Becoming a Digital Utility

by Richard Wiles, Digital Innovation Manager, National Grid

Richard Wiles

Richard Wiles explains how National Grid is embracing innovation by unleashing the creativity of its IT team

There has long been a stereotype that the UK utilities sector is a sort of “Lost World” – an industry populated by dinosaurs who have done the same job in the same way for the last 100 years, and have little desire or incentive to change.

As with all stereotypes, there’s a small grain of truth in this. Most utilities are weighed down by thousands of miles of legacy pipes and cables that need to be maintained – and sometimes it’s hard to innovate when a substantial portion of your assets are buried in the ground.

The scale at which UK utilities operate can also make the industry more ponderous than other sectors: it may seem that the rollout of smart meters, for example, is going slowly – but the technical and regulatory challenges involved in replacing meters for 26 million homes dwarf the kinds of problems that smaller companies generally have to deal with.

Nevertheless, on the whole, the dinosaur image is unfair. Although the core business of a utility involves managing large and inflexible infrastructures, there are many opportunities for innovation within the lifecycle of building and maintaining an asset – and utilities are increasingly seeing the advantages of differentiating themselves by seizing those opportunities.

Building an innovation team

At National Grid we’ve established an organization called ngLabs, a small UK and US team of developers dedicated to trialling new technologies and approaches. The prototypes we create help us explore creative ideas and test whether they could contribute to our next generation of digital services.

We are a skunkworks team operating in a corporate environment. We run on a shoestring budget with a team of bright young developers who have the imagination to try new things, a healthy disrespect for the conventional way of delivering work, and the flexibility to take on different roles. Most importantly, this team has the courage to fail fast when something isn’t working.

That last point is particularly critical: in traditional IT projects, failure needs to be avoided at all costs as we seek to achieve the nirvana of certainty around time, cost and quality. By contrast, when you’re developing experimental prototypes, a high rate of failure is inevitable. The key is to be able to make the cost of experimentation as low as possible, so that failure doesn’t come at a high price.

This requires such a different approach that it’s a good idea to separate your core IT team from your innovation team, and adopt what is commonly known as a two-speed IT strategy.

In our case, the ngLabs team works on prototypes with emerging technologies – including every type of reality (augmented/virtual/mixed), wearables, nearables, energy management systems, analytics, voice assistants, drones and everything in between – while the main IT team handles the business-critical systems.

Innovation is impossible without core IT

The term “two-speed IT” shouldn’t be taken to mean that the core IT team are slow and inflexible, or that they’re somehow less important than the innovation team. This is far from being the case. The teams have separate responsibilities, and both are vital to the success of a digital utility.

For example, at ngLabs, we’ve started working on prototypes using augmented reality headsets. These technology trials are looking at the feasibility of using head-mounted displays as a tool to provide job/asset information to our field workers.

For the deployment of this type of tool to be effective, we will rely on data from our enterprise asset management system, and that data needs to be captured accurately, managed effectively, and delivered quickly whenever we need it. Without the core IT team’s tireless effort to architect and build central data repositories and robust data capture and integration platforms, it would be impossible to obtain access to the information that these innovative tools rely on to be successful.

It’s also important to recognize that making a prototype is only supposed to be a means to an end. The real goal is to turn that prototype into a full-scale production solution – and that’s where the core IT team comes in. When we’ve shown that a solution is worthwhile, we need the core IT team’s help to make it scalable and reliable, and to integrate it with our existing core systems.

For example, when we’re experimenting with using cameras mounted on drones to conduct inspections of hard-to-reach assets, we know that any solution we build needs to work hand-in-hand with our existing field data capture solutions, such as Affinity Fieldreach from AMT-SYBEX. Collaborating closely with the core IT team and with partners like AMT-SYBEX is critical for long-term success.

Finding a recipe for successful innovation

I am not an expert, and I would never claim that the way we work at ngLabs is the only way to succeed: as far as innovation is concerned, there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat. Nevertheless, I do think that to shake off the dinosaur image and embrace innovation, utilities will need a healthy disrespect for received wisdom and the humility to accept that willingness to innovate requires willingness to fail.

Finally, it’s important to realise that experimental failures aren’t just inevitable, they’re valuable. By trying and failing, you’re mapping out what is possible and practical with the current state of technology, so you have a better idea of where to invest your efforts in the future. And when that map eventually leads you to a crazy idea that does work out, you’re much more likely to be the first to market, and the best placed to take advantage of it.

Richard Wiles, Digital Innovation Manager, National Grid, was a speaker at our recent customer event.