new partners and new and fresh thinking to come in to help us on our journey. We need to keep that mix fresh to stimulate new thoughts and new thinking.”
Embracing the winds of change
The message from UK regulator Ofwat is clear: the water sector needs to step up; we can no longer wait when it comes to innovation.
As part of its 'Time to act, together' strategy, it states that adopting innovative approaches is key to delivering "long-term resilience and great customer service at an affordable price".
Ofwat recently announced a £2 million Innovation in Water Challenge competition, with first-round funding opportunities of up to £250,000 being made available. The further £40 million main competition will then be open for entries in Spring 2021.
Speaking about the new pace of change needed, MacOscar concludes the interview with a call to arms to fellow water professionals.
“The winds of change are there now...by definition, we have to change.”
“The winds of change are there now. When I started the job, I was given our business plan. There was no way that the business plan would be achieved by doing what we're doing today.
“By definition, we have to change. We have to become more efficient. We have to do things in new ways, and we have gigantic challenges in the sector.”
Listing climate change and growing populations as challenges that can’t be controlled, she adds that utilities need to manage and improve what they can control, namely ageing infrastructure.
“We have to find some other ways in which we can manage better these big downpours and making our pipework more resistant to freeze-thaw events.”
With a youthful and even playful outlook, it’s clear that NWG’s head of innovation represents a new-age of water professionals. By likening the innovation process to dancing to bring colleagues along the journey, NWG’s innovation manager takes the role seriously but wants to make it fun.
There’s no denying that the colourful, diverse and inclusive “innovation dancefloor” she describes is needed in water, especially with SDG6 fast approaching by 2030. And Angela MacOscar might be the one to shake things ups, lead the dance and make it happen.
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