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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Cardiff's Innovation Testbed

What would you do if charged with testing out new ideas for delivering public services for nearly half of a country’s population?

This is a question we’ve been considering in Y Lab recently as work gathers pace around the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal - and it’s a fascinating opportunity to think and act differently for our public services.

The deal will support a programme of work to improve the region’s ability to accelerate innovation, research and development.  Within this commitment is a recognition that new approaches to public service delivery are needed, through the development of a public service testbed. 

It’s a well known fact that public services are under increasing pressure to adapt - driven by austerity and increasing demands on their time and resources.  Yet mechanisms to support new ways of thinking and doing are few and far between. A public service testbed could change that; however, details on what this means or what it will do within the Capital region are limited.

As a starting point, here are three things we think the public service test bed could do to support new ideas for our public services.

A convener - supporting greater collaboration across sectors and the region

There’s a significant opportunity for public services to work more closely with each other, with other sectors and with the general public. Alongside 10 local authorities, it takes in four health boards, three universities, two police forces and a single fire service, as well as national agencies like Natural Resources Wales.  

The public service test bed should play a convening role, creating opportunities for people to come together and find opportunities to work more closely.  Our own work around Innovate to Save is starting to show the value of collaboration and the central role of the convener in supporting this.

Within this there should be conversations about (and tangible projects that show) how data can be shared more openly and effectively across the region - the new metro should be a starting point for this conversation and can act as an exemplar project in the region.

The testbed should also ensure that opportunities for collaboration are not confined to the geographic region; it needs to be connected to other city regions around the world – taking opportunities to learn from exciting new initiatives such as those in Melbourne - so that ideas, practice and evidence can be shared more broadly.

An enabler - creating the capabilities and spaces for new ideas to emerge

The test bed should ensure that public services are able to generate and access the best new ideas and provide safe spaces where these can be tested, trialled and scaled.

This should include trialling new methods of procurement that open the sector up to the significant and thriving SME and creative communities across the region - Barcelona’s Urban Lab is a good example of this. Doing things differently will require new skills and there will be a significant role for the test bed in supporting training and development.  The testbed should also ensure that it generates useful knowledge that spreads beyond the capital region - providing new opportunities for collaboration with the region’s academic capacity.

A catalyst - using its scale to tackle grand challenges that affect the whole region

The geographic spread of the region is significant - 1.4m people accounting for approximately 46% of the population of Wales - stretching from Newport and Monmouthshire in the east to Bridgend in the West and north to Merthyr Tydfil.  The testbed provides an opportunity to catalyse thinking and action in a more integrated way and at a different scale - to tackle some of the challenges that ignore geographic or political borders and have a deep and lasting impact on the citizens of the region.  

For example -  the area has widespread issues with air pollution. Caerphilly has the UK’s most polluted road outside of London, while an estimated 143 people die each year in Cardiff as a result of poor air quality - what can we do collectively to tackle this? 

It should also provide opportunities to think proactively and in a more exploratory way about how we utilise the assets we have; as an example we might think about how outdoor spaces and access to nature can play a role in the delivery of health and wellbeing services.

Catalysing and facilitating opportunities to tackle some of these challenges - perhaps through challenge prizes or  multi-organisation innovation teams - will create a lasting legacy for the testbed and allow the region to fulfil its obligations under the Wellbeing of Future Generations act. Through such approaches a more inclusive, integrated and ambitious approach to public services can be fostered and sustained.

Most importantly, it provides an opportunity to make a significant impact on the lives of the people who live, work and play in the region.





Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Pennaeth Nesta Cymru / Head of Nesta Cymru

Rob is Head of Nesta Cymru - responsible for the delivery of Nesta's strategy in Wales.

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