Full marks for innovation. Now where’s the cupboard where you store all your new tech?

With all the emphasis on new ideas, is the water sector suffering a crisis of confidence when it comes to adoption? CEO of FIDO Tech, Victoria Edwards says new ways of working are critical to building real climate resilience.

Victoria Edwards - FIDO Tech - World Water-Tech
Victoria Edwards, CEO, FIDO, UK

At the start of November, as world leaders gathered to discuss the future of the planet at COP26, world leaders of a different kind gathered to discuss the future of technology.

Lisbon’s annual Web Summit is the Oscars, G8 and United Federation of Planets (you’re a techie if you get that reference) rolled into one; a genuinely glamorous celebration of innovation and forward-thinking.

It’s where thousands of tech fans rub shoulders with sports stars, celebrities and top politicians; Silicon Valley A-listers are treated as royalty; and a small technology firm called FIDO Tech was named one of the world’s top two Global Tech Innovators.

In just two years since emerging from United Utilities’ Innovation Lab, FIDO AI has revolutionised leak detection, removing human error and offering unheard of actionable insight from leakage data, like leak sizing and exact leak location. All by understanding and analysing the sounds and vibrations leaks make.

Winning in a competition like KPMG’s Global Tech Innovator is opening doors for us around the world, with clients and investors wanting to speak to us.

But pivotal as this is to the FIDO story, perhaps the bigger picture is what it says about the UK water sector and the power of its innovation community to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Finding a solution to the 30% of the world’s water lost before it reaches the user is one of the most rational responses to climate change. UNESCO called it a ‘low or no-regrets’ response because it not only adapts to our changing climate. It helps mitigate it. Four per cent of power production goes into the water we drink.

The UK is a world leader in technology and its water industry is a world leader in leak detection. Features like DMAs and acoustic technology just don’t exist in many parts of the world.

Part of FIDO’s appeal to the KPMG judges was its wholly non-proprietary, sensor agnostic approach. Having been trained on verified data from United Utilities, FIDO no longer needs external verification to deliver over 92% accuracy.  Where utilities do not have 3rd party sensors, or wish to expand coverage of their network, FIDO provides FIDO Bug sensors for free as part of the FIDO AI subscription. This means any network anywhere in the world can be instantly raised to the level of the best (the UK’s) – DMAs or not. All this is thanks to forward-thinking data-sharing and collaboration which began and continues in the UK sector.

In some ways FIDO has been lucky; the beneficiary of a world-beating national water industry at the top of its innovation game at a point when the world has finally woken up to the value of water and its key role as an indicator of climate change.

For fledgling innovations, stories like ours are essential. They demonstrate that the sector, which has always had a reputation for being slow, is open for business. That there’s a future for their ideas.

But still, for too many innovations, getting recognition as a brilliant idea is where the good news ends.

When we first started, people asked why we didn’t just go into oil and gas as that’s where the money and innovation culture really was. The imperative of climate change is the answer.

There’s no doubt that the water sector has upped its game on innovation. It’s brimming with talent and ideas and even showing other sectors a thing or two. Unfortunately, when it comes to embracing the resulting technology, it’s still an uphill struggle. The sector appears too cautious when it comes to adoption.

Why so?
If you’ve ploughed so much energy and money into incubating great ideas, why then make them jump through the hoops of trial after trial, pilot after interminable pilot?

This has to change unless innovation is to be no more than a ‘tick box’ exercise.

It’s understandable, with water supply such a fundamental human need. Incremental changes are safer, but they’re inevitably just tweaks to existing processes. Sure, you pick off higher and higher hanging fruit by standing on bigger and bigger boxes, but eventually you’ll need a ladder, and that requires different processes and skills.

That’s what’s happened with leakage. The UK has got a bigger pile of better constructed boxes than the rest of the world, but the best fruit – the bigger leaks, the leaks that haven’t even happened yet – are way out of reach.

You need these if you’re going to match the advances of AMP7 when you go into AMP 8, let alone hit net zero by 2030 and UKWIR’s zero leakage by 2050 target. Active leakage control alone is not the answer.

You need an innovation that fundamentally changes the game to reach these leaks.  By their very nature, these types of innovation are scary and disruptive. Think horse to motor car. Mail to email. It wasn’t more of the same. It was totally different. And that means completely adapting processes and behaviours to match.

Now, at FIDO we consciously tried to take the sting out of the tail of change control by building in features to overcome some of the barriers – sensor agnosticism, free hardware, no need for special skills, a data-led next action approach that takes you through the whole leak detection and repair cycle. But it’s harder to shift organisations from the technology they’re familiar with, and have invested in, than even we expected.

Again, it’s understandable. And if we had enough time this would be no problem. But we don’t.

That’s all. We don’t have time.

I hate to say we have enough innovation, because there’s no such thing. But the innovation we have already will go a long way to solving the world’s problems. So, give it a chance. Make it work. Doing the same thing over and again will not get a different result. It’s no longer a case of winning or losing. As long as we let the equivalent of a source that would increase our available water by 50% keep leaking away, we’re losing already.

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