Ideas on tap at Northumbrian Water Group Innovation Festival

Lucinda Reid attended the first Northumbrian Water Group Innovation Festival to find out how they engage young people in STEM

During July, Northumbrian Water Group (NWG) held their first festival at Newcastle Racecourse. The event promised to bring together businesses, universities, schools and members of the public to discuss a range of issues, from flooding to what living and working would look like in 2030. 

When I arrived at the festival I found the festival-goers in tents participating in ‘design sprints’. This concept encourages groups of people to explore business problems and come up with solutions. As the festival took place over a week, this allowed everyone to fully embrace their sprint and not only come up with solutions, but make realistic plans to deploy their ideas. Within only a few hours of attending the festival I could feel the buzz that the sprints had created. By bringing these different groups of people together, innovation was in the air. 

“If you’re going to get people to be innovative, put them in a different environment and break their routine,” explained Nigel Watson, CIO at Northumbrian Water Group. “We’ve had yoga, mindfulness sessions, Indian head massages and juice shots. This is all happening alongside our design sprints.” 

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As Nigel highlights, the NWG Innovation Festival is not an ordinary event. Instead of flooding the attendees with information, the festival created an environment where everyone had the space to innovate – and have fun!  

Alongside the design sprints, Centre for Life hosted a STEM fayre at the festival for local school pupils. Over 200 pupils attended and they participated in various workshops which encouraged learning through experimentation. 

“The STEM fayre is a great way of giving children access to experts and some equipment that you perhaps don’t have in schools,” said Nigel.

“It is really about pushing the boundaries and inspiring pupils,” agreed Alastair Tawn, Senior Manager at Northumbrian Water Group. “If you can give them a taste for something new and do it in a fun way it can really encourage them to try STEM subjects. The Centre for Life did an amazing job and from the feedback I’ve heard, all the pupils loved it.” 

As well as engaging pupils through their STEM fayre, the festival held a workshop entitled ‘The Teenager’s Bedroom of the Future’. This encouraged teenagers to explore the future by engaging them in the world of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality. I visited one of the workshops and heard the pupils present their ideas on what the future would look like. It was clear that they had been inspired by the festival as their ideas were innovative and in some instances, mind-boggling! After the sucesss of this workshop, students across the UK can design their bedroom of the future and enter a special competition via The competition closes 2nd September so encourage your pupils to enter soon! 

Next year, NWG plans to increase the educational content at the festival, so that more schools have the opportunity to attend. I was initially attracted to this festival due to its ambition to create an environment where the education sector and businesses were brought together. 

As I heard the presentations on the last day of the design sprints, I realised that the discussions held during the festival would be incredibly helpful for teachers today.

Consequently, I spoke to Martin Jackson, Lead Enterprise Architect at NWG and involved in the ‘What does the world look like in 2030’ sprint, to find out his advice for schools. 

“I think that more businesses should take a lead from events like this and make time for younger people,” said Martin. “Businesses should listen to schools and find out the uncertainties they face in education. Then they can deliver something that is proactive and will support education bodies, thus providing young people with the opportunities they need.” 

I found myself enthusiastically nodding along to Martin’s simple, yet innovative suggestion. I suppose that’s what happens when people debate the world’s issues after a morning practising yoga. 


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