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Case Study - Thames Water

Customer engagement is a critical component of Thames Water’s multi-year business plans. New digital technologies and better surveying strategies could guarantee more engaged customers and higher-quality services.

City councils and private businesses often rely on the direct input from users of the services they provide. One such company is Thames Water, which serves some 15 million customers across London and the Thames Valley. The utility incorporates feedback from clients in its long-term business planning to make sure the company’s operations meet future customer demands.

Thames Water operates a vast network of pipes and wastewater treatment facilities across the region and is the largest services provider of its kind in the UK. To ensure its multi-year infrastructure plans reflect the needs of homes and businesses across the utility’s service area, the company conducts regular customer surveys. Exactly how that feedback is gathered and processed has a major impact on future planning and the availability of services.

Although eager to improve the accuracy of its current questionnaires, Thames Water was not able to find solutions in the market place that could meet its unique needs. But in Future Cities Catapult, the Government-backed global centre of excellence in urban innovation, Thames Water found a reliable partner to develop a new Customer Engagement Tool. The Catapult was able help Thames Water bridge the gap in expertise needed to create a brand-new approach to customer research, while involving the utility’s existing suppliers in that field to ensure the new concept will be picked up by the market for commercialisation.

More interaction

The collaboration goes back to the ‘London 2036’ interactive installation developed by Future Cities Catapult in 2015. This was designed as part of the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House in London.

The ‘London 2036’ digital tool consisted of a physical control panel that allowed participants to answer a series of quick-fire questions centred around how to manage the challenges of a growing London population. The game is rooted in the social, economic, and environmental consequences of the city’s population growth, forecast to increase by 1.5 million by 2036. Players had to manage some of the challenges of this population expansion, in particular around sustainability in transport, land use, and water resources.

The digital tool used real London city data, allied with underpinning modelling techniques to enable us to derive defensible impact forecasts on a future London based on players’ decisions. It is now housed at Future Cities Catapult’s Urban Innovation Centre in Clerkenwell. The Catapult has created a plan that could see Thames Water adopt a virtual, online version of the installation to give customers a better understanding of how the utility plans investment in services and infrastructure for the next five years.

“We were looking for a new approach to better understanding our customers’ priorities and how we invest in future infrastructure but were unable to find an appropriate response from the market that balanced creativity and robust data science.  Future Cities Catapult offered the mix of skills and capabilities we were looking for and the concept we developed together has given us new ideas and opportunities to explore,” says Phil Bailey of Thames Water.

Educational aspect

“The educational aspect of this concept is really powerful,” says Tom Leaver, a project manager at Future Cities Catapult. “By increasing the understanding of the often complicated trade-offs part of running a utility like Thames Water, customers can provide more informed feedback about their priorities.” Traditional surveys may reveal that customers believe household floodings from sewers are unacceptable, for example. But if they would find out that less than 1 per cent of properties are affected – they might choose to spend the budget on improving river water quality instead, Leaver explains.

To create the concept, Future Cities Catapult worked with a multidisciplinary team at Thames Water and UK SME’s EFTEC and ICS consulting. Thames Water customers can expect to see the first changes to surveys they participate by 2018.

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