About Nesta

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.

Creating a public sector testbed - the challenges

The Cardiff Capital Region represents huge opportunities to think differently about how public services are delivered and how we tackle some of the most significant social challenges we face. A public sector testbed that convenes, enables and catalyses new work could deliver significant benefits to the region, however, realising this opportunity is not without challenge. 

In our last blog, we set out three things we think a public sector testbed should do. That blog opened the door to conversations with lots of interested and interesting stakeholders and, importantly, highlighted some of the challenges the Cardiff Capital Region will need to address to make the most of the opportunity. Here, we set out three key challenges that we think will require some focus in order to realise this opportunity.

The culture of collaboration

First, there will be a need to embrace the opportunities offered by working in a more joined up and collaborative way. This needs to mean working across conventional organisational and sector boundaries, and engaging a wider set of partners becomes a regular, normal part of day-to-day business.

The collective organisation of the city deal itself demonstrates a level of political will and senior buy in to work both collaboratively and differently. The challenge will be to translate this into action across organisations, geographies and sectors. 

Our own work with Innovate to Save shows both the value of collaboration across sectors but also that there is still more to be done. Our eight research and development projects are all in some way collaborations, between different combinations of public and third sector organisations. Feedback from participants in our pre-application workshops regularly highlighted both the value of bringing together people from different sectors and organisations, but perhaps more importantly the lack of opportunities that people get to do this around tangible projects or challenges. We’re looking forward to seeing the outcomes of a piece of work, being contributed to by Cardiff University researchers, exploring how governments change to become more open, innovative and collaborative, which should provide more useful evidence about how this can and does happen.

Identifying shared challenges - similar to work that’s been done around public service board wellbeing objectives - is one way that this might start to look at how collaboration can be facilitated.

The integration of assets

A direct consequence of the need to collaborate will be the need to share more of what we have with each other. There will be challenges in creation, curation and combination of datasets and their attendant infrastructures, to provide the data needed and to deliver on a more integrated and holistic approach to problem definition, policy and practice, service design and evaluation.

As an example of this, of the ten local authorities that make up the city region, only five currently make some form of data available in an open format. 

There are examples that might indicate how such opportunities can be developed. For example, the SAIL Databank in Wales holds large amounts of data on the population. The key is in linking data from across multiple datasets to facilitate research analysis. Creating such new datasets can open up new avenues for both research and the design of impactful policy and practice interventions.

The work currently being undertaken by WAST, Betsi Cadwalader Health Board, Gwynedd and Wrexham Councils through Innovate to Save is demonstrating some of the challenges of doing this - different data storage and collection methods, recording different things that are used to tell similar stories - but also that integrating and using this data effectively is possible, if you’re able to access the right skills. This in itself highlights another key challenge - ensuring the skills and capabilities to undertake this work either exist within our organisations or can be accessed in a sustainable manner. The work of the Data Science Campus at ONS provides some capacity for this and there is a key role here for the three universities in the Cardiff Capital Region, plus further education providers and organisations like the National Software Academy to ensure a long-term pipeline of talented graduates. It also requires the public sector to think differently about the types of roles they need, and recruiting in ways that retain some of the best talent in Wales.

Increasing ambition

Finally, there will be an inherent need to be ambitious, entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial in developing activities that herald new ways of seeing and doing. This will bring with it the challenge of making time to do things differently, of taking greater risks and not being afraid to fail, and embracing uncertainty through being more inquisitive.

Organisations will need to be playful with new ideas and technologies - exploring their potential and their boundaries; this will require appropriate forms of financial and non-financial support that open the stage to the widest possible number of actors who can bring new ideas to the table. 

There is enormous potential for commercial development within the public sector and the city region will need to be ambitious enough to recognise and support this. Public’s recent State of Govtech report suggests it’s a market currently worth £6.6bn, growing to £20bn by 2025. We wait with interest to see how the recently announced Gov Tech Catalyst team is rolled out and what it supports while exploring and learning from other similar initiatives in places like New Zealand and their R9 accelerator and the emerging activity of our own Be The Spark initiative and support from the new Development Bank for Wales. The city region itself presents new opportunities to act as a single market for new ideas with commercial potential, with a testbed that gives access to a broad range of organisations, and customers. There are likely to be new opportunities for our existing SME base to not only develop new commercial ideas that help solve some of the big challenges we face but also to support new ways of working within the region.

This is a non-exhaustive list of the challenges the city region faces in developing an impactful public sector testbed. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this - please join the conversation by using the comments below.


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.

View profile

Rick Delbridge

Rick Delbridge is Cardiff University’s Dean of Research, Innovation & Enterprise and the academic lead for its development of SPARK (Social Science Research Park).