Expert article
Modifier 24 February 2021
by Birgit Georgi

IGNITION’s Living Lab for nature-based solutions - more than a nice experiment

green wall in the raingarden
copyright: Salford Living Lab
“The Living Lab at the University of Salford will be a critical element of the project.” That is what I was told at the beginning of the IGNITION project. The project relies on the Living Lab as a showcase that demonstrates the attractiveness of nature-based solutions (NBS) and provides tangible evidence for potential investors, planners, residents, students and other stakeholders that can benefit from more green areas in their city. The assumption was also that a tangible installation in Greater Manchester would be more convincing than pointing to good practice in other cities, as inspiring as they may be. Closer to home, it shows the feasibility of NBS in one’s own city. With the first stage of the Living Lab already complete, does it live up to the expectations? I spoke to Nourhan Heysham from the University of Salford, who is a Researcher on the IGNITION project.
Nourhan Heysham, researcher on the IGNITION project from the University of Salford

Nourhan Heysham, researcher on the IGNITION project from the University of Salford


Interview with Nourhan Heysham

Nourhan, the Living Lab consists of different pieces of NBS. As such, the solutions are not new. What is the innovative part of it?

The main components of the Living Lab comprise a rain garden, green-blue roof, green wall, and SuDS trees with a diverse range of species and cutting-edge technologies. Much of it is already known; the innovation, however, lies in interlinking these different types of nature-based solutions so that they work in combination, support each other and thus maximise their benefits. For example, the SuDS trees can be watered with the excess water from the rain garden, and excess water from all the Living Lab elements is collected to be reused in watering any element when needed. 


The Living Lab was planned as a central element of IGNITION, a showcase to tangibly demonstrate the potential of NBS for climate change adaptation to different stakeholders. Has it worked out so far?


Definitely! With the first part of the Living Lab established, we have a real-life demonstration site available to us now. Our Living Lab team led by Prof Hisham Elkadi has already been approached for various activities (engagement, research and business related). We have had interest in the visiting tours, although, we could only conduct a few tours before COVID-19 forced us to go virtual. For example, tours for students have been requested by lecturers from the University, as they wanted to find out more about the project. We provided two tours and hosted supplementary online presentations. Students in various Masters and undergrad courses at Salford University are now picking this information up to develop their dissertations and design projects.

As well as being easy on the eye, the Living Lab delivers real data, and there will be more data in the future when the construction is finished in a few months; the planted structures will grow, and monitoring will run through the different seasons. This is very exciting for everyone involved. This data will supplement the IGNITION project’s Evidence Base on Nature-Based Solutions. This is a planning and decision support tool for administrations, investors, designers and other involved stakeholders, put together by colleagues from the project with information from various sources in the UK and Europe on the effectiveness of different nature-based solutions.  By including evidence from a real case in Greater Manchester, investing in NBS across the city region is made even more appealing; indeed, industry partners have started approaching us already. Industry partners in the process of constructing new buildings and are interested in fitting them with NBS during the construction phase. Picking up investors’ interest is exactly what we wanted from the Living Lab, and directly feeds into IGNITION’s target to build the business case for GI investment in Greater Manchester.

Green wall construction
copyright: Salford Living Lab


Beyond its primary purpose of being a tangible showcase for potential investors, planners and others, what has the Living Lab construction done for IGNITION as a whole?

Integrating the Living Lab with the project’s other work packages has been planned from the outset, but the idea has evolved over the last few months as certain links became apparent. When we put the last segment of the Lab out to tender, we shifted focus to intensifying dialogue with our project partners to explore further opportunities for integration than planned. 

The link with communications was obvious. With real case and real data, the benefits of NBS became much easier to communicate. We were also able to start taking forward “Seeing is believing” tours with project partners Royal Horticultural Society, Groundwork Manchester and City of Trees, and explored how we can successfully communicate with very different types of stakeholders through these guided walks. We started to develop a whole communication package around the Living Lab following a modular approach, where the user can choose further topics they are interested in learning more about. For this, we had originally planned to include some digital tools, like screens at the campus showing Living Lab data in real-time, but COVID-19 has challenged us to think more creatively and incorporate more digital elements than originally planned. Instead of physical events, we created virtual tours (youtube), which people from all corners of the world can easily interact with. Now, we reach a much broader audience and even have ‘visitors’ from Australia! 


Delivering real data - what else has that triggered?


The Living Lab delivers two types of data. This is data on the performance of different types of nature-based solutions, which supplement the evidence base. Then, there is also data on cost, which is extremely interesting for building the business cases and developing new funding streams. As this is an experimental installation, the costs may be higher than when such solutions become more widespread. Interestingly, the principle contractor on the project (SEL Environmental) came up with innovative solutions to increase the accuracy and efficiency of the construction process, which provided us with yet another kind of ‘data’ through on ground practices in GI construction.  For example, complete sections in the living wall and attenuation area have been prefabricated and then transported to site, which reduced onsite construction times enormously. Our colleagues from Greater Manchester Authority are developing the business models and funding streams and tailor this approach to attract contractors and investors, using established relationships with industries to communicate the Lab and gain interest in nature-based solutions.

terrasse deck in the raingarden
copyright: Salford Living Lab


Has there been any learning in IGNITION due to the results of the Living Lab?


There are many things to learn from, and I am sure there are more to come. We have plenty of research ideas in mind and want to use our connections with industries that we already have through the University. One of the nice examples of integrated learning inside IGNITION is how the Living Lab has provided a new perspective on what ‘green infrastructure uplift’ for climate resilience can really mean. Our experience in creating integrated experimental GI is providing evidence that uplift is not only measured through land cover, but rather through uplift in system efficiency and water management, which mainly takes place underground. The Living Lab can serve now as a case study, and information can be used to extrapolate results to Greater Manchester to supplement information received from mapping. In fact, the Living Lab has not increased the green areas in the rain garden for example, rather the ‘green’ became marginally smaller due including a terraced deck and paths to enable access for tours, monitoring, etc. Instead, the solution became multi-layered. Apart from the green space increase on the green roof and living wall, the underground space (including underneath the decking) focuses on higher and more efficiently connected water attenuation capacities intensively used, diverting excess water for irrigation elsewhere. Furthermore, the impact of our solutions goes far beyond the actual Living Lab footprint and we are now discussing how to include the functional quality of upgraded green and blue areas in the monitoring of the GI uplift.   


Thank you, Nourhan for that interesting information. For me, it shows vividly how the Living Lab has developed from a communication tool to a real integrator between the different work packages of IGNITION and has advanced their development. I am curious to see what else will evolve over the coming months, and I am happy to follow the live camera to see how the green wall is built.