Home / Updates / In conversation with Alan Lowdon, Chair of the North East LEP Innovation Board

In conversation with Alan Lowdon, Chair of the North East LEP Innovation Board

I am writing this blog at 35,000 feet en route from one of my favourite places in the world – Gibraltar. Why is that relevant you may ask?

My network there was established during my role as Director of the Northumbrian Lyonnaise Technology & Research Centre (NLTRC) – a key cog in the Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux international water company that once owned the Northumbrian Water Group.

NLTRC and fellow Northumbrian Water Group company, Fastflow Pipeline Services helped the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar renew the vast majority of its potable water and saline (for street cleaning and toilet flushing) network infrastructure through technology transfer and innovation. This was achieved principally from the gas sector (plastic pipes and trenchless excavation, so essential given the tight streets and density of housing).

Today, the core Gibraltar community of 32,000 and its visiting tourists enjoy the benefits of a good quality water supply and excellent water pressure; something they’ll continue to enjoy for many years to come. I am very proud of the North East’s role in Gibraltar’s sustainability and water resource management. Gibraltar loves the North East for its involvement; we are innovation partners.

To resolve the challenges posed by the project in Gibraltar required ‘early adopters’; persons willing to take a calculated risk in order to reap the benefits of new technology and working practices that would alleviate ever-increasing problems. Specifically, the UK Dependency required swift action to eradicate its mounting issues around water pressure and increasing seasonal demand.

Gibraltar is a destination that thrives on innovation – seeking to solve problems quickly and cost effectively. The key ingredients of leadership, vision and internal entrepreneurship (intrapreneurship) were to be found in abundance in the then Lyonnaise des Eaux Gibraltar senior management team (now renamed AquaGib, and still within the Northumbrian Water Group).

Manuel Perez, the then MD, and Derek Cano, the then Operations Director (and current outgoing MD), were the ‘innovation nodes’ who – in the eyes of the board – legitimised the embracement and adoption of the ‘new’ technology and working practices from the gas industry.

This allowed the company to become a prominent voice and a heralded, international ‘case study’ within the Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux global group. The ‘Gibraltar Water Company’ punched well above its weight, and rightly so!

‘dot joiners’

In an innovation context, Manuel, Derek and their teams of advocates were the essential ‘dot joiners’ linking ‘what’s possible with what’s required’; to coin a phrase by Professor Roy Sandbach, former Chair of the North East LEP Innovation Board.

The dots were further joined in Gibraltar when I spotted an opportunity to help AquaGib in the summer of 2015.

With the MOD passing more and more pipeline infrastructure to the utility, the company needed to understand the impact on the operation of its water supply system.

Step forward Chris Elliot, Geography undergraduate at Durham University and long-standing personal contact, for a 10-week summer internship to extend the computer-based water network models to simulate the flows and pressures in the system with the arrival of the new pipelines. This proved to be hugely valuable to the company and illustrates the importance of personal contacts in the innovation – ‘matching what’s possible with what’s required’ – process.

Having spent a fantastic three days in Gibralter with Derek, I am heartened by the country’s economic growth, the establishment of the University of Gibraltar and the rise of a start-up culture based on its burgeoning gaming, fintech and analytics sectors. There is a real desire to drive forward post-Brexit, something we can all take inspiration from.

Finally, on a personal note, I am particularly proud of the role North East England has played in creating the key infrastructure in Gibraltar. It has allowed the pressure to build, be well managed, and gives today’s opportunities to ability to flow. Water is very much the source of life.

By Alan Lowdon, Chair, North East LEP Innovation Board