When Northumbrian Water Group embarked on a project to better engage with customers around sewer flooding and ways to mitigate future risks, it turned to the national Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) programme. Uniting industry with academia, KTPs supercharge ideas and concepts into tangible outcomes by applying innovative thinking and fresh creativity to real-world problems. Working with Durham University, it forged a partnership to explore improvements to its sewer flooding communications framework, which is now coming to a conclusion. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Chris Jones, Northumbrian Water Group’s research and development manager, and Nick Barber, the company’s KTP associate, to find out more

Northumbrian Water Group

Durham University

Collaboration sits as a cornerstone of business success.

Any organisation will attest to the impact that partnerships 34 – and the creative thinking they inspire – have in opening up pathways for innovation, growth and market accomplishment. So when Northumbrian Water Group embarked on a project to reduce risks and impacts around sewer flooding – by strengthening its relationship with customers – the company quickly recognised teamwork would be a crucial element in meeting its objectives.

This collaboration, however, wouldn’t just come from internal sources.

Instead, the firm connected with Durham University on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP).

Linking a company with an academic, research organisation or graduate, KTPs introduce new skills and the latest theoretical approaches to projects, which drive innovation and lead to new ways of working.

Furthermore, with academics assigned exclusively to businesses across the lifespan of their relevant partnerships – working under the title of associate – KTPs allow an individual to universally understand an organisation, its data and its history while remaining free from the experiences of past projects and initiatives, to deliver fresh perspectives.

For Northumbrian Water Group, which runs its head office out of Pity Me, on the outskirts of Durham City, the endeavour is proving extremely productive.

Having identified a need to increase customer engagement around sewer flooding and ways to mitigate potential risks back in 2017, the business founded its KTP the following year.

Having appointed associate Nick Barber, who studied a PhD at Newcastle University on farm management improvement to help cut river pollution, Northumbrian Water Group is now finalising a plan to improve its customer messaging.

Built using Nick’s research, its blueprint includes helping people spot early warning signs of sewer flooding to increase reporting, and better promotion of public evidence collection – through videos and photographs – to allow for more efficient incident management.

The outline also focuses on the need to further mitigate the impact of sewer flooding on residents in the immediate aftermath of an event, raise customer engagement around ongoing works, provide greater education to stop certain items being discarded down sinks and toilets, and create a more streamlined approach with contractors around private sewers.

Using this framework, Nick – a physical geography graduate who studied a Master’s in hydrology – has liaised remotely and digitally with customers to discuss the company’s plans and reported back their views to shape the tone and look of its eventual messaging.

For Chris Jones, Northumbrian Water’s research and development manager, the alliance – which is due to come to a conclusion in January 2021 – has been extremely fruitful.

“We held an Innovation Festival in 2017 and were exploring the issue of flooding and what we could do to inform and support customers, and potentially where we might be able to mitigate future risks,” says Chris, explaining the KTP’s origins.

“We came up with a couple of ideas and, as it happened, there was someone from Durham University in one of our design sprints, who was undertaking a PhD looking at flood risk communications.

“Our sprints are used to identify a problem and a subsequent solution, before accelerating work and testing and prototyping of an idea.

“The PhD student brought ideas from a river catchment point of view and had worked with communities in the Tyne Valley to see how new tools and processes could help them with flood risk.

“They brought them to the design sprint, and we then brought our own ideas together and focused more on the risks from sewers.”

Spurred by the outcomes from its design sprint, Northumbrian Water Group pushed ahead with securing a KTP and received grant funding from Innovate UK and the Natural Environment Research Council to ensure its commencement.

As well as recruiting associate Nick, the KTP has also allowed the business to access the expertise of Professor Louise Bracken, from Durham University’s Department of Geography.

This, says Chris, has provided a significant boost because it has further increased the company’s ability to tap into academic knowledge and fresh thinking.

“KTPs are all about taking knowledge and transferring it from academia to industry to create strategic value,” he says.

“We have certainly done that with Nick, who is highly-qualified and has very relevant skills and experience from his time working with farmers to co-design solutions for agriculture on flooding.

“Him being an associate means he has become embedded within us, which means he better understands the business and knows what we’ve done before, so we’re coming up with focuses on finding new methods and ways.

“However, we also have a half-day access every week to a senior academic through the KTP.

“Our contact for that is Louise, and it is great to have access to that sort of level of academic expertise.

“People like Louise can challenge assumptions and look at areas we may not necessarily have thought about.

“We also have a local management committee, which includes a representative from the university and the business – and Innovate UK is also represented in the form of a KTP advisor – which meets regularly to monitor progress.

Chris continues: “We are developing a Drainage and Wastewater Management Plan to oversee services in our catchment and this KTP is feeding into that.

“We have certainly accelerated our thinking and changed our thinking by engaging with the KTP.

“What we could have done is gone off after our initial design sprint and developed an app, for example, because we thought it was the right thing to do.

“But, by doing it this way, we are co-designing solutions alongside the people – customers – they are there to help.
“We could have missed the mark,” adds Chris.

“But, by taking part in the KTP, it has given us a lot more confidence that we are doing the right thing.”

For Nick, who’s plans for face-to-face community engagement were altered dramatically by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social restrictions, the experience has been “terrific.”

“As a model, KTPs are great and provide a fantastic opportunity for an associate like myself to get a flavour of industry,” he says.

Nick also says he has enjoyed his work with customers, and recording their observations, which he is now using to mould Northumbrian Water Group’s future sewer flooding communications framework.

He says: “I did a lot of data analysis to identify customers who had experienced above-average levels of sewer flooding and encouraged them to share their experiences and thoughts with me.

“I then did a thematic analysis to see if there were any common threads and that led me to issues I discussed with people during our remote, digital conversations.

“From there, we moved to group workshops to further gauge responses and explore areas that people were most interested in
or had specifically highlighted previously.

Nick continues: “I split the customers I was working with into two groups of six and went back to Northumbrian Water Group to feed back their responses.

“That helped begin planning the educational material that the company would like to produce, in terms of what it will contain, whether it will be expressed as a graphic, and the overall tone and style of the words and messaging.

“We’re now working on some prototypes of what the material might look like.”

The final communication structure may still be work in progress, but Chris and Nick are both certain in their support for KTPs and the benefits they deliver.

“Smaller businesses might sometimes get put off about working in this way with a university, simply because they may not know where to start,” says Chris.

“But that is where the KTP advisors, who are there to guide you through this process from the very start, come in.

“We see ourselves as a community organisation – most of our employees live in and around the areas we serve – and undertaking a KTP like this one is just another way to strengthen those links.

“It really is a great programme.”

Nick adds: “This partnership has been really interesting.

“It has been terrific to be part of a project that is delivering something so meaningful for local communities.”