Staying curious: Reflections on six years as the Hartree Centre Director

As the longest serving Director of the Hartree Centre, Alison Kennedy has taken the Hartree Centre from strength to strength during her six years of leadership. In 2021, she led the team to successfully secure over £200 million of government funding to run the Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation (HNCDI) programme, applying advanced digital technologies such as high performance computing, data analytics and AI to enhance productivity in the UK industry.

On Alison’s departure, we asked her to share some of her thoughts and experiences advancing the industry application of digital technologies and look forward to what the future might hold.

Where are we now?

This year, 2022, marks the ten year anniversary of the Hartree Centre. It’s an interesting year for us, seeing how far we’ve come, and for me particularly it marks a transition in my career as I move on from my Directorship of the Hartree Centre.

The Hartree Centre had 12 staff when I started, and now we have a team of over 110 people and growing. We’re in a strong position as a department of STFC’s National Laboratories but we’ve had to work hard to transition from being dependent on funding from a series of fixed-term projects to becoming a sustainable entity with a distinct role in the UKRI landscape. Our current status reflects a recognition and appreciation of  the value of our work at the intersection of HPC research, business networks and national and regional government infrastructure. Being at that intersection is what makes us unique and what makes us strong.

“The practical application of science is fundamental to its value.”

 The importance of the Hartree Centre, a department specifically dedicated to supporting businesses and public sector organisations to adopt and apply new digital technologies cannot be overstated. We allow organisations to experiment and learn in a safe environment to ensure they know what technology works for them before they fully invest in it – de-risking that process of exploration. We’re flexible in our approach to emerging technologies – even beginning to investigate the potential of quantum computing for industry in collaboration with the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC). But what makes us unique and what really matters to us is that we work very closely with businesses, technology partners and the public sector to ensure that solutions and applications we develop are useful and usable.

Embracing change

One of the things that’s difficult to immediately grasp is that when the Hartree Centre was founded, the notion that high performance computing could be adopted and being used by industry in a whole range of areas was really novel and exciting. Supercomputers were primarily a tool for scientific research, and they were portrayed as being very expensive, very difficult to use, and suitable only for a adoption by a small minority of scientists with long experience in difficult computing simulation and modelling problems.

So for the Hartree Centre, one of the key motivators for us has been the challenge of “democratisation” of high-end novel technology.  How can we make it much more accessible to a much wider range of people? How can we understand what some of these industrial challenges are so we can apply it effectively?

Alison Kennedy taking part in a panel session at STFC’s Digital Tech Cluster launch event.

In the last decade, the world has moved forward in immeasurable ways. We’ve seen profound changes in both the technologies and the language we use to describe them. When I started working at the Hartree Centre, we talked about cognitive computing – now the world is more comfortable with terms like artificial intelligence and AI being used in the workplace. These technologies are no longer the preserve of science fiction and people have learned and begun to accept that these technologies don’t mean fewer jobs – just that everyone’s job spec will change.

“I think that the best piece of advice I’d give to anyone at the start of their career is to stay curious and be adaptable.”

When I look back at the changes in technologies and opportunities over the past 40 years, I’d say it’s very, very unlikely that if you work in technology, that you’ll be doing a similar job in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years’ time. Many of the jobs that we are now recruiting for at the Hartree Centre really didn’t exist in their current form five or ten years ago. If you can stay adaptable, and think about where the technology is going and how you can apply it in other areas, you’ll be set to succeed. Think about what you are interested in, think about what skills you can develop, be enthusiastic, be open to learning new ideas and you will then definitely be part of the solution.

Making digital technologies work for businesses

I think one of the first things we realised early on working with businesses is that it is easy for people who are excited by technology to engage with people in industry who are excited by technology.

However, if you want that technology to be adopted and to be used, then you need to engage the hearts and minds of a whole range of people who are working in industry, from their funders and executives to their customers and their supply chains.

“It’s not just about having a good technology solution. It’s about ensuring that the people you work with understand the power of digital transformation and how adopting digital solutions will benefit their businesses.”

Our projects are not about somebody coming in and doing something for a company using our “super technology powers”. We build multi-skilled teams with professional project management that work collaboratively with our partners so that we can get the best results for them. By talking to our teams and answering their questions, the company is part of the project development not just the “end user”.

Hear more from Alison Kennedy in her recent interview with Cambium LLP.

Acknowledging the power of diverse, multidisciplinary teams

I’ve always thought it’s important that our technology teams reflect society at large. If we’re going to effectively tackle a whole range of challenges, from environmental to societal to economic, then we need to have people who understand what these challenges are who come from a variety of backgrounds and who reflect our society.

Also, from a practical point of view, the areas that we are working in – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) – have a shortage of applicants. There’s not enough people in the UK with these skills to meet the demand in research and industry sectors. We need to be as open as possible to say: “What’s absolutely essential for this job vs. what can we teach people when they get here?” I’m really pleased that over the years I’ve been at the Hartree Centre, we’ve developed into a more diverse team of people working on our projects – I think this has really benefited us in terms of being able to understand and contribute to some of the challenges that we’re working with – but there’s still a way to go.

Alison Kennedy with Hartree Centre staff at Supercomputing 2019 in Denver, Colorado.

I’m also interested in the way we are moving beyond thinking just about STEM skills in the UK – I’ve noticed more of a focus to add the arts into that mix. It’s important that we are able to illustrate to people in industry and government what the possibilities are. We need to be creative to make it as easy as possible for them to understand what the results of a particular project might be. So, when we look to recruit new team members at the Hartree Centre, we are not just looking for people who have good technical skills. We are also looking for people who are good communicators, who can manage projects to high standards, who have an interest in challenges and who understand the impact of solving them. Our people don’t just want to develop very deep expertise in one area.

To this end, we also have people on our team in the Hartree Centre who have an understanding of digital communications and social media who can interpret our work in a more creative way to engage with different audiences, as well as people who work on the data visualisation side of things. One of our big investments at the Hartree Centre has been a visualisation suite, where we can bring the results of many of our projects to life in a really visual way. We know that for the vast majority of people, this makes it much easier to understand than looking at statistics and formulae.

We use everything from infographics to advanced visualisation to films about our work, anything which helps to convey the power of these new technologies and to spark interest in people to inspire them.

“We want people to think: Wow, that’s really great! I wonder if these technologies could be applied to my particular problem.”

Looking forward, I think there’s a huge amount to be excited about. We’re seeing new applications of existing technologies in an increasing number of areas, alongside the advent of emerging technologies like quantum computing, which is radically different from traditional computing and will enable us to look at problems that cannot be solved on current mainstream computers.

From developing more personalised medicine and healthcare treatments to applying AI in conjunction with simulation and modelling to speed up the refinement of an aeroplane wing design, we have truly only touched the tip of the iceberg. And I for one am excited to see what the Hartree Centre does next!

Alison will be succeeded by Professor Katherine Royse in April 2022.

Building a Climate Resilience Demonstrator

How can digital twins help us respond to climate change? We asked Hartree Centre Data Engineering Specialist and Technical Architect on the Climate Resilience Demonstrator project, Tom Collingwood, to tell us more. 

With all the recent storms causing damage and flooding across the UK, it couldn’t be a more relevant time to talk about climate change!

To start us off, can you explain to us what climate resilience means?

It is very topical right now with all the storms we’d had recently and it seems to be a developing issue that is worth looking at. Most people will be familiar with the idea of climate change causing all kinds of disruption – from flooding to droughts to storm damage. On the extreme end of the scale, they can pose a threat to our safety whether directly or indirectly by disrupting an essential service or system – for example, the power going out in a hospital, or emergency services losing signal on their way to an accident.

This kind of work is distinct from trying to slow/stop climate change – which is incredibly important too – instead, we’re trying to help inform the understanding around what might happen to our infrastructure if/when more severe climate events do occur, and hence how we might prioritise resilience planning around assets which are crucial to whole-of-system resilience.

This means there is huge potential in terms of damage prevention, cost savings and service reliability for immediate services like telecoms, energy, water and utilities – but these also cascade down to any industry that relies heavily on or would be affected by disruption to those services. Which is pretty much all industries!

So that’s where the Climate Resilience Demonstrator (CReDo) comes in?

The Climate Resilience Demonstrator, CReDo, is a digital twin demonstrator project to improve climate and extreme weather resilience across infrastructure networks – the first of its kind in the UK. We narrowed down our focus to look specifically at the effects of extreme flooding on the communications, power and water networks in a specific area of the UK. We have developed a prototype digital twin that takes in data from climate, water, utilities, telecoms and energy industries and applies flood impact models which predict where flooding will form in the UK, how those floods might affect the equipment they touch and how knock-on impacts spread out to the rest of the networks outside the immediate flood zones.

We wanted to demonstrate how those who own and operate infrastructure can use secure, resilient, information sharing, across sector boundaries, to mitigate the effect of flooding on network performance and service delivery to customers, so we’ve been developing reliable approaches and frameworks for secure data sharing and information management that can inform this kind of model and be scaled up.

Why is a digital twin useful when tackling the challenge of climate resilience?

Lots of niche areas of utilities and telecoms will have specific experts or teams who have been responsible for that same machine or equipment for the last 50 years and if you lose that person or team – all that operational knowledge goes with them. If you start using digital twins and connected data, you need to get that specialist information out of their head and turn it into models that can run in AI and machine learning systems, providing 24 hour access to that information.

Many people think of digital twins as operational tools streaming live data from sensors and adjusting ongoing processes accordingly, such as in a manufacturing facility. With climate change, the feedback loop we are looking at might take 100 years to complete, so in this specific use case our digital twin isn’t streaming live data and instead is operating in a way which provides resilience planners with predicted outcomes for a given set of inputs, so they can use the information when making decisions about the future networks they’re supporting. We’re only scraping the surface of what digital twins can do for climate resilience with this specific use case. Bringing operational sensor data into the mix (from river levels to real-time asset monitoring) would broaden the application out to explore current and potentially upcoming failures via predictive maintenance modelling, or branching out into other climatic effects such as wind and extreme heat to inform how we make the whole network more resilient to a variety of new challenges over the coming decades. You’re building the foundations for a digital decision support, and potentially future decision-making, assistant that always gives consistent advice to actively support the experts making vitally important decisions about our countries’ infrastructure.

“That’s the thing – if you get this kind of work right, basically no one will ever hear about it. Life goes on as normal, the power stays on, the communications don’t go down and the damage is minimal.”

Tom Collingwood – CReDo Technical Architect

How do you teach a computer to do that?

You have a structured conversation with the experts, you ask them to tell you how things might break – even in strange or temperamental ways you wouldn’t expect – and you incorporate all those cases to develop a model that provides more accurate predictions. The more you know, the more data you have to keep running through the system to refine it and make better decisions and better decisions in future.

Can you talk us through an example to illustrate what kind of scenarios you’re modelling?

One of the examples we looked at was a water pumping station. So we had to factor in variables like knowing what will break if the water reaches a specific depth because that would submerge the electronics and potentially start a fire. Or if the fuel has been stolen from a backup generator, which will mean everything switches off in an emergency – but imagine cases where there are no sensors detecting whether the fuel is still there.

Our approach means that in the short-term we look at the statistical probability and frequency of those factors to make more accurate predictions of when and how failures might occur. In the long term we’ve discovered what data would be useful so you can put the technologies in place – in this case, you’d install fuel level sensors in the tanks.

So the process goes something like this:

  • Learn from experts what variables affect potential failures or faults
  • Make a plan for which data you need to start collecting
  • Create a model that uses that data to make predictions, and provides sensible approximations where the data aren’t readily available to the system yet
  • Keep feeding in new data to refine the models over time
  • Review the outputs of the models with the experts running the machines/assets, and tweak as necessary to ensure the models give sensible outputs using the current information at hand
  • Use the predicted outputs to inform plans to mitigate the failures

So with the flooding example, you can’t stop the weather but you can predict when it’s likely to happen and put up defences in time to minimise damage or disruption?

Exactly. And the next stage is to look at what knock-on effects happen when a fault or failure occurs – so if it’s a power plant that went down, everything it supplies power to has now lost its primary power supply. What would that mean for vital infrastructure, like healthcare? This was what the short film we funded through the project was exploring – that something like loss of power – even over a short period – can actually be life or death.

The ultimate impact of a single asset going down isn’t something which is immediately apparent – we have to cascade those failures across multiple networks throughout the system if we want to understand the real impact, and with complex network interdependencies that’s not an easy thing for humans to resolve quickly, whereas the right computational models can be very well suited to doing this quickly and repeatably.

Short film “Tomorrow Today” was produced by the National Digital Twin programme and Climate Resilience Demonstrator to explore the potential impact of digital twins.

What was the Hartree Centre’s role in the project?

The Hartree Centre was brought into the consortium originally to provide leadership of technical delivery, and I was given the role of Technical Architect accordingly. This meant my job was to oversee the successful delivery of a technical plan, so I had to do a bit of planning first and then ensure we could make it happen. We also had several other members of our Data Science and Research Software Engineering teams working on different aspects of data analysis and code optimisation for the project.

I’ve had oversight of what’s being done across the consortium of project partners: STFC’s Hartree Centre and DAFNI, CMCL Innovations, the Joint Centre of Excellence for Environmental Intelligence (JCEEI), the National Digital Twin Hub and the Universities of Edinburgh, Warwick and Newcastle.

On the industry side, Anglian Water, BT and UK Power Networks provided infrastructure data and Mott MacDonald supported us with domain expertise in infrastructure and flood modelling.

That’s lots of pieces to bring together!

Yeah, it’s a massive and quite complicated stakeholder map with a lot of moving pieces! So I’ve spent a lot of the last year joining the dots and doing agile programme planning. We’ve approached it with telecoms, water and utilities providers as the “customers” we had in mind as they’re the ones who would ultimately be able to benefit from the outputs of the project and use them to increase reliability and functionality.

A bunch of very talented people were put in front of me and I had to figure out how we could deliver as much as possible simultaneously and get it all done in time for the close of the project. We set up a secure cluster on DAFNI to put data from the asset owners all in one place, so that the scientists working on the project could access it and connect it up to develop models, without it being shared or accessed by anyone else.

What are the next steps?

The project comes to a close in March 2022, so we’re currently writing up the reports and planning a webinar to present our experiences, talk about technical achievements and lessons we’ve learned along the way so that hopefully others can learn from them too and continue to develop our ideas.

The project partners are going to collate reports and write executive summaries so we have something to help us engage with business leadership audiences that are less technical but have decision-making authority to try implementing these concepts at scale. The technical reports are there in more detail so that technical staff can understand what needs to be done.

We’re also going to continue working with the partners on this project to seek funding for the continuation of development, and hopefully further scaling up of this project. Watch this space!

Find out more about the Climate Resilience Demonstrator.

Missed the show-and-tell webinar? Watch it now

Read the technical reports

What our customers think | Managing our Impact

Hear from our Head of Impact Management Karen Lee and find out about her role at the Hartree Centre and her highlights from our recent commercial outcomes survey.

Karen Lee, Head of Impact Management

Anyone working in the research and innovation eco-system will be very familiar with the concept of ‘impact’ and generating benefits to the UK economy and its people.

As an applied research centre focused on supporting industry in their adoption of transformational digital technologies such as AI and data analytics, this one word, impact, summarises what the Hartree Centre is all about. My role is to help us show it.

The recent AI Activity in UK Businesses report estimates that companies’ annual expenditure on AI technologies was over £62 billion in 2020. With the right conditions in place (for example by reducing the barriers to adoption… which is what we do), they predict that total AI expenditure could grow 11-17% annually over the next five years. Whilst the Impact of AI on Jobs report estimates that such technologies could boost our economy by as much as 10% of GDP by 2030. So we are talking pretty significant numbers here!

It’s exciting that the Hartree Centre (and therefore my talented colleagues) is one of the delivery mechanisms to achieve this. As their Head of Impact Management, my focus is on demonstrating the benefits from our portfolio of projects and programmes by helping us to measure and understand the value we contribute to the organisations we collaborate with, as well as to the wider economy and society.

One way this is done is by capturing information – via surveys and interviews – on customers’ experiences of working with us and tracking this over time. We’ve just published an independent report which has provided useful insight into our portfolio of commercial projects.


The key findings from the report are based on 31% of past user organisations engaging in commercial projects completed up to the end of January 2021.

The Commercial Beneficiary Outcomes report is interesting to me on a number of levels. First off, I want to put a shout out to all of the people that make the Hartree Centre ‘work’ and I am proud that 94% of respondents stated they already had, or would, recommend us to others. The work my colleagues do is remarkable – it is right on the cutting-edge and more often than not beyond my realm of understanding.

Back to the organisations… even if you just look at the sectors they operate in, it really does show that digital technologies pretty much touch every part of the economy.

And these businesses are not all at the same stage of their digital transformation journey either. Some are just starting out, with an idea in mind but unsure of whether it would work or where it might take their business, whilst others are optimising processes or product development. I think this is demonstrated in the range of outcomes reported, which indicate important improvements in productivity, performance, skills and R&D investment. For example:

  • 76% reported that the strategic importance of adopting and applying digital technologies had increased
  • 65% have seen an increased investment in R&D within their organisation
  • 84% have improved the extent to which their organisation uses or exploits data.
  • 89% have increased their in-house technical expertise and capabilities

Other benefits reported included:

  • Enhanced confi­dence in products and services
  • Improved effectiveness of product development
  • Optimised processes
  • Reduced product development costs
  • Reduced time to market
  • Increased sales or profi­tability
  • Enhanced reputation

Although after a project you’ll get a picture of the early outcomes and future potential, the nature of innovation is such that full benefits often take time to be realised. Our survey reflects this in that 79% of participants said that they expect to see further commercial benefits over the next 1-3 years.

Following this research, as part of the Hartree Centre’s continuous improvement work, we’ve enhanced our evidence collection so that we capture information before, after and 2-3 years after our projects to track how benefits accrue to achieve impact over time.

If you’d like to find out more, take a look at the public summary of the report or our infographic. We also have some fantastic case studies which tell a powerful story of some of our individual client projects.


Collaborating to deliver projects

On 8 October 2019 Business Transformation Manager, Neil Runciman and Head of Programmes, Claire Trinder went to a joint conference from the Association of Project Managers (APM) and Institute of Collaborative Working (ICW) with the theme of “Collaborating to deliver projects.” They both share experiences and reflections from the day:

Claire Ward and Jeremy Campbell from the Institute of Collaborative Working (ICW) set the scene for the day with their “Delivering more through collaboration” presentation highlighting how embedding collaborative working in to organisations assists in building long term, sustainable relationships which help to deliver projects. They mentioned the House of Commons and UK Home Office had particularly been enthusiastic in their adoption of collaborative working while also discussing reasons that collaboration can fail. Often this is due to perception of collaborative working, some see it as a selling technique or don’t understand the requirements leading to individuals acting in silos and not demonstrating the appropriate skills or behaviours.

Image credit: APM Events

The next session was led by Ben Cross who shared lessons learned from delivering the £1.5billion A4 road programme – collaboration was key to this, not only between three main contractors but also between a myriad of subcontractors to ensure project success. Actions taken throughout the project to encourage a culture of collaboration included:

  • Common procurement, reducing stoppages and securing better pricing for materials and machinery
  • Open book reporting for all contractors
  • Board members for collaboration, procurement and stakeholder management
  • A commitment to recruit or develop excellent project leaders throughout

A common vision connecting teams to a purpose and ensuring sufficient resources and training were embedded throughout the actions above, ultimately helping the team to deliver the project to cost, with minimum traffic disruption and a low accident rate.

Next up was something a little more practical, led by John Doyle to demonstrate working towards shared objectives with shared benefits. The exercise saw us work in teams of six to design and build part-sections of paper bridges to transport a table tennis ball over three metres but using only A4 paper, sellotape and scissors! Our team enjoyed this and were successful in putting our project management expertise to the test by quickly identifying and filling the necessary roles, working well as a team and overcoming last minute obstacles while still achieving a win-win situation with both client and supplier benefitting.

Neil Runciman taking part in the practical bridge building session. Image credit: APM Events

Jonathan Canioni from Warwick Business School offered an academic perspective to the conference discussions, quoting several successful examples of collaboration including ‘Food for the Soul’ – a programme between an established chef, the Catholic church, local markets and supermarkets in Naples to provide food to those living in poverty. Discussions continued to examples where collaboration had failed – a private banking app that misunderstood the relationship between bank and customer – when even best intentions and aligned incentives can be administered ineffectively. Key learning points from Jonathan’s talk were that collaboration and coordination are bound together in a number of ways, therefore, although coordination is not quite as valuable as collaboration, it is a necessary step on the way and worth striving for if collaboration is unattainable.

“Hartree Centre places tremendous value on and recognises the benefit of collaborative work and we embed this in many ways. From multi-partner grant funded consortia, to individual collaborative research projects with SMEs or larger national organisations, to our most recent 5 year collaborative Innovation Return on Research programme which partners with IBM Research and UK plc. The workshop was a great opportunity to step away from the day to day and reflect on how we achieve our collaborations and opportunities for us to improve on these in the future. The presentations throughout the day gave great insight, especially on how to define collaboration behaviours up front and as Neil highlights, the criticality of great leadership in supporting this. I really enjoyed the practical exercise as well, although I think our session was slightly more chaotic than Neil’s! However the same is often true in real life, and it is how chaos and uncertainty is managed that is also key to success.”

Claire Trinder, Head of Programmes

“For me, this was an interesting day full of sharing experiences and offering new perspectives. I found Ben Cross’ presentation particularly worthwhile as it offered learning points that are directly applicable to complex projects with multiple suppliers while also highlighting the wide benefits of great leadership. I would have appreciated hearing a contractor’s view of collaboration to ensure a balanced view of the reality of collaborating to deliver projects.”

Neil Runciman, Business Transformation Manager