Does innovation drive resilience, or does resilience drive innovation?

Imagine a project that tackles social and economic challenges in your community, all while improving flood resilience. That's the goal of the SuDS+ project in Stanley, County Durham, one of many "left behind" neighbourhoods in England (left-behind areas have much worse socio-economic outcomes than comparable deprived areas). Caitlin Rogers explores the correlation between innovation and resilience that comes with a SuDS+ approach.

Stanley the raindrop. SuDS+ (

SuDS+ goes beyond traditional drainage systems, aiming to create beautiful public spaces, support local businesses, and even boost resident pride.By raising the profile of these co-benefits, SuDS+ is redefining how sustainable drainage systems can revitalise communities.

Aligning with community investment priorities

The communities of Stanley, County Durham have spoken, their top five local investment priorities are those that:

  • Help to create local job opportunities and support existing and new businesses.
  • Support affordable living costs and improve quality of housing.
  • Provide training and education for workplaces of the future.
  • Create a sense of pride and ownership over the local environment.
  • Create beautiful, vibrant and diverse public spaces accessible to all.

Three out of 4 areas in Stanley are "left behind" neighbourhoods, so the communities’ aspirations are perhaps no surprise.

What might be surprising is that one project is trying to deliver against these aspirations using sustainable drainage systems (SuDS).The SuDS+ project is developing and testing an approach which de-prioritises drainage as the primary driver for the implementation of SuDS. Instead, it considers drainage equally with the suite of other potential SuDS co-benefits such as amenity, health and wellbeing, biodiversity, education, employment and housing. These benefits extend significantly beyond the traditional four pillars of SuDS – water quantity, water quality, amenity and biodiversity.

The project is funded by Defra as part of the £150 million Flood and Coastal Resilience Innovation Programme (FCRIP) which is managed by the Environment Agency. The programme will drive innovation in flood and coastal resilience and adaptation to a changing climate.

Innovation is in the eye of the beholder

The community are at the heart of the SuDS+ project, as the driving force they are co-creating SuDS in Stanley, and at the half-way point of the project this has involved them setting the vision for their place and identifying locations for local investment.

This level of community participation in and of itself is viewed as innovative for Durham County Council, as explained by Brian Weatherall, the drainage and coastal protection manager and the SuDS+ Project Lead: “Involving the community at an early stage is in stark contrast to the business as usual of designing or envisaging a scheme before consultation begins, community involvement at an early stage is usually only with those directly affected by flooding or those that have suffered previously”, he said.

The ultimate outcome of involving the community in SuDS creation from a SuDS+ perspective, is so they can identify and receive the range of co-benefits that SuDS has the potential to generate that are not typically considered, as George Gerring, a project director from the Environment Agency and SuDS+ Project Partner, puts it: “What makes this approach different is the locations have been identified and prioritised based on the opportunity to enhance existing local facilities, such as play parks, or the potential to offer new services, such as outdoor learning experiences or adult digital literacy”.

Identifying innovation types

The delivery of a new approach often requires novel techniques, one of the core aims of SuDS+ is to identify these types of innovation to not only test and apply in Stanley, but to share with others. This is being undertaken in a number of ways:

  • Innovation forums: where projects come together to share common challenges and discuss innovative ways to overcome those challenges;
  • Creative thinking workshops: where stakeholders use creative thinking techniques to solve difficult problem areas;
  • Calls to industry: where innovators are invited to submit their ideas on SuDS+ design and monitoring in Stanley; and
  • Horizon scans: where new and emerging technologies are identified for SuDS+ design and monitoring.

Many interesting initiatives have been discussed with other FCIP projects at the SuDS+ Innovation Forum on the topics of community participation and co-design, such as the Blue Heart project, that uses the ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) approach through it’s community radio documentary and a community fund to give local communities a voice and a way to support their own projects.

The Westcountry Rivers Trust Rapid Response Catchments Project (part of the DRIP project) is supporting the development of a ‘Slow the Flow’ card game based around selecting different community resilience options and an augmented reality (AR) SandBox to help communities to understand catchment functioning.

Catchment to Coast are planning to capture, treat and store surface water and highway runoff for re-use in allotments and new community gardens, and one of Reclaim the Rain’s innovations is finding the value in flood water through actions such as capture and re-use.

SuDS+ design and implementation

The first creative thinking workshop tackled the challenges of SuDS maintenance such as financing and the role of communities, and the ubiquitous issues of fly-tipping and littering with ideas considered as diverse as recycled plastic for the SuDS assets to talking bins.

The SuDS+ project itself is developing and testing a new four stage approach that uses community aspirations to inform retrofit (i.e. in existing developments):

(1) vision setting;

(2) opportunity mapping and prioritisation;

(3) designing interventions together;

(4) legacy (ongoing monitoring and maintenance).

The community created seven vision statements through a series of interviews and workshops and surveys, as seen in the graphic below:

An opportunity mapping activity then identified 383 opportunities where investment could be undertaken during walking tours, workshops and in person mapping exercises and from this a novel prioritisation methodology produced a shortlist of 12 SuDS+ concepts. The most popular of these concepts will now be co-designed with the community and flood resilience will be integrated with the design.

This is a snapshot of the innovation being driven by the Flood and Coastal Resilience Innovation Programme, not forgetting all the new approaches being tested elsewhere by the sustainable drainage sector.

The question is how can these innovative actions improve resilience to flooding?

Multi-dimensional resilience

The Environment Agency define flood resilience as “the capacity of people and places to plan for, better protect, respond to and recover from flooding and coastal change”.

The SuDS+ approach aims to build on this and provide wider co-benefits (e.g. amenity, health and wellbeing, biodiversity, education, employment and housing) that will enable SuDS to contribute not only to flood resilience but also social/community, environmental and economic resilience.

Mark Davinson, from Wear Rivers Trust, articulates this from the local community perspective, as a Stanley resident and the SuDS+ Engagement Facilitator: “Everyone is interested in flooding but just not enough to prioritise it over the other things an economically deprived area needs. Linking flood reduction to wider community benefit is a good way of engaging residents in a flooding conversation. Can we help with jobs, education, training etc while reducing the chances of flooding?”.

SuDS+ is exploring how to deliver this type of multidimensional resilience in two main ways.

Firstly, by embodying the co-benefits, as identified by the community during vision setting and opportunity mapping, in the SuDS+ designs. This could include things such as developing a SuDS+ demonstration site that not only positively impacts flooding in the area, but also creates job opportunities for locals and attracts visitors to the area to boost the wider economy.

Examples of co-created SuDS+ ideas from Arup microsite

And secondly, by delivering SuDS+ with the local community. This includes involving local community-led networks in the design and monitoring of SuDS+, providing opportunities for knowledge boosting and education activities. This includes the addition of citizen science skills for local community through activities that monitor SuDS+, for example biodiversity.

Resilient innovation ecosystems

The participation of the local community in Stanley during the design and ongoing monitoring and maintenance of SuDS+ is essential for the co-benefits and resulting resilience to be achieved. In fact, it is not only the local community but the wider delivery community including, but not limited to, the local authority, rivers trust, local council, financiers, designer and technology developers that need to be involved.

As SuDS+ is an innovative approach, there is a requirement for all participants to have the capacity to generate ideas, think creatively, look at things in a new light; not an easy ask at a time when organisational resources are stretched and people are dealing with other socio-economic challenges.

The stakeholders also naturally form an innovation ecosystem which the SuDS+ project teamnurture through collaborative activities such as walking tours, vision setting workshops, innovation forums and creative thinking workshops.

An effective innovation ecosystem should allow people to generate better ideas, share resources and learn by being better connected. This capacity and connectivity are not only essential for successful innovation, but also for resilience in multi-stakeholder collaborations and resources.

Does innovation drive resilience?

In answer to the question of whether innovation drives resilience, it certainly has the potential to, given the work being undertaken by the FCRIP projects. The programme also provides the opportunity for projects such as SuDS+ to undertake research alongside real-life pilots, to develop an evidence base for quantifying the extent to which innovation drives resilience.

If we view a major component of resilience as the capacity to act, then we can say that resilience can certainly drive innovation. As connectivity enhances both innovation and resilience, particularly at a community level when considering SuDS+, we need to tap into community cohesion and the appetite to be more connected, as expressed by the Stanley residents in their testimonies:

  • “I like the Stanley community. Everyone helps each other out”
  • “Nice to be part of a bigger project that could bring improvement. Nobody invests in our area”
  • “Enjoyed interacting and thinking about the area”.

Author: Caitlin Rogers, Prinicipal Innovation Consultant, Isle Utilities

Rogers is leading Isle’s growth in the flooding sector with a focus on Innovation for Flood Resilience and managing Isle’s partnership with the DEFRA funded Flood and Coastal Resilience Innovation Program (FCRIP). Caitlin has previously led Isle’s Technology Approval Groups (TAG) in Europe and South Africa and established a TAG forum for industrial clients in South Africa whilst exploring the market potential for Isle in the region.

Caitlin has previously led Isle’s Technology Approval Groups (TAG) in Europe and South Africa and established the industrial TAG in South Africa whilst exploring the market potential for Isle in the region. Prior to Isle Caitlin undertook various commercial and operational roles at Thames Water.


The SuDS+ project is delivered in partnership with Durham County Council, Environment Agency, Northumbria University, Northumbrian Water, Teesside University, Wear Rivers Trust, Arup, Isle Utilities and Veridian Logic.

Regular project updates can be found on the project website at

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