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Big problems rarely have single solutions

Last week, I attended the second annual MRS utilities conference. For me, three things jumped out. All relate back to one central theme – that big problems rarely have single solutions.

  1. We need behavioural thinking AND demand management to reduce consumption

We need to reduce how much water and energy we use. Or we’ll have to increase supply.

Behavioural theory may have at least some of the answers. South East Water introduced a new report that compared customers’ water use to their neighbours. This ‘social norm’ effect led to customers using 3% less water. And Catapult are trialling a new service that sells heating as “warm hours”. This frames heating around outcomes, with the aim of reducing reliance on high-carbon sources.

But nudging won’t be enough. Companies will need to manage people’s consumption. There’s been an exponential rise in electric vehicles in the UK; from 2,500 plug-in/hybrid vehicles in the UK five years ago to around 200,000 now. In the future, the national grid won’t be able to cope, especially if we all charge our cars at the same time of day. The grid will quite literally trip. It’s early days but EA Technologies are working on some clever demand management software to mitigate this risk.

  1. Creative customer communities can engage the unengaged

Engaging customers is a challenge in utilities. To address this, most of the water and energy companies speaking were using customer communities, panels or summits.

These use qualitative, quantitative, ethnographic and co-creative methods to great effect. We saw brilliant examples offline (e.g. innovation festivals from Northumbrian Water) and online (e.g. Anglian Water’s Love Every Drop community).

Whether it’s energy or water, they’re a great tool for bringing customers into low-engagement businesses. I’ve seen the power of this myself at Legal & General.

  1. Bringing together different strands of insight has greater impact

This is something I wholeheartedly agree with and much of my work is doing exactly this. We saw some great examples of it:

  • SSE used five different types of feedback to understand its customers’ pain points when they moved home. Then they set about addressing them. They reduced call length, upskilled webchat teams and simplified the journey wherever possible. This was about “getting the basics right rather than trying to delight customers”.
  • Anglian Water has 38 different sources it consolidates into a ‘synthesis report’ to get a rounded view of its business through the eyes of its customers.
  • And vulnerable customers are best identified when health, energy, housing, water and benefits data are all combined. But none of these areas talk to each other. This means some vulnerable assistance may be going to the wrong people. Or worse, the people who need assistance aren’t getting it.

If I was to take away one big lesson, it’s that we need to think more creatively about big problems. Single approaches are limited in their impact. Whether it’s reducing the amount of water people use, or getting businesses to act on customer feedback, we need to come at problems from different angles to really make a difference.


Main picture of slide (c) Trinity McQueen/SSE

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