Posted: Monday 31st July 2017

Community-led infrastructure upgrades and closer working between companies that deliver amenities through underground networks could help to improve services and reduce roadworks, according to industry experts.

Northumbrian Water Group's week-long NWG Innovation Festival, brought together infrastructure experts, as well as academics and people from a wide range of businesses, to develop a series of new ideas to tackle a range of issues that affect us all.

At the end of the week, the ideas were presented to an audience of water industry leaders and other invited guests.

The proposals will now be worked on by Northumbrian Water Group and partners from business and academia that took part in the festival, including headline sponsor Reece Innovation.

The ideas included sharing knowledge between businesses that deliver services, such as gas, electricity and water, to better serve communities and to give additional support to vulnerable customers where needed.

More technologically-advanced ideas included digital underground mapping of all services, to allow for easier upgrades and maintenance, while reducing the risk of damaging other networks, and using fibre optics to more quickly identify problems beneath the ground.

During the week, a five-day sprint saw around 50 people focussing on the issue of future infrastructure upgrades, taking it from an outline of the problem to ideas that can be developed. Sprints apply leading design thinking techniques to real world issues.

The sprint, entitled Preparing for the Future: How do we upgrade our infrastructure for the 21st Century effectively and affordably? was one of six such activities carried out at the same time at the NWG Innovation Festival, which took place at Newcastle Racecourse.

Ideas that came out of the sprint, and which will be developed by Northumbrian Water Group in partnership with a range of other organisations, include:

Greater sharing of information between businesses, to ensure that services can be delivered in a way that better suits customers, with a particular focus upon those members of the public who are vulnerable and need additional support.

Sensor mapping technology that improves knowledge of the various service infrastructure, such as gas, electricity and water, that lies beneath the ground.

The introduction of a system where communities can tell companies, such as those that deliver services, what is important to them. This would enable businesses to better understand and provide for the needs of those communities.

The introduction of shared infrastructure corridors, allowing different businesses to use the same pipes for their services, improving information sharing and reducing the impact upon the public of maintenance.

The use of technology such as fibre optics to improve the data available on utilities networks, particularly focusing on pipes and cables beneath the ground, to allow companies to identify problems more quickly and understand what is going on underground.

Alastair Tawn, Northumbrian Water Group's Wastewater Energy and Efficiency Manager, said: "We are constantly looking at ways of making the upgrade and maintenance of our networks more efficient and affordable.

"The NWG Innovation Festival brought together a unique collection of people to look at this afresh and we came up with some great ideas that can be developed and will hopefully make a difference, not only to the way we operate, but to the way the public experience this type of work.

"If we can reduce road works, or at least the amount of time we have to spend when we do have to dig a hole, then that's going to make a big difference to the communities we serve. Additionally, if we can reduce the cost and frequency of such work, that's great for our customers, too.

"We're looking forward to seeing how these ideas develop and how we can deliver them not only into our operations, but share them with other companies that deliver services to homes."

The NWG Innovation Festival was supported by IBM, Microsoft, Ordnance Survey, BT, CGI Group and Reece Innovation.

It was also delivered in association with Newcastle University, Durham University, Genesys, Interserve in partnership with Amec Foster Wheeler, Costain Resources, PC1, Tech Mahindra, Mott MacDonald Bentley (MMB), Wipro, Virgin Media Business, Schneider, Wheatley Solutions, Sopra Steria, Accenture, 1Spatial, Infosys, Unify, ITPS, Esh-MWH, and Pen Test Partners.

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