CCR Challenge Fund Manager
The £10 million Challenge Fund that Cardiff Capital Region’s Regional Cabinet agreed to in principle in June, pending submission of a full business case in September, is a very clever fund.
Clever because it is designed to achieve several different but equally worthwhile objectives.
It will, once it is up and running by the end of the year, contribute to rebuilding our local economy and produce innovative solutions to deep-seated societal problems, such as decarbonisation of transport and improvements in social care. It will provide opportunities to small businesses in our foundational economy, helping to stimulate a sustainable recovery post-Covid and build resilient communities. And it will engender a cultural change in our public sector, encouraging it to adopt a more innovative and open-minded approach to public procurement.
In charge of the fund is CCR Challenge Fund Manager Gareth Browning, who comes to the role after 20 years working in innovation and R&D. His career takes in spells at the Welsh Development Agency and the Welsh Government; managing business incubators for the Technium programme; being Wales regional lead for Framework 7, the forerunner of Horizon 2020; and taking on the senior role for driving forwards challenge-led innovation at the Welsh Government, building up the SBRI Accelerator programme and securing national funding for 21 challenges across the public sector from the emergency services to local authorities.
Benefits all round
Gareth says there are benefits to be had for both public and private sectors from the Challenge Fund. The public sector stands to gain from inviting businesses to come up with innovative solutions to longstanding problems. And businesses stand to gain access to public sector R&D contracts that they may not previously have been considered for.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Challenge Fund process is the premium it places on creativity. Public sector bodies enter it without preconceived ideas or solutions already in mind. Instead they identify a problem, such as how might we deliver more rapid decarbonisation, and declare what the desired outcome would be (a defined improvement). They then throw it open to businesses to come up with solutions.
“Once you’ve identified a problem and framed the challenge, the business community is invited to help solve it through a competitive phased R&D process,” said Gareth.
“You describe what the desired outcome looks like, but you don’t describe the solution, and that’s quite hard to do sometimes. We tend to jump into knowing what the solution is without thinking what else could be out there.”
The Regional Cabinet will focus the Challenge Fund priorities towards the most pressing challenges facing our communities – in themes such as healthy ageing, public transport, energy, tourism and the foundational economy – and then Gareth and his team will drill down into them to find the specific challenges that public sector bodies face and which they can present to businesses for solutions.
Gareth said in his experience public sector workers enjoyed interacting with businesses in new and innovative ways. He said:
“What I’ve found is that when you get the public sector bodies engaged in setting a challenge for innovation they get a lot out of it. It’s often more rewarding than the traditional supplier customer relationship which has its role, it brings out the creativity and fresh new ideas you wouldn’t ordinarily get.”
“There’s an opportunity for businesses to come up with creative, innovative ideas which maybe as public sector bodies we wouldn’t have thought of. We’re saying: we don’t know what the answer is, we want you as private sector businesses to come up with innovations to solve the problems and challenges we face.”
Gareth hopes to have the first challenge up and running before the end of the year, and to have at least two or three live challenges in progress early next year. The CCR will work with partners including Cardiff University, to help define the challenges.
The criteria for success will depend on the challenges selected, but solutions will have to be transformative and capable of being scaled up. And since this is a CCR programme, they will be targeting rebuilding local wealth in the Cardiff Capital Region.
Cardiff Capital Region was facing many problems before Covid-19. Some persist, some have been revealed as more urgent, some new ones have been highlighted. Small businesses in the foundational economy needed help beforehand; they do even more so now. In the CCR, the Challenge Fund is an idea whose time has come.