Five areas we need innovation in the water sector now

18 Dec 2020

In the UK, we’re very lucky that we can turn on our taps or flush our toilets without thinking about where our water is coming from and the people working tirelessly across the country to ensure we have access to clean water everyday.

This isn’t true for everyone. Take Cape Town as just one example; the challenge of access to clean water for all is a long way from being solved. Climate change, population growth and many other factors are driving water stress across the globe.

Here at Nesta Challenges, we’re excited to be working with Ofwat, the regulator for the water sector in England and Wales, to deliver a series of water innovation competitions that aim to make sure that we can continue to take for granted high quality, clean water from our taps and toilets in years to come.

The five themes

Following a consultation process, Ofwat have published five strategic innovation themes where a spotlight on innovation is needed. But what are they?

1. Climate change and the path to net zero

Climate change is already having a significant impact on our water system, with less frequent but heavier rainfall causing more flooding and longer and hotter summers putting a strain on our water supplies such as rivers and underground aquifers.

The transition to net zero is critical to ensuring we reach our 1.5°C target; but water processing – be it pumping, treatment or something else – can be a highly energy intensive process that needs new approaches to find solutions for the future.

Innovation is needed in the water sector to respond and adapt to the new reality of our climate and how we can safeguard the future. You only need to look at a map of what would happen to England and Wales if we don’t hit 1.5°C with rising sea levels to understand just how important this focus is.

2. Restoring the ecological status of our water environments

Climate change is giving us a major nudge not to take the services nature provide to us – known as ecosystem services –  for granted. Nature has a big role to play in supply of our water. For example in much of England, we are blessed with chalk that provides a natural filter for our water supply, just as you learned in that class in primary school on the water cycle.

Restoring the ecological status of our water environments – such as rivers and streams – is key to protecting us from the impacts of extreme weather and pollution into the future.

3. Mitigating operational resilience and infrastructure risks. 

Now this one doesn’t sound quite as obvious as the first two – but in order to deliver water supply to a growing population with a trajectory of increased water use per person, whilst also restoring the ecological status of our water environments, we need to ensure as little water and energy used in processing water is wasted.  Water companies need innovation to help them manage water supply as efficiently as possible; ensuring we don’t wake up with our houses flooded due to major leaks, or no water in our taps due to water shortages.

Just like many other sectors, Ofwat have identified two key areas which are ripe for innovation to support achieving these goals:

4. Testing new ways of conducting core activities to deliver wider public value

Whether it’s installing rainwater harvesting and recycling systems on new housing developments or replacing chemicals involved in processing with nature-led approaches such as using charcoal and UV lights, the water sector have been experimenting with new ways to conduct their core activities – supplying and treating water – over the last few years. There are many more opportunities to explore this, delivering value back to us, the public, potentially through lower water bills or enabling more houses in our communities to be built.

5. Exploring the opportunities associated with open data

Open data is one of the key opportunities that the water sector is ripe for innovation – stimulating collaboration, and encouraging new business models and service offerings that can contributing to solving some of the problems in 1-3 above; just as we’ve seen innovation in London’s transport system and the UK financial services industry through introducing open data, opening up information enables more people to understand and respond to the challenges we’re facing.

We’re really excited to open the first round of Ofwat’s Innovation in Water Challenge, seeking entries focusing on one or more of these strategic innovation themes on 18 January 2021. This challenge is an opportunity to win £50,000 to £250,000 to support kick-start, grow or scale innovative initiatives led by water companies.