Mark Smith, joint MD of WRc (Water Research Centre) saw the Soapbox I wrote for Utility Week back in February. He then kindly invited me to attend their Open Innovation Day, which was held last Wednesday at their Swindon HQ:

I’ve been looking at research and innovation issues for years, and have read WRc reports before, but this was my first site visit. For me WRc had always been a missing piece of the ‘puzzle’ in terms of my understanding of the overall UK water research landscape – one I’d never had the right opportunity to find out more about, and to see where it fit within the bigger picture.

Over 140 people attended – a good turnout and a sign of both the current elevated level of general interest in innovation and of the number of people working to develop and to promote technological and organisational change in various forms. The supply chain was well represented, a nice echo of our finding for UKWIR years back, of a high level of inventiveness in this part of the sector – and hardly surprising, I suppose, given these companies are driven by commercial objectives, and do have to innovate to survive (something it’s far harder to claim for the regional monopoly water companies themselves).

Steven Lambert attended the event to present the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) water security competition that Roger and I had just heavily criticised in a separate Utility Week feature. This made for an interesting discussion with him afterwards (!) but at the same time disappointment in the TSB platform was voiced during the Q&A after Steven’s presentation. I still think the platform is a victim of the TSB’s early pitching of the idea of a water platform (which I can remember as far back as our UWKIR barriers to innovation work in 2006) that raised hopes of a larger budget and broader scope. The platform may also be being pounced upon because of the ongoing, steady decline in UK water industry R&D since 2000:

People may have believed this new funding might reverse that dispiriting trend – perhaps unreasonably given the TSB’s limited remit, instruments and budget. Steven did however indicate that, depending on the level of interest shown in the TSB competition, there may be future TSB competition/platform funding on the same or other water-related themes (although he was unable to confirm this will happen, as he reiterated several times this is not his decision to make).

In addition to the presentations there was a short tour of the WRc’s site. I loved this! I always enjoy seeing the details of what’s going on. First up, we saw anaerobic digestion compliance testing apparatus (above); next a comparison of two potable water filtration media – recycled glass and sand (below):

I’d heard about using recycled glass some years ago, and was told it’s already in use at wastewater treatment sites, so this was a nice catch-up on the current state-of-play.

We then got a small ‘light show’ via a laser-based wastewater compliance testing rig (the measurement lasers were non-visible wavelengths so dry ice was used to highlight tracer beams, you may be able to make them out in the photo below):

After that it was out into the rain – ‘look at this drought’ jokes were in abundance (more on that in my next post!) – to see a pipe/pipe-joint stress testing rig and a rig for both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ pipe testing, e.g. involving meters, leakage detection kit and other things (below):

Overall it was a very interesting, worthwhile day. I can’t say I agreed with the diagnosis that came out of the specific ‘funding for innovation’ workshop I attended, mind you. There was a view there is sufficient research activity in the sector and that the biggest problem is the rate of adoption of new ideas – which, for instance, discourages some investors, such as venture capitalists. Certainly uptake/implementation is a barrier. At the same time, as somebody did say, there aren’t yet solutions for some of the big issues facing the sector. I had imagined there would have been a stronger call for more funding for research to address sustainability and climate change-related challenges, in particular.

I’m very glad I attended though, and I’ll be following up on WRc research (particularly on household water demand, which I heard out about from WRc’s enthusiastic younger employees). I’m also happy the event was free. I get a fair number of event invites. It always surprises me the fees being charged for academic/NGO attendance of water conferences – let alone the commercial rates! So a thumbs up to WRc for not making cost a barrier to collaborative discussion of a very important topic on this occasion.

Duncan Thomas

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