Journey towards ‘full systems thinking’ is helping United Utilities harness the benefits of innovation in its business.

Smart networks, big data and disruptive technology are concepts more usually associated with Silicon Valley than the UK water industry.

But for United Utilities, which delivers clean water to seven million people in the North West of England, they’re already delivering savings and improving services, and there’s more to come.

It’s a journey the company has been on since 2012 when, following a forensic look at other industries, managers latched onto the idea of improving performance by focussing on the way assets work together rather than as a set of individual elements. A production line, in other words.

The benefits of the approach have been such that systems thinking is now a central tenet of United Utilities’ strategy for the next regulatory asset management plan (AMP) period and beyond.

“A water company has many thousands of assets, and traditional thinking tends to focus on individual asset elements – lists of critical assets are created, underperforming assets are prioritised, and work scheduled to maintain individual elements. All of this is important but it can obscure visibility of how well combinations of assets are performing together,” explained Central Operations Director Simon Chadwick.

“The quality and efficiency of the service provided to customers depends on multiple assets working effectively together as an end-to-end system. Systems thinking takes this concept and expands it to consider how this asset system interacts with other systems in the North West, such as catchment management, so that we better understand cause and effect and, crucially, how it might affect the service delivered to customers.”

Better outcomes from optimised performance

With around 100 water treatment works, 170 reservoirs and 42,000km of water pipes, not to mention many more hundreds of wastewater sites and 76,000km of sewers, understanding the way assets interact makes it easier to optimise overall system performance and drive better customer and environmental outcomes.

Another important factor is the ability to take advantage of emerging and disruptive technologies using big data, which have transformed the customer experience in other sectors and turned companies like Amazon, Google and Uber into household names.

Within two years of adopting the production line ethos, United Utilities built the concept into its business model under the idea of Future Concept of Operations (FCO).

Under this model, services like delivering clean water are viewed as products that are delivered to customers through a continuous manufacturing process.

The centralised Integrated Control Centre

Fast forward to 2018, and United Utilities’ recently-opened Integrated Control Centre (ICC) now monitors and controls all network operations using an array of sophisticated monitoring, sensors and controls which gather and analyse data. The insight this gives into United Utilities’ system and assets allows managers to make informed centralised decisions which optimise services to customers, minimise the impact of any interventions and can be continually refined as circumstances change.

Out in the field, the focus of operatives has also changed towards making sure assets are available to meet the centralised plan. A new asset resource scheduling system assigns tasks at any of 425,000+ centrally-managed assets to 1,200 field staff using mobile work dispatch via a smartphone app.

In practice during the freeze thaw

The visibility from the ICC of how the system is performing hugely improves resilience as well, as demonstrated during last winter’s freeze thaw. Live granular data gathered from best-in-class data storage, accessibility, reporting and analytics was marshalled within the ICC and available to the centre and field teams.

By forecasting the impact of potential scenarios, United Utilities was able to take pro-active actions like suspending works, deploying customer support staff, securing extra repair teams and increasing the availability of tankers and bottled water. Customer contact rates remained relatively low and were mostly resolved within 6 hours, earning the company plaudits for its preparedness.

The company is now working collaboratively with leading UK universities in an on-going R&D programme on the use of advanced data analytics to further improve asset performance and customer service. The Event Recognition for Water Networks (ERWAN) system, developed with the University of Exeter, was the first such project and uses machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence (AI), to understand normal behaviour in the water distribution network and then recognise abnormal behaviour such as leaks and bursts.

Benefits for customers

Initiatives like these are credited with helping United Utilities deliver significant benefits for customers. In its clean water operations alone, the number of serious events dropped by almost a third and FCO has contributed to reductions in leakage, customer contacts and pollution incidents.

But despite its success, there is still a long way for the company to go before it reaches the holy grail of having systems that truly think and act for themselves, and the next part of the journey to adopt ‘full systems thinking’ is now being put in place. The aim is to take advantage of advances in digital technologies to automate even more decision-making and interventions and provide an ever more consistent, efficient and resilient service.

David Ogden, United Utilities’ Wholesale Technology Manager, said this would involve adopting further advances in sensors, data science and advanced analytics to apply even greater insight and situational awareness to bring a fuller systems view.

“This will help us understand and minimise our impact on the complete customer experience, whether this is the direct service and bills they receive from us, or the disruption to their daily lives and the environment they live in.

“Full systems thinking forms the cornerstone strategy of United Utilities’ PR19 submission and is a truly multi-AMP approach through AMP7, 8 and beyond, accelerating our journey and pushing the industry frontier forward at pace.

“Global cross sector digital research, undertaken in 2016, has enabled us to target emerging technology areas which will be needed to deliver our strategy and in turn change our approach to technology from traditional silos to a true collaborative approach.”

Breaking down barriers for new tech suppliers

To break down common barriers to new ideas and encourage healthy digital disruption, earlier this year the company ran an ‘Innovation Lab’ targeted at 1,500 fledgling, small and large businesses who might not previously have considered the water sector, or even the UK, as a potential market for their ideas.

United Utilities received 80 strong applications in five key areas: smart home devices and the internet of things; updating customers proactively as delivery companies do; new, non-invasive ways to understand how assets are performing without having to dig them up or switch them of; safer working; and, future concepts.

Seven successful finalists earned themselves a safe, supportive environment with access to United Utilities’ data, systems, senior people and legal and financial know-how.

Added Simon: “Using vast amounts of data in an intelligent way to make the right decisions at the right time is the obvious way for us deliver improved customer service at a lower cost and it’s what our customers and regulators expect.

“The advantages of advanced digital technologies such as AI and automation is ultimately one of the ways we can meet the challenge. Some of the ideas from the Innovation Lab may not make it off the ground, but others have already led to a commercial agreement with United Utilities. Hopefully, this is one of the ways we can maintain our industry-leading edge and seize the benefits of new and emerging technologies which may not even been conceived yet.”