Andrew Rodger, Business Development Manager, Digital Innovation, gives his insights on Intelligent Plant’s unique Inform Prize which took place this autumn, fostering interaction between academia and industry and challenging students to innovate digital solutions to real-life problems.

How would you describe the core aims and benefits of the Inform Prize?

I work closely with Steve Aitken and the team at Intelligent Plant and recognise this has been a long-standing initiative that has reached its tenth anniversary this year. It is a fantastic idea providing students with an early insight, whilst they’re studying, of what they would experience when they join the workforce in the coming years.

It is especially valuable to give this opportunity to computer science students because, in the energy industry, we’re really going to need their expertise as we move forwards. Students from Aberdeen University and Robert Gordon University came together to collaborate within eight different teams, each member identifying and undertaking a certain key role, and they shared their capabilities to build applications to help resolve everyday issues.

The Inform Prize event gave them a platform to deliver presentations on their specific solution, its value and the process that shaped its innovation. Beyond that, there was also a chance for those attending to network with the participants and offer them feedback on our own journeys into the energy industry and our experiences and viewpoints.

On a personal level, I returned to academia after having spent some time working and so I can appreciate the value the Inform Prize can give students about joining a business. I think it is great that this initiative is ingrained into the courses and curricula in the universities as well, encouraging students to think collaboratively, creatively and to find ways of driving things forward.

You were part of the judging panel, how was that and what were your impressions on the day?

It was definitely a new experience for me, but I was blown away by the quality of the presentations. As I mentioned, it was clear that most of the teams had worked really closely together, right down to who was going to do the talking, and who had delivered the more technical elements. This was really impressive teamwork as they had maximised each of their individual capabilities.

Some parts of the video presentations were amazing. These were between three to five minutes long, each talking the viewer through what the digital solution was, how and why the team had decided to identify and fix that particular real-life problem and then explaining how the human interaction and engagement would work.

I think the Inform Prize challenges everyone in different ways, so for me, being a judge is not a role I am used to and so I needed to balance scrutiny and assessment alongside curiosity, encouragement and support – in other words, constructive questioning! It is great there are several prizes handed out because the eight teams involved put so much effort into their projects.

How vital would you say computer science skills will be to the future of the energy market?

Pulling insights out of live data is an increasingly crucial capability, allowing so many processes and decision-making to be optimised. At Proserv, we have great understanding of control systems, and their integration, alongside the other offerings we deliver – so a lot of specialist, domain knowledge established over decades. But as a leading technology company, we are always looking at ways to extend our abilities and where we can innovate new solutions.

It’s going to be the type of student who was at this event that will help move our sector forward with data analysis, working with AI and cyber security, vital areas across all industries. Over the next decade, today’s computer science students will be designing intuitive dashboards, building industrial apps and devising algorithms – they will be central to bringing insight and understanding to the performance of equipment in so many areas. They will be the ones making that a reality.

Of course, for us at Proserv, we have our own digital journey, alongside our partners, engaging monitoring and intelligence to optimise and enhance operational reliability, reduce the threat of downtime, boost ROI and extend life. We will increasingly need this digital expertise to help innovate the solutions demanded by the energy sector and to grow our offering. Delivering remote real-time monitoring, accessing live data, and providing predictive intelligence fundamentally needs this domain knowledge.

More widely, we face the rising challenges of the energy transition and making a fair and just pivot from oil and gas into sustainable sources. The technologies of the future will require the skills of those students at the Inform Prize. In fact, graduates like them will have a crucial role to play as the likes of offshore wind, CCUS and hydrogen evolve in the coming years, so creating this link between industry and academia is important. Energy is a dynamic and fluid environment for computer scientists to enter.

How would you say the Inform Prize reflects the values and philosophy of Proserv?

I think it highlights the shared values between Proserv and Intelligent Plant where both businesses greatly encourage innovation and collaboration. More than anything else, the Inform Prize is about bringing these two things together.

In the way that the various team members naturally took on particular roles, this can reflect a little on what we are doing here at Proserv with our various technology partners – each of us sharing our knowledge and expertise, supporting one another, to accelerate the generation of new solutions or finding fresh opportunities in the market. It is about leveraging capabilities and not re-inventing the wheel, and many of these teams, in the Inform Prize, were similarly acting to maximise what they each could bring to a process.

I also think Proserv has a strong history and ethos of encouraging the development of skills whether that is through graduate entry or our impressive apprenticeship programmes, so encouraging aspiring students to demonstrate their know-how and to give back to them by networking and providing feedback was very satisfying.

The event also offers us a chance to engage with potential future Proserv recruits. We have already brought a team member into the business via the networking through the Inform Prize and he currently combines his studies at Aberdeen University with working alongside us a couple of days a week building his abilities in data analytics.

The Inform Prize offers so much from skills development to potential workplace opportunities. I am sure both Intelligent Plant and Proserv, not to mention the other sponsors, will be keeping a keen eye on this initiative year-on-year to unearth talent that one day might play a key role in driving our businesses, and our industry, forward.