A multi-million pound project to create a new home for Orkney's wide range of energy expertise is beginning to take shape in Stromness. David Flanagan has been to the town to find out more.
Innovation. It’s a word synonymous with Orkney where, for generations, the local community has sought to find creative solutions to the challenges posed by island life.
That same enterprising spirit and can-do attitude has, in recent years, cemented Orkney’s role as a key player in the global fight against climate change, with the islands now at the forefront of ground-breaking work in marine energy and pioneering renewables research.
Stromness is the focus for much of this activity, with a significant number of renewable energy supply chain businesses based there, along with Heriot Watt University’s International Centre for Island Technology (ICIT), and the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC). In a bid to strengthen and expand upon this vital work, a major new research and innovation campus is currently being created in the town
Work on the new 3.75-acre campus, which began earlier this year, involves the refurbishment, modernisation and extension of the Old Academy and former Stromness Primary School buildings, as well as improvements to roads, paths and landscaping in the area. The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by the autumn of next year.
“We’re looking for this centre to reaffirm Orkney’s credentials as a research venue of global significance in a number of fields,” says Graeme Harrison, HIE’s Orkney area manager. “We also want to widen the breadth of activity on the site and attract more people from around the world to come and study and live here. Equally important is the need to provide more opportunities for local youngsters to being able to stay and study in Orkney and gain high value employment.”
HIE’s £4.65 million investment in the campus project includes £1.48 million of European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) money. OIC is investing £2 million in the work, which includes £0.5 million of Scottish Government Regeneration Funding. In addition, OIC has transferred ownership of the Old Academy and former Stromness primary school to the partnership.
“We’re looking to create more space for the existing tenants on the Old Academy site to allow them to grow their footprint in Orkney and we’re also talking to a number of other academic institutes who are all very keen to have a presence here,” continues Mr Harrison. “In addition, we’ve got interest from businesses who are looking to relocate to be alongside all of this activity taking place in Stromness. It’s a facility that’s very much for business as well as for academia.”
“The campus has been a long-time ambition in Orkney,” adds OIC leader, Councillor James Stockan. “We’ve done a lot on marine renewables and we’ve done a lot on the energy sector, and that still has to be progressed in an island setting, but there’s many other opportunities for research and innovation. For us to be able to use Orkney as a test bed, as a proving place, as a living laboratory, there are so many things that can be done here that can also be exported across the world.”
The Old Academy building is already home to EMEC, ICIT, environmental consultants Aquatera, and a number of other businesses.
“The campus project is really exciting and we’re really looking forward to seeing the development that can take place because of this new building,” says EMEC’s managing director, Neil Kermode. “At EMEC we’ve always realised that by working with people you get far more done. We know that having the right environment that allows people to cooperate, and to meet and to discuss ideas, is critical to this sort of cooperation. We’re really hoping the ambiance of the new building, and the way people choose to work within it, will lead to something exceptional.”
Environmental consultants, Aquatera, have been based at the Old Academy site for the past 18 years, with the company’s preparatory work on marine energy in the islands seen as a key factor in the decision to site EMEC in Stromness in 2003.
“We now work internationally and equally have a huge number of visitors,” says Aquatera’s management team leader, Ian Johnstone. “Our clients and potential clients who come to Orkney to see it are usually very impressed with the scenery and the can-do attitude from all the companies here on the Old Academy site, but the current facilities are showing their age. We do work in a remote and rural place, but now hopefully we’ll have facilities that make people feel they’re in somewhere that’s quite professional, as well as being at the heart of marine renewables in the country.”
According to Mr Johnstone, the new campus will build on the existing academic and professional connections with the Old Academy site.
“A lot of our employees have come through Heriot Watt’s ICIT,” he says. “The links are made when the students are here for a year doing their Masters programmes, so a really welcoming and efficient campus feeds into the private sector.
He adds: “The new campus can do nothing but help strengthen Orkney’s global reputation. We work from Japan to the USA and always try and promote Orkney wherever we go in the world. A lot of potential clients come here to see what we’re doing and the cohesive nature of what happens on the new campus will be really good for the islands.”
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.