The origins of the IWA lie in the industrial and political crisis that Wales faced in the 1980s, following the rejection of democratic devolution in the 1979 referendum and the trauma of the miners’ strike of 1984-85.

In 1986, a paper produced by TV Executive Geraint Talfan Davies and Cardiff lawyer Keith James set out the case for ‘a body that can provide a regular intellectual challenge to current practice in all those spheres of Welsh life and administration that impact on our industrial and economic performance’. An initial £50,000 grant was provided by the Welsh Development Agency Chief Executive David Waterstone, and the Institute was incorporated on 22 July 1987.

The IWA’s first Chairman was Henry Kroch, President of AB Electronics; his Deputy Chairman was Sir Donald Walters, a prominent lawyer and businessman. Its Board of Trustees has always been drawn from across the full spectrum of civil society.

The think-tank was established as – and remains – an independent charity owing no allegiance to any political or economic interest group, and was the first think tank to develop on the basis of a membership model.

Until 1996 the IWA functioned as a purely voluntary body under the chairmanship of Geraint Talfan Davies. However, with a combination of funding from the WDA, the Hyder group and Sir Julian Hodge, the IWA was able to appoint a full-time Director that year. 

Journalist John Osmond oversaw the production of the IWA’s well-respected journal, Agenda, and a prodigious output of research and analysis.

Over the next decade and a half the IWA:

  • Helped make the intellectual case for the creation of a Welsh Assembly, and having helped secure its establishment, monitored its development and supported its growth
  • Made public the case for EU Objective 1 status for a large part of Wales, helping secure hundreds of millions of pounds of additional investment from the EU
  • Campaigned successfully for the introduction of a Welsh Baccalaureate to re-shape the curriculum for 16-19 year olds and to raise standards and improve educational performance
  • Established an argument for a performing arts centre in Cardiff, leading to the building of the Wales Millennium Centre, transforming the cultural landscape in Wales and giving Wales an important international platform
  • Made the case, through publications and public debate, for the adoption of the city region concept, now a key part of Welsh Government policy

The IWA developed a track record as a credible source of independent research and analysis, and a history of public engagement on issues affecting the cultural, social, political and economic well being of Wales.

Despite having a small staff the IWA generated a constant flow of conferences, seminars and research reports. In 2008, the IWA launched the Click on Wales (now welsh agenda online) comment and analysis site which has become the main portal for quality discussion about public policy in Wales.

In April 2013, John Osmond was succeeded as Director by Lee Waters, who had previously run the environmental charity Sustrans Cymru and had been Chief Political Correspondent for ITV Wales. A year later the founder of the successful Cardiff-based law-firm NewLaw, Helen Molyneux, was appointed Chair.

After a consultation with its members the IWA developed a new strategy which saw the charity narrow its focus to developing practical ideas for long-term change in four priority areas: the economy, education, health, governance & the media.

The think-tank has pioneered the application of crowdsourcing techniques to policy development with innovative projects – including an ambitious online Constitutional Convention for Wales which saw 12,000 people engage with a debate on the future of the UK in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum. 

The Let’s talk cancer project – run in partnership with Tenovus Cancer Care – which delved into the first hand experiences of patients and created practical proposals for reform.

Wales Media Audits in 2008 and 2015, sparked a debate about the visibility of Wales in the media and the way it is portrayed and governed. It informed reports by the National Assembly and House of Commons and informed the BBC Charter renewal.

The IWA’s report on the economy in March 2015 was the most comprehensive study of the state of the Welsh economy since devolution. It set out the scale of the challenge to closing the wealth gap with the rest of the UK. Its recommendations for game-changing projects to stimulate growth included harnessing Wales’ natural resources by becoming a net exporter of renewable energy. 

In December 2016, Auriol Miller joined as Director, replacing Lee Waters who became the Assembly Minister for Llanelli in the Assembly Elections of that year. She joined from  Cymorth Cymru, the umbrella body for providers of homelessness, housing-related support and social care services in Wales.

Insights gleaned from 2015’s report on the economy formed the basis of Re-energising Wales, which provides a practical blueprint for making Wales a net exporter of renewable energy and how Wales can move to a carbon-neutral economy by 2035. Published in 2019, the report’s recommendations gained widespread media attention and the IWA continues to engage with politicians from across the political spectrum to implement its recommendations.

In October 2019, Understanding Welsh Places, a bilingual website that presents information on the economy, demographic make-up and local services of more than 300 places in Wales, was launched. A lot of statistics collected about Wales are only available on a local authority level and often town communities are overlooked by public policy because of the difficulty accessing data at that level. Part of a three year project funded by the Carnegie UK Trust, Understanding Welsh Places informs and influences the development of policies in towns across Wales.  

In March 2020, Click on Wales, the online platform for debate was re-launched as the welsh agenda online. Having provided a place for comment on all things political and cultural for over a decade, merging the brands of the paper magazine and the online edition was a deliberate attempt to re-focus the platforms to include a more diverse range of voices to better reflect modern Wales.