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.

Improving innovation policy in Wales

The Welsh Government’s recently published draft innovation strategy gave us a chance to reflect on how innovation happens in Wales. It’s provided an opportunity to think about how the strategy might be improved and the role that Welsh Government plays.

The draft innovation strategy covers a multitude of areas of life where innovation could play a role in improving things. However, for innovation to play a full role in the lives of people in Wales, we need a ready supply of – and, importantly, a consistent demand for – new ideas.

It needs to be easy to develop and test new ideas and to access the resources, skills and funding that allow this to be done; and we need to make sure we’re scaling what works as rapidly and effectively as possible, especially where we face pressing challenges around climate and society.

With the new innovation strategy still in draft, there’s an opportunity to make innovation work for all of Wales. But, to be a success, the strategy needs to address two areas of focus that will make it easier for Wales to develop and then scale the new ideas we require.

Firstly, it needs to make the missions – which range from creating “an innovative, productive, low-carbon society” to “building attractive, viable, safe and well-connected communities” – more focused and specific. Secondly it needs to address the gap around the diffusion – or spread of innovation.

Specific and measurable missions

While we welcome the use of missions to set a direction of travel for innovation in Wales, more work needs to be done to realise their full potential as a policy tool. In particular, they need to be more specific.

Without specific goals or measurable outcomes, it’s going to be hard to know whether or not Wales is succeeding or the extent to which something falls in or out of scope for a mission.

While the wellbeing goals set out in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) Wales could act as grand challenges, they lack the specificity to be useful missions around which people, resources and action can galvanise. We’d argue that they shouldn’t be used for this purpose.

Responding to the needs of existing strategies

We believe the Welsh Government’s existing plans and strategies are the best starting point for creating measurable goals. We should build out from the long term plans made by government, including the Prosperity for All and A Healthier Wales strategies, rather than adding to them.

Missions will be most effective if they focus on problems or opportunities that are known to need new solutions and that require collaboration between different government departments and the wider public, private or third sector.

New delivery structures

Resourcing innovation effectively may also require new forms of governance, new structures and different skills and resources. The responsibility for missions needs to sit at a directorial level within Welsh Government – for proper oversight and understanding of where challenges might be shared and therefore better tackled through cross-government collaboration.

Moving into action will require a dedicated innovation team with knowledge of and access to a wide range of skills, tools and methods to provide appropriate support, some of which will have to come from outside the organisation.

Diffusion of innovation

Ideas can’t be considered innovations unless they’re taken up and used. The diffusion of innovation – applying it and sharing it – should be “pursued actively” according to the Council for Science and Technology. The core of any innovation strategy is to consider how we implement and scale ideas effectively and, where necessary, rapidly.

Failure to make the most of proven ideas is a weakness not just in Wales (where good practice is often described as a bad traveller) but in the UK as a whole. While we’re good at developing new ideas (the UK ranks 8th in the world for knowledge creation), we’re less effective at disseminating this knowledge (15th for knowledge diffusion) and even worse at taking it on (24th for knowledge absorption). This is despite us being ranked fourth overall for innovation globally.

Nesta’s own research into innovation in Wales demonstrated that people in Wales were keen to see the benefits of innovation realised more widely. As well as involving more people in the development of ideas, it was also important to see proven innovations being adopted in people’s lives and benefit from the progress the innovations can bring.

There are also likely to be demonstrable economic benefits from ensuring a focus on adoption. In 2017, the CBI estimated that over £100bn could be added to the UK’s gross value added (GVA) if more firms adopted proven ideas and technologies. The supporting evidence for the UK government’s innovation strategy demonstrates this further, highlighting that greater gains in labour productivity will come from adopting best practices, rather than from developing new ideas (55% vs 45%).

We also know the challenges we face in Wales, the UK and globally require us to develop new ideas and solutions. To meet the demands, we need to deploy many of these new ideas rapidly at scale. So under each of the missions the Welsh Government is working towards, equal consideration should be given to R&D and the diffusion of proven innovations.

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Nesta Cymru


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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