The water sector is on a trajectory towards technological transformation, with innovation and partnership moving centre stage, writes Lila Thompson, chief executive, British Water.

At the forefront of addressing climate change and at the heart of the post-Covid green recovery, there has never been a better time to work in water – but ongoing collaboration to attract new talent and ideas are needed to address urgent environmental and economic challenges and meet net zero carbon targets.

The 11 collaborative winning entries of the inaugural Innovation in Water Challenge (IWC), offer a window into what can be achieved when joint working is enabled and new ideas supported.

Initiated by regulator Ofwat, and being run by Nesta Challenges supported by Isle Utilities and Arup, the challenge has sparked initiatives and partnerships that otherwise may not have been explored but that could yield transformative results for water.

From artificial intelligence-led technology that analyses sewer defects and bespoke software that shows the impacts of habitat degradation, to initiatives that will convert ammonia recovered from wastewater into green fuel and use optical fibre strands to detect leaks, the winning projects tackle some of the biggest issues facing the water sector in England and Wales, as well as globally.

As an IWC judge, I look forward to seeing how these unique projects develop and to reviewing entries to the second round of the challenge, expected to open in November.

The IWC is the first in a series of competitions funded through Ofwat’s Innovation Fund. The second, the Water Breakthrough Challenge which has a total prize pot of £40 million for larger initiatives, opened for entries on 6 May 2021 and will provide another huge boost for innovation that the whole sector can take pride in.

However, when it comes to business-as-usual innovation practices, it is widely acknowledged that there is still work for the UK water utilities to do. SMEs and start-ups regularly encounter difficulties in their attempts to engage with utilities due to historic procurement processes acting as barriers to bringing new partners on board.

This is why, with the help of MWH Treatment, British Water has created a Water Innovation Map, collating up-to-date information about water companies’ innovation strategies, areas of focus and direct available contacts. The guide, which also reveals where particular water companies are leading the way on innovation, along with a newly formed British Water Sustainability Supply Chain Task Force, should help support efforts to grow the sector’s capacity to innovate.

While I know Ofwat’s Innovation Fund will result in the roll-out of some brilliant solutions, I also hope it will prove to be a catalyst for a permanent cultural shift for the industry and its adoption of new techniques and emerging technologies.