Innovation Strategies


Balancing national and regional aspects

Rick Delbridge

Rick Delbridge is Professor of Organisational Analysis at Cardiff Business School and co-convenor of the Centre for Innovation Policy Research at Cardiff University. Previously, he was University Dean of Research, Innovation & Enterprise and led the development of the Social Science Research Park which opened in March 2022. He is the university lead for the Local Wealth Building Challenge Fund in partnership with the Cardiff Capital Region. He is special adviser for innovation to the President of the Learned Society of Wales.


  • The Scottish experience of driving innovation is one that Wales is keen to learn from
  • Targets for innovation need to be aspirational but also meaningful and deliverable
  • Innovation policy has to be delivered at a level individuals and communities can identify with
  • Public sector procurement has a key role in driving innovation in Wales.

The Welsh Government started its innovation strategy review in 20211. Cardiff University’s Centre for Innovation Policy Research provided a report that includes statistical data and conversations with around 50 stakeholders. Scotland was one of the innovative small nations that we were interested in hearing and learning from.

We made a number of recommendations in our initial report. First, there must be a narrative which captures a level of ambition in what can be achieved. We need to be ambitious, disruptively so in some ways, producing aspirations that industry, the public sector and individual citizens can both recognise and realise.

While Wales does not have the academic strength and depth of Scotland, Welsh universities have impactful agendas too. Yet there are questions about how well universities respond to the innovation agenda. One contributor to the Welsh review complained that Higher Education institutions are often more interested in research-led innovation, rather than innovation-led research.

In Wales, we need to ensure that the next phase continues to support SMEs, but also what has been called the ‘nascent’ or future clustering of research activity. Without investment in the ‘innovation commons’ of skills, resources and connectivity, the likelihood of future innovation emerging in successful ways will be limited.

The innovation agenda needs to embrace the world-leading science and technology we have. But another of our recommendations is that it also needs to take a more wide-ranging socio-ecological view, if innovation is to engage with society’s main challenges, for example, climate or health. The Welsh Government’s Innovation Strategy is framed around such ‘missions’ in education, economy,

health and wellbeing, as well as climate and nature. So, in Wales we have been working to engage the public sector in order to create innovation opportunities for the nation through leveraging public procurement and actively shaping market opportunities.

The innovation policy landscape is becoming more complex, not just in Wales but across the UK. The four Welsh City/Growth Deals are developing into economic regions, yet the articulation of those and aligning activities with the funding coming from UK and Welsh Government is proving challenging. Focussing on the regional level in Wales is crucial for translating large-scale ambitions into something that people can recognise themselves in.

We also advocated the restructuring of innovation, so that it sits more squarely in the economy brief. Welsh Government has devoted time to thinking about how the innovation agenda can be incorporated across the divisions of government and related to our Future Generations Act, which requires all Welsh policies to be mindful of the implications for the future.

While we should be ambitious, it is important to take into account the challenges the public sector is facing and whether sufficient investment is being put into building capability and capacity. There is a role here for the public sector in supporting specific industry clusters. Interventions will need to be selective with regard to place and sector. But will our institutions and institutional bodies need to be reviewed in order to achieve this? There is sometimes a gap between great policies and practical measures that are delivering for our citizens.

A mission approach

What does it mean to adopt a mission approach? We know that business as usual will not get us to where we want to be. We need to work in interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral ways in order to turn acutely ambitious headline objectives into real granular activity.

The Cardiff Capital Region comprises 10 local authorities in the southeast of Wales in the biggest single City Growth Deal in the UK. It is distinctive in one important way: it has not committed the majority of its funding (outside of the metro system) to specific projects. So the Region is building a portfolio of investment funds, looking for a series of innovation-acceleration interventions. For example, Cardiff University has been assisting on the design and delivery of a Challenge Fund, based on well-established innovation tools such as SBRI. Where public sector organisations in the region have a public service problem for which there is no solution readily available, we will look to formulate the problem as a challenge for innovators. We can then seed-fund the testing and initial stages of trialling.

One example was to train people in clinical practices during the pandemic. Two virtual reality and simulation technology firms were funded to produce new training for tracheostomy and other medical processes which are now being applied in hospitals. We are keen to use this approach to spearhead further innovation procurement in the public sector in Wales and so leverage the power of the public purse.

Figure 1. The innovation ecosystem for Cardiff Capital Region 

Innovation ecosystem

In the Cardiff Capital Region we are employing an innovation ecosystem perspective, bringing together the elements that might aid a mission approach. These include clusters which are absolutely vital to the regional innovation strategy. The ‘commons’ such as skills, resources and connectivity are the raw materials of innovation. When identifying the leading science and technology clusters, it is important to be mindful of the training and skills that are needed not just by those clusters, but also wider society. The challenge fund is an example of what could be called a

‘catalytic intervention’, an attempt to energise and nurture innovative activity, particularly in Cardiff’s case in the public sector. These activities help develop the region’s capacity to deliver on this agenda.

City/growth deals are complex political contexts at the interface between national and regional strategies with, in some cases, an international dimension as well. In Cardiff, we have a programme that focusses on priority clusters, but has also identified opportunities around specific challenges and ‘micro missions’. These all need to operate at a level of scale where people can see themselves as part of the innovation process. Underlying this needs to be an overall narrative that is founded on a solid base but that is also aspirational for communities.

The Innovation Strategy for Wales has now been published at: