Innovation – who cares?

What's happened to the innovative spirit of the industrial revolution? It seems there is even less of it about than there was 15 or 20 years ago. Attitudes have changed, writes John Aldridge.

Much of the basic science that underpins our current approaches to the treatment of water and wastewater was unraveled by Victorian and Edwardian scientists in a particularly innovative 40-year period at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

In a similar way, much of the infrastructure for delivering this innovation was also provided by Victorian and Edwardian engineers in what many consider as the golden age of British Engineering.

Although there have been many advances in both our understanding of the science and the range of engineering options employed, the Victorians would find a lot that would be familiar to them in a 21st century inventory of treatment facilities.

In view of varied and increasing demands being placed on our water assets, the water industry requires a huge investment to provide innovative technologies that can meet these demands in an affordable and sustainable way.

Unfortunately, the innovations cupboard is largely bare. And, if anything, there is less investment in innovation by the UK water industry now than there was 15 or 20 years ago.

Old drivers

Of course, this may reflect the fact that the old drivers for innovation are no longer there. In an accountancy-driven industry, it might be argued that a period of consolidation with a better understanding of the performance and costs of existing assets is the most cost-effective way forward.

The present business climate perhaps lends more support to this cautious approach than it does to a research and development-driven industry that delivers efficiencies and cost savings through process innovation. Does the current economic regulation policy encourage or discourage innovation?

A recent study found that there is no clear link between investment in research and development and financial performance. Money does not buy innovation.

The most successful innovators combine an integrated structure and support structure to create sustainable competitive advantage. Greater returns could be achieved if innovation is viewed as an end-to-end process, which begins with a new idea, and ends with a satisfied customer.

This situation in the water industry is now being more widely questioned and has led to a Department of Trade and Industry-sponsored UK Water Industry Research project looking at barriers and enablers to innovation in the UK water industry.

Results of this study were published in December. Not surprisingly, the study focused on the regulated, utility water industry where work is generally more homogenous and data is more readily accessible.

However, it does not necessarily follow that a lack of innovation in the utility sector is indicative of a lack of innovation elsewhere. The industrial and utility water markets are very different in size, expenditure patterns and treatment needs.

They also have different drivers for change but most importantly they have different attitudes towards risk. They may also have different attitudes to customer satisfaction.

It may be a hangover from years of municipal service, or it may be a by-product of the way the industry is regulated, or it may be that the potential rewards for industry are greater.

Whatever the reasons, with the Water Framework Directive on the horizon and with other factors such as climate change and higher energy costs influencing all parts of the water industry, the time is right to do an audit of our performance in innovation.

Perhaps, though, rather than municipal engineering leading the way as it did in the 19th and early 20th centuries, innovation will be driven by the industrial sector, where the appetite for innovation may be keener.

Whether the water companies will want to adopt this innovation in the current economic climate remains to be seen.

John Aldridge is commercial director at British Water.

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