I arrived at Proto, the emerging tech centre in Gateshead, at an eager 5.12pm, signed my name on a sheet left at reception and wondered if it would be just me and the only other name on this list greeting the evening’s host and speakers. I’d never been to a Salon event before, but felt relief when the room filled to capacity as the after-work nine-to-fivers arrived around the 5.25pm mark. They even had to move around chairs to squeeze us all in.
The event – focused on real-world applications of innovative technologies – drew in a thirty-something crowd, mostly male. From my experience, evenings focused around emerging technologies have younger turnouts, but perhaps having a speaker from Northumbrian Water – whose take on innovation was sure to be ironically dry – was off-putting.
But this assumption couldn’t have been more wrong. Technology aside, the inner workings of Northumbrian Water was surprisingly intriguing. As a northerner and therefore a customer of theirs, I was pleased to hear that staff turnover is a mere 4 per cent. Even at this low rate, and an ageing workforce, a big focus point for Nigel Watson, Chief Information Officer and the water company’s representative for the night, was to develop innovative technology to improve employee experience.
This human-centric approach was mirrored throughout Nigel’s talk, where he discussed the ways the company reached digital transformation goals. Completely uprooting and replacing their entire billing system wasn’t the only challenge they have faced – climate change is by far the most taxing.
The vast and dynamic difference between customers using excessive water in the summer to pipes freezing in the winter was proving a challenge year after year. That’s why my water provider has launched its own innovation festival, now in its third year hoping to harness the creativity of attendees and attract fresh minds for problem-solving design hacks.
Although Shaun Allan, chief of XR at Hedgehog Lab, was impressive in the context of the evening, l couldn’t help but to be fascinated by Northumbrian Water’s efforts to continuously innovate.
I know what you’re thinking – what on earth is XR? Shaun kindly explained when prompted by host Robin Knowles. I work in with tech and telecommunications companies on a daily basis, but it seems a gap in my knowledge is that of immersive tech.
XR, though often referred to as ‘extended reality’, whereby people are brought together on a virtual location, despite geographical differences. However, it turns out according to Shaun, Hedgehog, and much of the emerging tech scene by the sounds of it, that it is ‘anything reality’ – like N in maths.
With a background in game design, Shaun began dabbling in VR when colleague (at the time) asked him to build a training portal in Second Life, the popular alternate reality world. From there, he was hooked – and co-founded Vector76.
Vector76? The Vector part is… something techy. And 1976 is the year punk started – because most people think it’s ‘77. But, it’s not. (Apparently!)
Both speakers, though at seemingly opposite ends of the tech spectrum, echoed in agreement when audience members enquired where they stand with tech for good, tech for money or tech for tech’s sake. Tech for good prevailed.
Serious questions flew in from the audience, touching based on everything from getting prospects to value VR training to whether or not the ‘gimmicky’ stuff was over, and businesses could get real about innovative applications of emerging technology.
Each handled and answered with a smile from the guests and our host, the atmosphere buzzed as the end approached. A group of developers sat at the front of the group were equally as eager to grab Shaun and bend his ear as they were when choosing their seats. I mean, I was sat with them, admittedly just as keen.
There was some other interesting touch points – like the practicality and uses of post-it notes. Funnily enough, it seems that they’re invaluable even to tech enthusiasts.
After entering with no idea of what to expect, especially with such contrasting speakers, I left enlightened and impressed by both. I would definitely recommend future Digital Leader North East Salon events, which, cover a wide range of topics and really cater to everyone!
Tasmin Lockwood works for Radial Path