Case Study

The physics of water: HR Wallingford – navigating towards a new innovation hub

Historic government decisions can turn out to inadvertently pave the way for vibrant tech hub development. HR Wallingford is the perfect example, sitting at the heart of a new innovation centre, taking shape in South Oxfordshire over the next two to three years.

Ambitious plans are being drawn up to turn its riverside site, Howbery Park in Wallingford, into a technology accelerator and proving ground for the latest science in coping with the challenge of climate change and its impact on water-related challenges. This includes better managing existing resources while dealing with the recent phenomenon of some areas experiencing floods or drought for the first time.

It is a crucial area of research because the UN predicts that by 2030 water demand will outstrip supply by 40%.

Managing water better

HR Wallingford is a Scientific Research Association set up shortly after World War II, under the name of the Hydraulic Research Station. The aim was to capture the expertise of British civil engineers returning to the UK from every corner of the Empire in an organisation focused on better understanding water. Since then, HR Wallingford has been privatised and built up world-leading facilities on its site, with vast laboratories and the very latest technology attracting the best minds in the industry. It has remained at its Howbery Park base which is run as a successful business park.

This history of researching challenges, such as coastal erosion, flooding, droughts and silting of rivers and estuaries, places it at the heart of the green recovery.

“Water is central to generating green energy and in combating the effects of climate change,” says Bruce Tomlinson, CEO at HR Wallingford. “Our mission is to better understand water so that we can work with it rather than against it and, where possible, make it work for us.”

“We’re seeing rising ocean levels as well as a lot more extreme and frequent storm and flooding events. It means we’re starting to see areas that have no history of flooding are now flooding regularly and others, where water was plentiful, are now having to start to live with drought conditions.

“Our expertise is being used around the world to predict climate change’s impact on water supplies as well as help authorities combat coastal erosion and manage building development in areas that are now starting to flood. We are also supporting the development of low carbon energy, through hydroelectric, wave and tidal power.”

Building a new hub

The worldwide deployment of its expertise prompted the Scientific Research Association to wonder if it could do more on its own site to not only educate the public but inspire a new generation of start-ups. The question was made easier to answer by another government decision made decades ago that means its site is next to the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It is also a former government research centre and hosts satellite offices for the British Geological Survey and the Met Office.

This pre-existence of an unofficial mini hub, through the two former public bodies neighbouring one another, has led Tomlinson to draw up ambitious plans for the site HR Wallingford occupies, which the neighbouring Centre is vocal in supporting.

“It seemed to us we were already pretty much a hub in the making for climate change and water technology, so we drew up some plans to build on that,” he says. “We’ve put together a masterplan and within two years I’m hoping we’ll have built an innovation centre and accelerator as well as a Centre of Excellence Academy. We’re also planning to build visitor centres for flood resilience, water efficiency and zero carbon as well as creating what we intend to be world’s most resilient building. It will be flooding-resistant, water efficient and zero-carbon.”

The hope is the visitor centre will help educate the wider public and decision makers how to better cope with climate change’s dual impacts of drought and flooding, as well as an increase in serious storm events. At the same time, the Centre of Excellence Academy will attract researchers in water resilience and climate change from all corners of the planet and showcase the latest techniques being developed to manage climate change’s impact on water. The Innovation Centre and Accelerator will further attract start-ups tackling climate change.

“Howbery Park was the first official Business Park in the UK to adopt solar power and we are aiming to be a zero-carbon site. We have ambitious plans to support the development and adoption of green energy initiatives. For example, with our river Thames frontage, we are well placed to assess the potential supporting heat exchange technology.”

“Ultimately, we are blessed to have the unique combination of the existence of our technology cluster, space to develop the park to foster innovation and our location in a floodplain by the Thames to use as a living laboratory.”

Tomlinson reveals the plans have been included in the region’s Local Industrial Strategy (LIS) drawn up OxLEP (Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership). It has also attracted funding from Defra (Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs).  This means the project should soon be underway with the new buildings being ready for use as early as 2023.

About this case study - Powering up the Green Economy: Oxfordshire's role in building a cleaner future

This case study was written following an interview conducted as part of Advanced Oxford’s research study, Powering up for the Green Recovery: Oxfordshire’s role in building a cleaner future. Advanced Oxford has been examining the enablers and barriers to growth of the low carbon and sustainable goods and services sectors. We are both showcasing innovation being developed across the region, but also looking at the issues which will support or hinder our high growth potential companies.

Advanced Oxford would like to thank all of the companies that participated in this project for their time and for providing us with images which illustrate their technology and work. This case study was written by Sean Hargrave, working with Advanced Oxford.

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