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.
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?
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”.
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.
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!