Exploring Innovation in the UK Water Sector: A Case for an NIHR Innovation Observatory Equivalent

CEO Blog – Paul Horton

In recent times, certainly during the last couple of AMP periods, the UK water sector has been undergoing a ‘phase of introspection’ seeking ways to bolster innovation and efficiency across its operations. The regulator OFWAT has introduced an innovation fund, which will continue into AMP8, helped to seed fund the establishment of Spring (Centre of Excellence), pushed for open data and established Streamonline, the regulatory support service for innovators and businesses in the sector.

One intriguing proposition that ‘sits in the mix’ is the potential for the establishment of an organisation akin to the NIHR Innovation Observatory (NIHR – Innovation Observatory), tailored specifically to the water industry’s needs. As I delve into this notion, let’s unravel the potential benefits and implications such an endeavour could offer.

Understanding the Role of the NIHR Innovation Observatory

Before we get into the specifics, let’s grasp the essence of the NIHR Innovation Observatory. This observatory serves as a forward-looking beacon for the healthcare sector, scanning, translating, and disseminating intelligence to drive innovation in healthcare technologies. Now, envisioning a similar entity tailored for the water industry prompts intriguing possibilities.

Key Steps towards Implementation

Creating an equivalent organization for the water sector would demand a systematic approach:

1. Research and Planning: Comprehensive research would be imperative to gauge the industry’s needs and potential collaborators. This has already begin with the Water Innovation 2050 strategy, the next step would be to build on this. The research would need to include a landscape analysis of all existing innovations, ideally through the IP lens, identifying what is out there.
2. Establishment of Objectives: Clear delineation of objectives, encompassing innovation monitoring, trend identification, and collaboration facilitation, would be paramount.
3. Formation of Partnerships: Forge alliances with stakeholders spanning government bodies, industry players, research institutions, and technology providers.
4. Infrastructure Development: Develop a robust infrastructure, perhaps a digital platform, to aggregate and analyse data on water innovations would be indispensable.
5. Expertise and Personnel: Assembling a multidisciplinary team boasting expertise in water management, innovation analysis, and communication would be pivotal.
6. Engagement and Outreach: Initiating proactive engagement strategies such as workshops and strategy focused sessions, building on the work of Spring, which would be instrumental in fostering collaboration and awareness.
7. Continuous Improvement: Embracing a culture of ongoing evaluation and refinement would be essential to ensure sustained relevance and efficacy.

Benefits to the UK Water Sector

The potential advantages such an organization could offer to the UK water sector are manifold:

1. Enhanced Innovation Monitoring: By meticulously tracking innovations, the sector can stay at the vanguard of technological advancements, fostering efficiency and sustainability.
2. Knowledge Exchange: Facilitating dialogue and collaboration among stakeholders could expedite the adoption of innovative solutions.
3. Improved Decision-Making: Evidence-based insights could empower decision-makers to allocate resources judiciously, optimizing infrastructure investments.
4. Support for SMEs and Startups: Fostering an ecosystem conducive to SMEs and startups could catalyze innovation and economic growth within the sector.
5. Resilience and Adaptation: By anticipating future challenges, the sector can fortify its defenses against uncertainties like climate change and water scarcity.
6. Regulatory Compliance: Guiding innovations to meet regulatory standards could streamline implementation processes, enhancing overall efficiency and effectiveness.

In essence, an NIHR Innovation Observatory equivalent, tailored for the UK water sector holds the promise of catalysing innovation, collaboration, and sustainability, adding to existing structures. By harnessing collective expertise and fostering a culture of inquiry, the water sector can chart a course towards a future defined by resilience and efficiency.