DEWA: Innovation in Action

Dubai Electricity and Water Authority has put innovation at the centre of its operations

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DEWA: Innovation in Action Engineer Marwan Bin Haidar, Executive Vice President, DEWA, and head of the Innovation and the Future team. (ITP Images)
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By  Mark Sutton Published  September 12, 2017

Utility companies may not be the most obvious champions of innovation, with most of their attention focused on the engineering challenges of power generation and transmission, but for Dubai Electricity & Water Authority, innovation has long been a part of the organisation’s strategic objectives. With the formation of its Innovation and the Future team last year, in support of many other established innovation programs, DEWA has one of the widest programs for innovation of any public sector organisation, to help it to achieve its vision of becoming a sustainable and innovative world-class utility.

Leading the Innovation and the Future team is Engineer Marwan Bin Haidar, Executive Vice President. Previously DEWA’s CIO, Bin Haidar now heads innovation efforts along with a number of other teams including customer experience, 10X, smart government, and Dubai Future Foundation Team.

The aim for DEWA is to put innovation and excellence at the heart of everything it does, Bin Haidar explained, to enable a step-by-step transformation of the organisation and prepare it to face all challenges in future.

“For DEWA to be an innovative and sustainable world class utility, we have to challenge ourselves, every time,” he said. “It is all about disruption, how we will be future-proof, and how we will exist in ten years’ time. [Innovation] is embedded in whatever we do.”

Since the 1990s, DEWA has focused on organisational performance and achievement, adopting the balanced scorecard (BSC) and following the principles to become a Strategy Focused Organisation (SFO). The attention to a balanced strategy managed by KPIs and internal SLAs, to govern all aspects of the organisation helped DEWA to develop a highly-focused strategic approach, and it’s the first organisation in the Middle East and North Africa to achieve the Hall of Fame of the BSC (Balanced Score Card).

The organisation continued to align around strategic improvement in many areas. When the UAE launched its first nationwide Innovation Week, taking place in 2015, DEWA embraced the event, holding its own week-long program of events focused on innovation, which helped to launch its latest strategic direction and goals.

DEWA is aiming not just to achieve a lead in innovation and advances in technology, but to achieve exponential growth in this progress. Last year DEWA ran an ‘exponential sprint’ exercise in collaboration with the international EXO Works company, and with participation from each division of DEWA, which aimed to open up horizons for growth and to challenge these units to ‘disrupt’ DEWA.

This exercise ensured that when Dubai announced the new 10X plan earlier this year, for all government departments to aim to be ten years ahead of government innovation, DEWA had a head start, Bin Haidar said: “When 10X came we were ready. We have the core team, initially from the Innovation team and the R&D team, we are the ones who should facilitate 10X. The members come from across DEWA core business, and we want each business unit in DEWA to challenge itself.”

DEWA’s 10X proposals have been submitted to the main committee, he added, and the organisation is looking forward to find out how its ideas have been received.

The dedication to innovation in DEWA runs across both internal and external initiatives. Since 2015, DEWA staff submitted more than 11,000 ideas through Afkari, a centralised ideas portal. Built on Hype software, employees are able to submit their own ideas to Afkari, and to vote and comment on other employees' ideas and to collaborate and share best practices. Around 400 ideas were implemented across functions including technology, customer service and staff performance, and the platform also acts as a repository of innovation. DEWA will also launch an idea crowdsourcing platform ‘Ebtikari’, which will enable idea sharing with partners as well as staff.

The innovation team and other programs like 10X have membership that is drawn from across departments, and DEWA is supporting different departments to create pilot projects in their own specific areas of operations.

Another important aspect of fostering innovation is including young DEWA employees in the innovation teams and projects, to bring their new ideas and develop the next generation of innovators. Deployment of new technologies is also supported through research agreements and MoUs with local and global universities.

For incubating ideas with external partners, DEWA has been heavily involved in the Dubai Future Accelerators, and it is running nine pilot projects with startups, in addition to its own R&D projects. Along with seven other utility companies, DEWA participated in Free Electrons, a global energy accelerator designed to foster startups in the utilities field. DEWA also partnered with incubator 1776 to create the Future Utility Cup, a competition for energy startups that also looked to develop the next generation of ideas for the sector.

“In all of those competitions we have similar challenges - how a company or startup can come and help us to transform our core business using these disruptive technologies. The technology is not the destination for us, they are the means. We don’t just bring blockchain for the sake of saying we have blockchain, it is for customer happiness or customer experience, productivity improvement, efficiency, or creating new value-added services. The Future Cup is all about how we can create exponential growth in our core business,” Bin Haidar said.

“We bring in startups, and the guys working with them, are the internal business teams. We match the internal teams with external startups in order to spark the innovation.”

All this attention to innovation was recognised at the 20th Dubai Government Excellence Program (DGEP) Awards in 2017, where DEWA won several awards, including an award for Best Entity in the Field of Innovation, in recognition of a number of key projects and how DEWA’s efforts to be a global pioneer contribute to making Dubai a world leader.

In terms of the new technologies that DEWA is working with, Bin Haidar said that almost all-disruptive technology is being considered although DEWA is further ahead in certain areas. DEWA has projects in many areas, including drones, 3D printing, robotics, big data, AI, IoT and more.

At the start of the year DEWA launched its first AI project, the Rammas virtual assistant. Created in partnership with Microsoft, Rammas is an AI chatbot that supports customers on the DEWA website, mobile app, Facebook pages and through Amazon Alexa smart speaker/home device. So far over 270,000 enquiries have been addressed through Rammas.

For the project, DEWA worked with Microsoft to learn the AI platform, and then worked in house to expand its capabilities through adding more data such as the customer relation’s guide, into the AI engine, and by monitoring the accuracy and refining the service. Although Rammas started with customer service, DEWA has an extensive roadmap for the technology, and plans to expand it to other roles, including internal knowledge management and decision making support.

DEWA has pioneered the use of drones –Sirb Initiative- for over three years now, and the company’s squadron now numbers 16 industrial drones, which are in use in a variety of deployments, including inspections, surveying, water sampling and more. Robotics has also seen initial research during Innovation Week and in future may be used for customer-related services.

In smart grids and smart metering, DEWA has made considerable investments, and its roll out of smart meters to Dubai has passed 200,000 meters to date. Deployment is on-going, with around 1.2m meters expected to be deployed to cover all of DEWA’s customer base.

3D printing is another big area of investment for DEWA, including a 3D printed drone research lab at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. 3D printing technology has a number of possible uses for DEWA, Bin Haidar said, including printing replacement and spare parts for maintenance.

DEWA is finalising the design stage for its first blockchain project, which has been developed with Smart Dubai Government to create a quick win project. Bin Haidar said that the aim, as ever, is to investigate the potential of the technology and try it out without impacting the customers to ensure that they have the right technology serving the right objective.

Another area where DEWA is ahead of adoption is in delivering customer happiness. DEWA has a long commitment to providing mobile services, and some of the projects recognised by the DGEP innovation award focused on customer service. DEWA had already created its own happiness meter ahead of the Smart Dubai happiness meter, and it has embraced the new Happiness Agenda, appointing two internal Happiness Champions, as well as a Federal-level Chief Happiness Officer.

Across all of the projects, Bin Haidar pointed out that DEWA takes care to ensure that they are not just implementing technology for its own sake, and that they remain focused on the strategic objectives of the organisation. Last year DEWA created an innovation strategy, which set clear objectives for innovation, he explained, and then set out specific tracks for development and identified which technologies could be enablers of each track. The high-level themes for development include core areas such as addressing stakeholder Happiness, or how DEWA can ensure an abundant supply of energy, and then technologies such as IoT or analytics are related to each area.

“We wanted to make sure that we look at the whole spectrum, we don’t focus on one area and then neglect another, because that might be the technology that takes people to the next level.”

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