How Newcastle's Science Central is updating its industrial past

From coal mining to data mining, the city centre site is now bringing the jobs of the future to Tyneside

The Core Science Central building
The Core Science Central building

Not so many years ago, the sounds and smells of heavy industry filled a site on the edge of Newcastle city centre that was first a coal mine and then the home of Newcastle Breweries.

Empty for a number of years, the site is now part of Newcastle Science City, with its first building opening this year to accommodate a number of hi-tech businesses operating in areas like software development, STEM consultancy and communications security.

But there is a link still between the coal and beer of yesterday and the computer code of today on the former home of the North Elswick Colliery and Scottish and Newcastle Brewery. The Core, nestled behind the resplendent blue of Newcastle University’s Business School, houses the university’s school of computing and is soon to be followed by a £58m Urban Sciences Centre. Situated next door to The Core and planned to open in autumn 2017, the centre and the entire site will become a living laboratory.

Newcastle University’s brightest minds in the fields making up urban science research will be brought together in the centre to tackle the challenges of creating and developing cities which meet not just the demands of modern day living but also the demands of future generations.

Newcastle Breweries plaque - transplanted to Science Central
Newcastle Breweries plaque - transplanted to Science Central

Data taken, for example, from the centre’s heating and ventilation systems and energy use will be collated along with environmental measurements gathered from the wider Science Central site and from locations already in use across the city.

The result will be a wealth of information brought together to help urban planners at the city council or emergency services better think ahead, making the city more resilient to natural disasters or technological failure.

Where coal was once Newcastle’s generator of financial return, big data and cloud computing are its new black gold, the fuel to power the businesses of the future but in a far more environmentally friendly way.

Newcastle University and the city council took the step to invest heavily in creating the environment to house these new generators of economic wealth.

But before work could start on clearing the former colliery site for the new university buildings, office space and 350 new homes, developers were faced with a major decision, the result of its heavy industry past.

The entire Science Central site was sat on top of 45,000 tonnes of coal not mined from its days as North Elswick Colliery throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Rather than leave the coal in the ground, they opencasted it, selling it for power generation in Yorkshire, much as coals from Newcastle did in the past.

Paul Watson and parents
Paul Watson and parents

The alternative to leave it and fill in seams and old workings with cement was too costly and potentially too unstable for a development set to house many of the city’s flagship research projects.

Visitors to The Core don’t have to look too far to be reminded of the area’s past. A glance outside the entrance of The Core building reveals a blue star memorial to the brewery site and its hoppy past.

The juxtaposition of past, present and future isn’t lost on Paul Watson, Newcastle University’s Professor of Computer Science, whose father Bob left school to become a miner at Beamish aged 16.

Paul’s team of academics and researchers are working out of The Core building making huge strides in cloud computing. His career path could so easily have been in coal mining rather than data mining had his father not made a brave career switch.

“After a few months down the pit, a manager felt that my father had real potential and suggested that he apply for a National Coal Board scholarship to study mining at university,” said Paul, also director of Newcastle’s Digital Institute.

“So my father took a risk - he left the mine and went back to school, completed his A Levels and won a scholarship that allowed him to graduate in mining engineering from Sheffield University.

Bob Watson (fourth from left) as a miner at Beamish
Bob Watson (fourth from left) as a miner at Beamish

“After a few years back working in the mines, he realised that the industry was in decline, and so he switched careers and became a maths teacher at Washington Grammar School - later Usworth Comprehensive.

“Teaching computer programming to schoolchildren is now seen as an important intellectual skill, and a good career choice.

“However, my father realised this 40 years ago and started teaching the children at his school how to write computer programmes in the mid-1970s. At this time, there were no PCs, laptops or tablets; only a few big organisations in the North East owned a computer and they filled a huge room.

“By the late ‘70s the earliest personal computers had become available and my father’s school bought one. He used to bring this home in the school holidays, which is how I got interested in computers.

“Without my father’s enthusiasm and encouragement I would never have become interested myself. So it’s my father who was the far-sighted computer pioneer in our family.”

Code not coal has seen Paul become a driving force in the development of Science Central and win global acclaim for his academic work.

Last year he travelled to Brazil to receive the Jim Gray eScience Award from Microsoft Research awarded to the researcher who has made an outstanding contribution to the field of data-intensive computing.

Paul and his team at Science Central are working with people and organisations in all areas of society on £20m worth of projects, using cloud computing to do things scientists haven’t been able to do before with data.

Their results are helping to tackle social exclusion, transform healthcare into a more tailored, individual package for patients and training Newcastle University students in the cutting edge skills needed to help them secure top jobs.

With £1m from Government, they are collaborating with Newcastle City Council to create the Cloud Innovation Centre on Science Central. Working with North East businesses and the public sector, the aim is to help them take advantage of cloud computing to improve competitiveness, make new products and upskill the region.

“It’s the most exciting time of my career,” he said.

“We have found an area of research and work where we are training up the next generation of professionals in this area, with the skills that companies need.

“We are trying to deliver those skills to local companies as almost all companies see the potential of cloud computing to analyse their data.

“Big data and cloud computing are presenting North East companies with the means to strategically manage their IT in a new, flexible and cost effective way, buying up computing power as and when required.”

Working in The Core with Paul is Red Hat. One of the world’s leading computing companies, it has only two research centres in the world – one in the United States and the other in Newcastle.

Whickham-born Mark Little, vice president at Red Hat, has seen the Science Central site behind St James’ Park transformed over the past five years.

“The Core building is superb and the plans for the other buildings are a great vision for the city, it’s great to be involved in this,” he said.

“We moved in with the University a couple of years ago and together we created the Red Hat University Research Centre.

“The idea was always to co-locate. The reason we do it is that it commits us to long-term research.

“The university is used to doing this - with it’s three-year PhD programmes and long-term research projects – but this gives us the opportunity to get involved with that long-term, strategic vision.

“It’s the opportunity for us to see the research go into our products. Red Hat’s Linux operating system, for example, is an area where we can really see the research benefits.”

Mark believes Science Central is providing the strategic vision for the region’s own mini Silicon Valley.

“I think the fact there will be academia and industry focused on one area in a hub is what’s been missing here for a while,” he said.

“Like Silicon Valley and the US west coast, they have been doing this for years, where industry has been co-located with universities and vice-versa.

“The best case scenario - I would like to see more of us, more companies. It’s great that we have Red Hat but both us and the university work with other companies and it would be nice to have them on site with us at the university - Google, Apple and others.

“Maybe they don’t want big huge offices, they could be satellite offices and still get good collaboration between the company and the university.

“A mini Silicon Valley, that would be good for the company and the university and also for the region.”

Another tech pioneer working from Science Central is Steve Caughey.

Steve and his team at Arjuna Technologies Limited are trailblazers in the field with an IT history traceable back to the mid 1980s as a Newcastle University research group.

Now firmly established as a world leading innovator in distributed computing, Arjuna is housed in The Core, cheek by jowl with Red Hat in the university’s computing school.

The open innovation environment sees the firms and academia working to create an eco-system in the region, where ideas and innovation can thrive.

The historical timeline linking today’s high-tech reality with the industrial toil of the past is all too clear to Steve, Arjuna’s managing director.

“I often talk about how the region is moving from coal mining to data mining,” he said.

“It’s a strange contrast but the thing I emphasise is the raw resources. The economy was originally built on coal while the raw resource of the future economy is data.

“Both are locked away and people have had to apply innovation skills to extract them and get value.”

Extracting value from data used to mean having access to vast computing resources. Just a few short years ago, university basements were filled with banks of huge computers taking in some cases years to process results.

Fast forward a decade, and cloud computing has transformed the way organisations use data, providing them unlimited potential to access, analyse and exploit it for their own needs.

“Cloud and big data technology will be big drivers of innovation and the North East has an important role leading skills development in those areas, especially around the university,” said Steve.

“For us the benefits of The Core are being plugged into the university, Red Hat and all the research assistants and PhD students. We are just across the corridor from all these people and there’s the capacity for those ‘water cooler’ moments of inspiration.

“To have The Core here where we have a whole suite of experts in innovation in such a space makes this a unique national resource.”


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