With the launch of Spring well underway, we asked John Russell, Senior Director from Ofwat, about his hopes and ambitions for the UK’s Innovation Centre of Excellence.

Why do you think a centre of excellence was needed for the water sector?

The water sector in England and Wales – like their counterparts across the world – face unprecedented pressures such as climate change, population growth and huge public concern about pollution and water company capability to tackle it. At the same time companies have big opportunities to change lives and improve our natural environment.

Innovation is and will always be crucial for delivering reliable, resilient and safe water and wastewater services that are affordable and create wider benefits for the environment and society. As a regulator we can play our part, particularly through our fund and competitions, but there is a lot more that needs to be done to build a thriving innovation ecosystem. Many organisations are already playing a critical role in driving innovation, and we think that Spring is an important catalyst.

A key role for Spring, alongside Ofwat, smaller companies and those outside the sector, will be to help different elements of the water sector work better together to find those exciting new innovations and help them grow. At the same time, Spring can be a shop window for innovation and encouraging those from outside the sector and internationally to want to do work here. In working together, we can find better solutions to the big challenges we face.

What do you think the water industry can learn from other sectors?

I think the water industry can learn an enormous amount from other sectors. But I also think other sectors could learn an enormous amount from what’s happening in water too.

The key is finding a way to share that learning. And that probably starts with getting some very simple things right: sharing our challenges in a language others can understand and not trying to solve shared challenges alone.

As an industry we need to be more open to looking further afield, to consider ideas from less conventional sources, such as smaller companies and those outside the sector, and have an open door. We need a better awareness of what is happening in adjacent sectors and elsewhere around the world. It may largely be a monopoly sector but none of us has a monopoly on good ideas.

What are your long-term ambitions for Spring?

Accelerating innovation means working better together, getting new voices and ideas into the sector, and ensuring those ideas achieve impact. Spring can play a role in all those areas.

How does Ofwat plan on interacting with Spring?

We expect regular engagement and will be really interested in what Spring is demonstrating in terms of improving innovation capacity in the sector. But we think it’s important that the sector and owns and drives things.

What is the single most important element that you think Spring could enable/unlock?

There are no silver bullets. Innovation can happen as much by taking small steps as they can through Eureka (or even accidental) moments. It can be a clever bit of technology or even just a new way of doing things with existing tools.

Ultimately though it is the sector’s openness to new ideas and desire to improve that are crucial. So the biggest change Spring can help enable is to help drive a more innovative culture and ecosystem within the sector that doesn’t just admire problems and challenges but asks “How can we do better?”.

Ofwat’s innovation fund has already awarded almost £40 million to 20 winning entries involving partners from many different sectors around the world. Find out more about the fund, winners and future competitions to enter at waterinnovation.challenges.org