Consulting consumers on sustainable water source management for United Utilities

United Utilities involved consumers in shaping its strategy to achieve sustainable management of water through a pop-up community approach.

Man with grey hair and beard, wearing glasses and yellow shirt drinking water
Man with grey hair and beard, wearing glasses and yellow shirt drinking water

How it started

Population growth and climate change present huge challenges for the long-term supply of clean water to homes, and the treatment of waste water. Meeting these challenges head-on, the UK water services company, United Utilities has set out a strategy to achieve sustainable management of water for the North West for the next 25 years.

With millions of pounds of investment, and the future of the region’s water supply at stake, determining the best course of action requires a considerable amount of planning, consultation and modelling. These decisions impact the region’s ability to successfully maintain a vital service against the impacts of climate change and population growth. It is key for customers to have a say in this major investment in order to be legitimate.

The North West is a diverse region, from the urban centres of Manchester and Liverpool, to rural Cheshire and the Lake District. Representation and understanding how views differ across the region was integral to the brief.


How we inspired change

We set up a pop-up community to bring a broad spectrum of households together in one place. There were some 180 UK participants, including vulnerable and disadvantages customer groups, bill payers of the future, and business customers. The goal of the community was to take customers on a journey. We wanted to truly immerse them in United Utilities’ long-term challenges and the impact of each initiative, to provide the depth of understanding needed to inform business planning. To break down the complex subject matter, we created a themed, co-branded space with visually engaging research materials, background videos and animations, to help participants understand (and engage with) the content.

Of course, the community platform is just a hygiene factor in this story. The hero is how the consumer voice was intagrated in the business using qual-at-scale, with a combination of research activities including discussion forums, mini-surveys, video groups and depths that combined to deliver detail-rich and real-time nuanced insights. The activities gradually exposed community members to United Utilities’ initiatives, building their understanding over time. The three-week project culminated in a survey with a final verdict on which solutions should be prioritized.


United Utilities community


How it lives on

The findings of our pop-up community and qual-at-scale approach provided a clear sense of the weight of support and opposition for each initiative, with incredibly rich detail and coverage, and outputs with frameworks for understanding how customers view initiatives that are being widely shared and used across the business.

Building customers’ understanding of the initiatives was central to the findings’ credibility. Our use of professionally-designed background materials and the creative approach to task intros and stimulus were vital in providing a truly informed view, for what is traditionally seen as a low-interest subject.

The impact has been significant:

  1. United Utilities is now developing a multi-million-pound critical national infrastructure plan, armed with an unprecedented understanding of public views on how best to adapt our shared water and wastewater infrastructure;
  2. The research is a key input into engagements with government, regulators, industry, and environmental and public bodies;
  3. The research has had a business-wide impact, providing insight into customers’ core priorities when United Utilities tackles new investment choices across a wide range of service areas;
  4. The research has changed the way the business prioritises investments, with more importance being placed on solving root-cause issues, and customer/partner collaboration;
  5. The insight team has demonstrated business-wide how to engage customers in challenging, technical subjects, capture informed opinions, and see how perceptions evolve with understanding;
  6. Customers now have a sense of the sheer scale of the challenge United Utilities is facing, and equally, United Utilities has confidence in its understanding of customers’ preferences in this complex area.

“We knew talking to customers about our long-term planning was always going to be a challenge. But the engagement and insights gathered are beyond expectations. The research has given us incredibly rich insight into customers’ thought processes and what they’re willing to trade off and will continue to impact long-term strategic issues across the business.”

Sarah Jenner
Head of Catchment Planning Conservation and Partnerships, United Utilities

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