Embedding innovation - what can nuclear learn?

25 July 2019

What can the nuclear industry learn from other heavily regulated sectors such as water about how to embed innovation? Luke Allen, managing director of eviFile makes some suggestions

The Nuclear Innovation Conference took place in Sheffield in July

Last month heralded the first anniversary of Britain's much-trumpeted nuclear sector deal. This week there were further announcements from the UK government on potential reforms to mobilise increased investment in nuclear, including investment in advanced reactor technology. 

It is heartening to be hearing so much from the nuclear industry about the importance of innovation to meet the challenging targets of the deal, which included:

•    a new approach to building power plants — with a target for a 30% reduction in the cost of new build projects by 2030

•    a long-term vision of innovation-led growth that delivers successively lower generation costs and a 20% reduction in decommissioning costs to the taxpayer

Earlier this month the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre hosted the UK Nuclear Innovation Conference.

The event saw industry leaders such as Duncan Steel, CTO of Sellafield, Dr Fiona Rayment, Director of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Office, Si Dilks, Head of Nuclear and Renewable Innovation at BEIS, and Adriènne Kelbie Chief Executive of the Office for Nuclear Regulation discuss the need for and challenges to implementing innovation in the sector.

Thanks to the ambitions of the industry, the framework and funding being provided by BEIS, it genuinely feels like innovation is on the tips of everyone's tongues.

Embedding innovation in any sector is much more difficult than talking about it. Of course, safety and security have to be part of any innovative nuclear sector solution. So what can the nuclear sector learn from other heavily regulated industries about how to embed innovation?
Watching the flow of innovation in the water sector

There are several leading examples of innovation in the water industry which the nuclear sector could learn from.

Earlier this month we were delighted to attend the Northumbrian Water Group’s third annual Innovation Festival at Newcastle Racecourse.

The event is one of the world’s largest innovation festivals in the world averaging 1500 attendees a year and sees leading industry suppliers such as Wood, Mott MacDonald Bentley, Esh Group, Stantec, Interserve and Wavin host design sprints to prototype and test an idea in no more than five days.

The festival is famous for spawning several real-life projects in its first two years, including:

  • Northumbrian Water and Ordnance Survey’s ground-breaking Underground Mapping project (see video), a trailblazing Combined Infrastructure Map pilot that will create a detailed digital map of underground assets around Sunderland.
  • A Northumbrian Water pilot study with BT to deploy 150 sensors in pipes in the water network as part of a 12-month project to capture and process data such as water flow, pressure and quality to allow to identify issues such as burst pipes, or leaks quickly and easily.

Make information democratic and innovation competitive

Severn Trent is using technology to enable all teams to deliver and act on insights teams rather than relying on a central business information team.

Creating such an open-source approach is not always possible but can empower teams to deliver innovation and find more productive and efficient solutions themselves rather than having to wait for the central business information team to have the capacity to help.
Severn Trent has also created a competition to drive innovation known as ‘The Challenge Cup’ where employees are invited to submit ideas for cost efficiency.

This incentivises innovation by providing an opportunity for people to put forward ideas with the promise of genuine executive sponsorship and funding to put winning concepts into action.

Not to be intimidated by regulation

Regulation can hamper innovation, but it is no way an immovable obstacle. To successfully implement innovation in highly regulated sectors, you have to bake regulation into innovation from the beginning.

As an example, this is something eviFile has learned well from our work delivering digital asset and works management for critical infrastructure such as the £300m,100km water pipeline in West Cumbria for United Utilities.

Through careful and collaborative design and programming, we have worked together to help create OFWAT compliant digital evidence packs which United Utilities staff can generate and in less than four seconds.

There is a real lesson here for how the nuclear industry could work with the Office for Nuclear Regulation to ensure innovation successfully addresses compliance.

At the Nuclear Innovation conference, Kelbie called on the industry to approach the regulator with potential innovations. ONR has already started to consider how regulation can facilitate innovation while maintaining high standards of safety and security.

Linking innovation to performance

There is much that the nuclear sector can learn from United Utilities' approach to innovation.

United Utilities has been celebrated by OFWAT as having one of the most embedded innovation cultures with the water sector driving innovation by making it a core value linked to every employee’s annual appraisal/bonus process.

This initiative is so successful because it places the onus of innovation on individuals, wherever they are in the business.

This creates empowerment for staff by incentivising them to find better ways of delivering their own work, rather than waiting for innovation and change to be forced on them from above in a way which is less effective and can make staff members resistant to change.

As a digital asset and works management company, eviFile is passionate about the insights that digital evidence and information collection can provide.

While the drive and purpose to deliver innovation must come from the top to signify and communicate its importance, for innovation to be truly effective and permeate throughout the organisation it must be adopted and nurtured by everyone.

Luke Allen is managing director of eviFile

Luke Allen, managing director of eviFile

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