Head of Innovation
Head of Innovation
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SS: Hello and welcome to a podcast by Lorn and ONS our focus is on energy technology. My name is Silvija Seres and my guest today is Ragnhild Ulvik the vice president for corporate innovation from Equinor. Welcome
RU: Thank you
SS: Ragnhild you have a huge responsibility in a huge company, very resourceful but also very demanding given the size of the ship you need to redirect. We’ll talk about innovation in big companies and we’ll talk about new kinds of energy technology but before we do that I was hoping to ask you a little bit about yourself, who you are and what drives you?
RU: My name is Ragnhild I’m from Bergen but currently I live in Oslo with my French husband and my two twin girls and a one year old. My passions I would say are traveling and sports and then of course energy technology and I think I got into this area or this business mainly because of the international aspect that was what attracted me but then I am a bit of a technology geek you can say and I realized fast that technology has a huge potential for our industry and to shape how we provide energy.
SS: Your background is techie or?
RU: No it kind of actually is my background but I try to hide as much as I can because in this industry there is so many fascinating opportunities on the technology side so I’ve worked a lot with technology after I graduated and joined the Norges at the time and now Equinor so I spend my focus or the interface between sort of the commercial part and the technology part
SS: So how does one do corporate innovation in Equinor?
RU: I think corporate innovation was established just one and a half years ago and that doesn’t mean that innovation is new because we’ve done a lot of innovation particularly on the technology side but then what we try to do now is to look even wider, think about business models as well as technology and also the way that we collaborate with others drawing up on the great “” internally and also that exists outside our company with startups or with new types of partners that we don’t collaborate with today and I think it’s just fascinating how much enthusiasm and how many ideas are out there if we just manage to pick some of them and act upon them and that what we try to do.
SS: So how do you manage to scale these small risky things in a company that has such an established and commercially successful business model to start with?
RU: That is the challenge and that’s why we try to start up some pockets to actually experiment with ideas and we have piloted many ideas and recently we had a competition internally where we invited everyone to come up with business model ideas and we had 60 ideas that were mature and multi disciplined teams and 6 of them were awarded 1 million to go ahead and sort of be incubator or take them to the next step.
SS: These are ideas by your own people?
RU: Those were internal ideas.
SS: Could you give us some examples?
RU: So that was a wide range of ideas and different maturity level as well, there was one idea to share where you sort of establish a platform for offshore equipment a bit like the AirBnB way but for industry for smaller types of equipment that we use on the platforms but that then we could use them more efficiently across the different platforms that we have and there was one idea on fish farming how we could connect to the aquaculture industry and sort of use our existing infrastructure but at the same time do fish farming in a sustainable way in the future. Those are just some examples. You know the potential I think is huge but it’s difficult in a big company to get the time and funding to work on these ideas unless you really prioritize it.
SS: And maybe give some incentives to people as well…to take risks.
RU: Exactly that as well.
SS: I interviewed a young man from Australia recently who works on actually transferring some of the best technologies and ideas from the offshore sector in oil, where we really are world leading, into things like fisheries and energy and aquafarming and many other things and I thought it was a brilliant idea.
RU: We actually have projects on things like floating cities where we could also use American competence and also you know our ambition to pride energy it fits very well and we also now have a collaboration with students where they are working with us to see how we can make use of our platforms when there is no more oil to produce. If there is any innovative way we can sort of use that for something in the future and that’s quite engaging to work with the students because they don’t have the sort of limitations that we have when we work in this industry for a long time because then we maybe don’t see the potential in your ideas but they are super creative and quite excited. In a few weeks they will present what they come up with after working for some weeks on this.
SS: I think it’s really important in various established companies to actually allow people to do new stuff and to show that they have just as much creative of a muscle as people who are in entrepreneurial settings and if you provide them with the right scale up tools and the right sandboxing or whatever you actually might have the most innovative company in Norway to work with or maybe even internationally. What do you think about Norwegian advantages in this new energy-tech space?
RU: I think that what Norway really has as an advantage is our sort of collaborative culture because I think that there is not one company or one individual that will find the solutions for tomorrow. We see more and more that we do things in consulture or in collaboration with others and I think that being open to that I mean sharing and collaborating will sort of help the whole Norwegian ecosystem to have an important role in shaping the future as well in our industry.
SS: I have asked you why you think what you do is exciting. I mean apart from the obvious. You also say that you like to solve big challenges not only for your company but also for society and I have to play the female card now because my impression is that more and more women are actually studying technology and getting into very commercial new business modeling around the technology exactly because they see that social change is necessary and can only be provided when you combine technology and business. You say you have a business background, you also obviously have a social gene, how important is that to you and how do you connect what you do to social challenges and opportunities perhaps?
RU: I think that obviously being an economist I do see the business side of things but it just gives everything a purpose to be part of solving the bigger challenges that our society is facing at the same time and I actually think that’s where the money will be for the companies as well.
SS: And the talent attraction as well I think.
RU: Yeah you know just by looking at the fantastic people that work with these challenges, the opportunities it gives and its quite rewarding I think to feel that you are a part of actually shaping the future and solving some big issues so I find that quite inspiring.
SS: You are kind of knee deep in one of these big controversies around carbon based fuel versus all the sustainability goals related to climate and so on yet the world needs energy and we know how to provide a certain kind of energy in a very relatively sustainable way. How do you balance doing new stuff versus doing stuff that is oil and gas related?
RU: Well we try to do a bit of both but our focus is to provide energy in sustainable ways and I think we do need to continue with oil and gas to make that happen. I think actually Norway we are quite good at providing energy sustainably and we try in my unit to think a bit further ahead than what we do today so focusing on a sort of more radical and disruptive things but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be completely changing the way we also do oil and gas. So we are currently discussing the balance between sort of exploiting our current business and exploring for the future and if we don’t manage to generate profits and have good business today we don’t have the funding or have the company that can solve the solutions in the future.
SS: I think we have to kind of work with both hands; one hand improving the current business model and efficiencies and the other one finding alternatives that eventually become both price competitive and socially necessary. You mentioned a couple of really interesting examples from Equinor; there is a floating wind turbine high wind project and you do this connected energy systems as well, could you say a few words about these technologies and the energy systems in evolution?
RU: I think the high wind example was one that I find fascinating because it started out just a small pilot offshore Norway that was very expensive and it was difficult to see the potential of it.
SS: It’s a floating wind turbine farm.
RU: So the first was one turbine but now we see we’ve sort of improved the concept and lowered the cost and we have the first offshore wind farm with several of these wind turbines in Scotland and we see the potential in several applications internationally as well.
SS: Is this innovative internationally?
RU: Well it’s the first ever floating wind turbine that has been matured and is now viable as a solution that you can scale up.
SS: So just so I understand, offshore wind farms were still something that was rigged to the sea bed?
SS: And this is not? This is somehow floating and the thing doesn’t blow away?
RU: I mean I cannot answer the detail and technical questions of it but you can, it started out with some engineers discussing. I think they saw one of these poles that connect a boat and they thought what if we put a windmill on top of that and what if we made it bigger and you know and then started in sort of a bathtub experimenting and it was pro assisting technology in a way which is applied in a new and innovative way you can foresee in the future that you can have great potential with wind farms or providing energy with that.
SS: So are there new problems? I’m just trying to think this is a very nice way to move these floating farms and so on but every technology solves a problem and creates new ones. How do you go about thinking about all the new challenges these things introduce?
RU: Well I think we look I guess more to the opportunities we can give because imagine if we had several people discussing how can you use those floating wind turbines to create power offshore far away from where you could fix something to the seabed and so on? So it’s more opportunity driven in that sense and just allowing yourself to experiment with that because when this started it was something that seem very far fetched and there were a lot of problems. I think we always easily see the difficult things.
SS: Exactly the answer I was looking for because I think very often we are so bogged down in all the things that are difficult and unknown and most of them never materialize and I think we need to solve these problems as they turn up it’s just we need to be quick at solving them and we need to understand because new opportunities turn up as well without us being able to predict them always. I was fascinated, so you mentioned controversies, things related to artificial intelligence and human enhancement, we are going to maybe become energy producers ourselves for all we know but I think we shouldn’t stop doing all kinds of new medicine because we still don’t know exactly how it will play out but we have to learn fast and I guess that is what you are trying to instill in your organization.
RU: Yeah. And of course it’s not everyone who should focus on the sort of radical in you but we are far from over focusing on that and I think we can sort of, I’ve seen many creative minds being sort of awakened by just allowing people to play a bit and experiment. I don’t think it's the lack of ideas, it's more our ability to pick up the ideas and act on them, that’s the challenge.
SS: We talked a little bit about Norwegian advantage but I also want to ask you about the international advantage of Equinor. You have people from Brazil and you have people from Houston and you have people from all over the world, are you able to get their different perspectives into something magical?
RU: Well we are trying to capitalize on the fact that we have people on the ground in many different places and also that we have a big diversity in our organization. I guess even people in Norway or teams in Norway have good diversity. I realized after we had our internal innovative competition that a lot of the ideas came from the people sitting outside of Norway. They were much more sort of creative or had a different culture, especially from the US obviously of pitching and selling ideas and that is something that we can learn from our colleagues there but also just having a global presence makes you pick up signals from different parts of the world in a different way, which is very useful.
SS: I asked you where do you go to read and learn and you said that you are a fan of engaging with people and I like that so much because I think, first of all if people knew how much fun I have doing these podcasts, everybody will try to get this job from me. We often feel that we need to talk about what we need to talk about in order to get to the core of the meeting and get on with it and move you know and it’s the agenda and don’t swerve from that... but I think actually allowing ourselves both process and time to inspire each other and really curiously try to dig on the other side on what can you teach me?; is probably the oldest and the most attractive way to learn.
RU: I fully agree.
SS: You somehow manage to create some space for that at work?
RU: Yeah we have various initiatives. We have projects together with students where we invite them to come up with solutions to some sort of established problems or challenges to get some new perspectives. We have something called innovation waffle or this event where you just gather people because when they meet the ideas can be picked up by one person and built on by the next. We have the same sort of online forum where we share and shape ideas and then recently we had an external accelerator where we invited ten startups to sit in our offices and actually to work their ideas for three months by being physically located together with us in a way and that creates a lot of situations just by the coffee machine or when they work you learn so much from them than any article that you could read or a book that you could read.
SS: Energy gets created in meetings between real people. Would you like to leave a quote as a little gift to our listeners?
RU: Well I think something that to me at least shapes how we need to work for the future is an African proverb that says if you want to be fast go alone, if you want to go far then go together and that at least shapes my philosophy on how we can do something big both for Equinor and for our society. It has to be in collaboration with others and that is of great importance.
SS: If people are to remember one thing from our conversation what would you like it to be?
RU: I think just engage with people around you and be curious because it’s in those meetings in multidisciplinary or diverse team that things get created and I would just encourage all the listeners to think about how they can act on the ideas that they see.
SS: Very inspiring Ragnhild Ulvik from Equinor. Thank you for coming here and sharing with us your innovation perspectives both on traditional business and all the new fun stuff you guys are doing.
RU: Thank you.
SS: Thank you for listening.
Who are you and how did you become interested in energy technology?
I grew up in Bergen, now living in Oslo with my French husband and one-year old twin daughters. My passions are traveling and sports. And of course, energy technology! I think what made me choose the energy industry in the first place was my appetite for the international aspect: meeting new people, getting to know new cultures and speak different languages, to name a few. But as a technology geek – I always need to have the latest gadgets - I was quickly fascinated by all the opportunities technology offers to solve the massive challenges we face as a society. I feel I am on a mission to help solve the world’s energy needs for the future.
What are you doing at work?
I am head of innovation at Equinor. Together with employees across the company and people in our external ecosystem I work to explore how to solve the world’s energy needs for the future. We pilot and incubate new ideas from our own employees and we work with start-ups and partners to learn and implement technology and develop new business models that help our business evolve.
What are the most important concepts in energy technology?
Currently everything within digitalisation is opening a range of new opportunities. We have for example looked a lot into blockchain and what that could mean for the energy business in partnership with other companies. What is exciting, is that we have now come to a level where we are actually developing concrete projects.
I also think that the ocean space offers promising opportunities for a company like Equinor and for Norway as a country. Just imagine what we could do with the collective competence that the different players in the “Norwegian ecosystem” have built for decades. Right now we are engaging with a group of students to develop ideas about how we might find new, alternative uses for oil platforms when the fields they serve end oil production.
Why is it exciting?
I get to contribute to solve big challenges not only for my company but for society. And we do it working with truly inspiring people who are passionate about what they do. That energises me.
What do you think are the most interesting controversies?
Personally, I think it is both interesting and scary to think about how far technology can take us and where we should draw the limit. As digital technologies develop we face ethical dilemmas that we have not foreseen. And technology seems to develop faster than our ability to understand how it influences our society. I have debated a lot with my husband, who is an IT consultant, to what extent we should allow our bodies to be enhanced by technology. What if we could connect ourselves to memory chips to boost our cognitive processes? That would give vastly increased intelligence. But what would that do to the concept of humanity? And would it be only the ones with money that could enhance themselves?
Your own favourite projects in energy technology?
We just finished an in-house incubation program where more than 60 different business model ideas were matured. The cool thing about the program was that we got to collect ideas from Brazil to the US to the UK and to Norway. The teams pitched their idea and competed against each other to win the challenge. There were so many ambitious teams and great ideas and I loved seeing how they not only competed, but collaborated across disciplines and nationalities. I can assure you - that was truly exciting! Six ideas were chosen to get funding to be incubated. Hopefully we can show concrete results from some of them in not too long.
Your other favourite examples of energy technology internationally and nationally?
From Equinor I find the floating wind turbine Hywind a quite fascinating example. A few years ago, floating offshore wind was a distant dream symbolised by a small-scale Hywind turbine offshore Norway. Today, it is the most viable and mature solution with Hywind Scotland being the world’s first floating wind farm. And what I find really cool is the way this is done by combining existing offshore competence with new and available technologies and innovative minds.
Another interesting example is from a power company where I am a board member, Gudbrandsdal Energi. They have employed their first drone pilot and experiment using drones to inspect power cables. Operating kilometres of power cables, you can imagine what that does with the efficiency of the inspections!
How do you usually explain energy technology?
To me energy technology is about providing energy to people in an efficient and sustainable way. I do however feel that the scope included in energy technology is becoming wider. While traditionally relating to very hard-core oil and gas technologies, i.e. how can we produce the maximum amount most efficiently, the shift towards electrification and renewable energy is opening up a much wider space to explore.
What do we do particularly well in Norway?
Norway has a fantastic ecosystem and competence base when it comes to providing energy in sustainable ways. One of the unique things I think makes Norway particularly well positioned also for the future is our collaborative culture. Collaborating in new ways will be of essence to solve the challenges the world is facing such as climate change and population growth.
Recommended reading / viewing on energy technology?
I had great pleasure listening to your podcasts Silvija when I was on maternity leave recently and walking for hours with my daughters in their buggy! Apart from that, personally I am more fan of engaging with people than reading. We currently collaborate a lot with students and it is very fascinating to hear their perspectives. That shows me that even if I feel young it is a long time since I graduated, and I think we really need to listen to the young generation.
A favorite energy technology quote?
It is not a quote just for energy technology – but there is an African proverb that I think applies to how we need to approach the challenges of tomorrow: “If you want to go fast – go alone. But if you want to go far – go together.” To me the power of collaboration cannot be underestimated when exploring for the future.
Most important takeaway from our conversation?
Diverse and multi-disciplinary teams with great competence and passion can create great things. But, that being said – it is everyone's responsibility to take part in the energy transition to drive our society forward. I would like to challenge our listeners today to think about how they can contribute - and then act on it!