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Thoughts on why innovation is important to all of us

What do swarms, memes, genes and waves have in common?…

Look at this picture. What do you see?

Imagery ©2018 Google, Map data ©2018 Google

This isn’t a bizarre test of your psyche and you probably won’t know the answer unless you’ve worked in the water industry.

This is a picture that has fascinated me as it demonstrates the huge impact that innovation has over the course of time. Let me explain…

It is a picture of our Water Treatment Works at Barrow. In this next picture I’ve highlighted some orange rectangles; these used to be our slow sand filters and sand storage. They would remove pathogens from water before it is pumped into supply. Each one of them is roughly the size of a football pitch… probably a bit bigger (I’ve not tried to work it out!)

Imagery ©2018 Google, Map data ©2018 Google

What’s happened to them? We got better

They have now all been decommissioned and replaced with a building about a third of the size of just one sand filter; this building holds our UV treatment plant which is now all that’s required to remove pathogens from the water.

What an incredible impact on the geography of our site that shift in technology has had!

The technology hasn’t stopped there. The current trend in UV treatment is to move to LED UV treatment – this should reduce the energy used in the treatment process by the same magnitude that the space was reduced when decommissioning the slow sand filters.

This got me thinking about what a force innovation is. We like to think that we are the masterminds behind it but more often than not, we are just finding clever ways to benefit from forces beyond our control… and there’s nothing wrong with that.

We live in the age of the internet and globalisation. The proliferation of open-source-everything has led to an explosion of innovation that no one person or entity seems to truly be able to control (think of the power battle between the tech giants and governments or the impact of online retail to high street brands). Innovation is going to happen whether we like it or not…

… Sometimes for good: I love the clever crows in Japan who have figured out that the combination of cars and concrete make for an excellent nut cracker to help them with their dinner – they drop the nuts onto crossings and highways, wait for a car to drive over it and then enjoy the spoils of their cracked nut!

… Sometimes for bad: in the summer of 2010, riots sprang up all around the UK for ill-defined reasons. What made it possible was the innovation in using Blackberry messenger and WhatsApp to arrange a huge arrival of rioters and looters before the police were aware and could respond.

If we could visualise this explosion of innovation I think it would be something like a swarm. Swarms exhibit a collective behaviour that appears as if there is a group intelligence, which there often isn’t. Walk down to Brighton pier and watch the murmurations of starlings to see what I mean. There is an emergence of a collective intelligence that is often unapparent to the individuals involved. You see it in ants, bacteria, multi-cellular systems etc. It can arise for all sorts of different reasons such as an individual copying an individual in front of them, causing a group confirmation of behaviour; or an individual leaving signals behind them that others respond to etc. There is a whole study of this emergent apparent intelligence.

This swarm intelligence strikes me as very similar to how the concepts in memes (an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture) proliferate. The proliferation of memes has been compared to genes: successful memes remain and spread, whereas unfit ones stall and are forgotten.

You can probably see where I’m going with all of this – I think the behaviours of these topics is reflected in what most of us recognise as the ‘macro-trends’ of innovation today. We see the rise of the information age, the rise of sustainable energy, the rise of the internet of things, the rise of customer immediacy etc. etc.

But I’ve not finished answering the question in the title

What about waves?

I think most of our innovations are really us, as individuals or companies, responding to something much bigger than ourselves, a much bigger innovation macro-trend.  In our small field of vision we often feel that we have created the next great thing when we mature an innovation but the truth we’re part of a much bigger trend and I think we should see our part to play more like a surfer:

A surfer respects the sea. She could die if she doesn’t operate effectively within the ocean environment. The surfer also looks to the sea for great enjoyment to progress their aims. The surfer ensures that she is fit enough to paddle towards the best waves and spends her time perfecting how to ride the waves making effective turns and reaping rewards for her efforts.

In this analogy:

  • The sea is innovation
  • The waves are the macro-trends
  • We are the surfer

And we need to learn how to ride waves effectively (through design sprints, R&D, collaborations etc.) to reap the reward rather than being swept aside by them.

I talk about the challenges of building an organisation that can learn how to master these innovation waves in another blog here.

About Chris

Chris joined Bristol Water in 2017 and established the new Business Improvement and Innovation department within the CEO office. His role is to push the Bristol Water forward, seeking to accelerate today’s adoption of tomorrow’s innovations. He covers everything from operating model development and business change to innovation management, recently founding Bristol Water’s business incubator supporting an up-and-coming Robotics consultancy. Before joining Bristol Water, Chris spent over 7 years as a management consultant working across the utilities, energy and defence industries.