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Sewer inspections and support for vulnerable customers among winners of water regulator’s £2m Innovation in Water Challenge

Thursday 22nd April 2021 15:48

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  • Thames Water is a partner on three projects to have been named among the 11 winners of the Innovation in Water Challenge (IWC), which will receive a combined £750,000 of funding.
  • Run by Ofwat and Nesta Challenges, and supported by Arup and Isle Utilities, the IWC’s goal is to fund transformational innovation to key challenges in the water sector.
  • This was the first in a series of competitions funded through Ofwat’s Innovation Fund that aims to create new collaborations in the water sector so it can meet the needs of customers, society and the environment now and in the future.

Thames Water projects to use artificial intelligence to improve sewer inspections and supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances have been revealed among the winners of the inaugural £2 million Innovation in Water Challenge (IWC).

The water company is partnering with other firms in the industry on three schemes; AI & Sewer Defect Analysis, supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances and the new UK Water Sector Innovation Centre of Excellence, which will now receive £750,000 of funding in total.

They were among 11 collaborative initiatives led by water companies and involving a number of partner organisations, that will receive up to £250,000 each to tackle the biggest issues facing the water sector in England and Wales.

Run by Ofwat and Nesta Challenges, and supported by Arup and Isle Utilities, the IWC was the first competition this year within Ofwat’s £200 million Innovation Fund. It is part of the regulator’s goal to create an innovative and collaborative water sector that meets the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment in the years to come.

The AI & Sewer Defect Analysis project will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically recognise issues in CCTV inspections of sewers. This will give a better understanding of sewer deterioration and reduce the cost of inspections.

Supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances will use behavioural science to improve engagement with hard-to-reach customers and communities during planned and unplanned events, including help to manage bills and understanding which forms of communication customers prefer.

Thames Water is also part of a partnership of many water companies that will lead the delivery of UK Water Sector Innovation Centre of Excellence (CoE), a virtual innovation hub to promote collaboration in and beyond the water sector and drive transformational innovation.

John Russell, Senior Director at Ofwat, said: “Innovation has the potential to drive a sea-change in the water sector and tackle some of the biggest challenges we are facing in society. Solutions such as this will make a real impact in the coming months and mark the beginning of a new wave of innovation in the sector.

“We were particularly pleased to see so many water company collaborations among the entries, and the winning proposal for the development of the sector’s Innovation Centre of Excellence will be crucial in driving future change. We are looking forward to the future rounds of the competitions and supporting even more transformative projects to fruition over the coming years.”

Chris Gorst, Director of Challenges at Nesta Challenges, commented: “It's an important moment for the water sector, which must adapt and innovate to build a sustainable water ecosystem that benefits customers, society and the environment. We were delighted to see such strong collaboration both within and beyond the sector in response to this first Innovation in Water Challenge, and we look forward to seeing these innovations developed and adopted widely in the sector.”

Rachel Skinner, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and chair of the IWC judging panel, said: “It was refreshing to see such a high standard of entries across the breadth of the water sector in this inaugural funding round. Taken together, the shortlisted entries provided a clear snapshot of the industry and its current challenges but also multiple opportunities for widespread transformation in diverse areas ranging from the urgent need for accelerated action on climate mitigation and resilience, to new ways to build value for customers as the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 play out.  They also highlighted huge potential for onward cross-sector learning and collaboration that will now be explored in detail. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the funded projects take flight.”

To find out more about the IWC and the full list of winning entries visit

Ofwat’s second competition for 2021, the £40m Water Breakthrough Challenge, opens for entries on 6 May 2021. This fund is for initiatives that water companies would otherwise be unable to invest in or explore – and may exist in other sectors of the economy or worldwide. This might include, for example: trialling new technology, commercial models, ways of working or business practices.

A second round of the IWC will open for entries in Autumn 2021.