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Digital Innovation Festival a Huge Success

By Angela MacOscar, Head of Innovation, Northumbrian Water

Northumbrian Water’s Innovation festival took place from the 14th to the 17th of September 2020.

Here, the company’s Head of Innovation Angela MacOscar reflects on the festival and the challenges of switching to an entirely digital event as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s face it, 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone. All of the usual activities that we enjoy attending to get energy and inspiration from, make new connections and build on current partnerships have sadly been cancelled due to COVID-19.

So back in March, while we were busy making initial plans for our summer Innovation Festival 2020, we took the decision to postpone the event to September. Usually held at Newcastle Racecourse, in a Glastonbury meets Tomorrow’s World style event with over 3,000 attendees, we’d hoped it may be possible to go ahead as usual later in the year. However, it quickly became apparent that it was not!

The easy option would have been to cancel the Innovation Festival altogether for 2020 and begin planning for 2021, but given that the need for innovation is even greater now than ever, and that the change brought to all of our lives by COVID-19 could be used as a catalyst to make things happen, we took the brave decision to go digital and hold our first ever, online Innovation Festival.

We had a good look at what others were doing in this space and found a variety of different digital tools that would try to some way replicate all of the elements that people love about our festival – design sprints, inspirational speakers, networking and a little fun. A great team and a very steep learning curve got us to the starting point, but what happened afterwards was really quite remarkable!

The conversion to digital opened doors rather than closing them, and we had nearly 3,000 attendees, from more than 900 organisations across 37 different countries working together during four-action packed days. We even had six of the design sprints working around the clock globally, thanks to teams in Australia, North America and Canada. In total, we had more than 40 different online sprints and workshops, as well as a series of live presentations, celebrity talks, wellbeing sessions and panel events.

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Build Back Better’, with some of the workshops focused on ways in which the world can adapt and recover in response to the virus. The sheer volume of work accomplished across the week was absolutely incredible. It will now lead to solutions to some of the tough environmental and societal challenges we face and has enabled the businesses involved to gain a deeper insight into these challenges. It just goes to show what’s possible when you put the right people in a virtual ‘tent’ with the time to really think about a challenge.

In addition to the amazing ideas generated, the delegates gained new skills and knowledge, new connections and for me, the most satisfying of all was to witness the strength of the bonds of the sprint teams. There was no digital barrier, despite them all working remotely and great camaraderie was evident in the teams, even in their digital ‘tents’.

Overall, our Innovation Festival was a roaring success and the decision to go digital was a very positive one. Now in our fourth year, our festivals can initially be daunting experiences for those who are new to them, but it’s brilliant to see the change in festivalgoers, from unsure and nervous to inspired, confident and ready to seize the opportunity and make a difference.

I’ve fully recharged my batteries through the renewed connection with others and consumption of some super inspiring content. But now comes the really hard bit, turning these seeds of brilliant ideas into business as usual.

The Innovation Festival is just the start of a conversation and we need to ensure that innovation is a verb, a ‘doing thing’.  The festival’s key theme was ‘build back better’ and I am certain that we will do just that.

To find out more about Northumbrian Water’s Innovation Festival visit: www.innovationfestival.org