Utilities Digital Solutions Europe

Viewpoint: Innovation - we’re in it together (+ tips for successful partnering)

Monday, 9 October 2023

Innovation in today's world extends far beyond the realm of technology. United Utilities Head of Innovation, Kieran Brocklebank delves into the dynamic world of innovation, transcending the confines of technology to embrace change, new ideas and collaboration across sectors.

New technology and opening the door to change

When talking about innovation it’s tempting to focus on the new technologies that we have fostered and introduced. After all, they’re exciting and delivering great results.

But embracing innovation goes way beyond introducing new technologies, it means opening the door to change, inviting new ideas and ways of working, and looking outside our business and our sector.

We’d be on a fool’s errand if we tried to deliver the change we need alone, we know we don’t have all the answers and that there is much to learn from those outside our industry – be they tech providers or community stakeholders.


The ethos of partnership

Partnership working isn’t new to us. We’ve partnered with some organisations for many decades, but the volume of partnerships we are involved in and the way we are delivering them is very different.

An ethos of partnership has always been central to the United Utilities Innovation Lab. We operate it in partnership with L Marks and we have formed long-lasting partnerships with several of our alumni where we’ve moved beyond a traditional contract to a development partnership to work together to develop new products and applications.

And this partnership approach extends across the business. Through our successes with the Ofwat Innovation Fund alone we are working with more than 100 partners on a range of high-profile cross industry and cross sector projects.


Addressing strategic priorities 

According to Helen Waine, partnership development manager at United Utilities: “Partnerships are an effective way of addressing strategic priorities not just for our business, but for our region, particularly when it comes to addressing the shared social and environmental challenges we’re facing.

“They can take many forms and we are taking a proactive approach to scoping and creating partnership opportunities, exploring new and innovative ways to do this. This provides us with a pipeline of partnership opportunities across a wide range of themes and geographic areas.

“At the heart of our partnership approach is the ambition to collaborate to enable us to deliver more together than we could alone. As well as delivering wide-ranging benefits including climate change mitigation, enhanced water quality, and community engagement, partnerships also open the door to a wider range of opportunities, new sources of funding and help us access new skills.

“This takes time and effort but we have already seen some notable successes through our ground-breaking partnership with the Rivers Trust. The first of its type in the UK, it has established a framework for environmental collaboration and investment that can be replicated across the UK.

“The partnership has secured nearly £20 million of funding so far, to deliver innovative approaches for better environmental monitoring, management of catchment land and nature-based solutions and has created significant opportunities to drive added value for customers, society and the environment. This wouldn’t have been possible working alone.

“We’ve also extended our partnership working with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Environment Agency to co-create an Integrated Water Management Plan which aims to transform the way water is managed across the city region. It is supported by the Mayor of Greater Manchester and is a first for an entire city region in the UK. Though the plan was only approved in June 2023, by working together differently, it has already identified opportunity areas to co-ordinate investment to better manage water.

“With so much to be gained from partnerships we’re also taking an innovative approach to how we manage them. In our highly regulated environment, introducing new ways of working can be challenging, so we want to make sure we are creating the right environment for true collaboration. Our organisation-wide partnership framework and toolkit includes practical items such as a method of assessing and improving collaboration and partnership “health.”


Measuring collaboration behaviour

Using this we regularly assess and measure collaboration behaviour and give participants the opportunity to feedback. It puts an emphasis on collaboration rather than simply cooperation and we believe it is particularly suited to projects which involve several partners and also where we are working with small suppliers who may find it daunting to work with a large utility.

The level of partnership working is at an all-time high and it’s having a transformational effect on our business, our region and the sector as a whole.

To conclude, working together increases efficiency as we aren’t duplicating what other organisations are already doing, instead we are sharing knowledge and learning from each other. It drives down the cost of innovation by enabling us to leverage funding from other sources and share knowledge inside and outside our industry.

When you add it all up, it packs a powerful punch.


Tips for successful partnering:

  1. Collaborate early: working with partners from the outset to define the scope increases the chances of success
  2. Be open: explore a range of partnerships in the widest context
  3. Persevere: the path to partnership isn’t always linear and progress may feel slow, perseverance, open communication and trust are key
  4. It’s ok if things don’t work out: not all partnerships come to fruition
  5. Develop a toolkit: a suite of standard documents can help get you started faster
  6. Prioritise: you can’t get involved in everything, it’s important to have a method of choosing what to pursue
  7. Learn from the experience: take your key learnings and apply them in the future.