Utilities must adopt ‘culture of innovation’, says Oxford professor

Utilities should adopt the same attitude towards innovation and engineering seen in the space and aerospace sectors to address new challenges, according to an Oxford academic.

Professor of engineering science at Oxford University, Tom Povey, told Utility Week that one way of doing this could be to bring in people from other industries such as aerospace.

“It’s not do with specific ideas that might be transferred. I think it’s more to do with the mindset,” he said, adding that innovation is the aerospace sector’s “bread and butter” and engineers come up with “wacky ideas” that don’t come to fruition until “10 years down the line”.

But, he said the same is not true for the utilities sector. “It’s not to do with the fact there isn’t scope for innovation,” he added. “I think it’s the fact that there isn’t a culture of innovation in those industries.”

Povey founded engineering company Oxford Flow after coming up with a new type of pressure regulator for fluids whilst conducting research into turbines and jet engines.

He said his company avoided hiring people with a background in utilities because of the mental “baggage” they brought with them: “We’re deliberately not recruiting people with experience in utilities even though that’s the sector we’re most interested in.”

One problem, he said, was a lack of investment in technology development because “there are working products in most fields that satisfy most demands”.

“I don’t think people have challenged themselves enough to come up with better or improved solutions,” he said.

The utilities sector was once at the forefront of innovation “in the glory days of engineering” during the Victorian era, Povey said.

Read Utility Week’s feature on what utilities can learn from space and aerospace here

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