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Australian utilities are some of the world’s most innovative – here’s why

Australian water businesses have been recognised as leading innovators in the Water Research Foundation's new guidance manual, Fostering Innovation Within Water Utilities.

Innovation programs by Queensland Urban Utilities, Seqwater and Yarra Valley Water have featured as case studies in the manual, which aims to show “how utilities transform into idea factories”.

Queensland Urban Utilities' Innovation Research and Development Manager Colin Chapman said what made Queensland Urban Utilities – and other Australian utilities – stand out was their customer-centric approach.

“The US utilities were very much compliance driven within their programs, and here in Australia we are probably a bit more customer focussed with changes to our operating models and the stronger focus on affordability,” he said.

Queensland Urban Utilities' five-stage approach to innovation (known by the acronym IDEAS) features in the guide, while a case study explores Queensland Urban Utilities' five part Innovation Program, including its Innovation Precinct and CEO Innovation Hour.

Water Research Foundation CEO Rob Renner said the manual presented a simple framework for fostering a culture that encourages creativity and facilitates implementation of new ideas.

“Utility structure and processes are built for reliability and repeatability, which can breed a culture averse to trying new and relatively untried ideas,” he said.

“Our hope is that water utilities will use this guidance manual to assess their innovation environment, which can foster new ideas and allow implementation of new approaches that will transform their organisations and enhance their ability to meet future challenges.”

Based on previous research and international workshop discussions, a simple and scalable utility innovation framework was developed. Referred to as the ICE Utility Innovation Framework, its three key components are Impact, Capability, and Engagement.

Chapman said he recommended the manual to other utilities.

“[It's] a compendium of collective knowledge and the Water Research Foundation team and principle investigators have done a great job in massaging that into a three phased approach,” he said.

“It really embraces getting leadership support, making sure you've got strategic intent and alignment. If your efforts don't contribute to the challenges you're facing, then you're probably missing the mark. If you don't have top-down support, it's very hard to provide a program with real momentum.”

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