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 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.

The independent charity and think tank underwent a period of reflection and rebranding between 2014-2016. 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 strategy refresh and re-branding work culminated in the launch of a new online presence in 2016. The new website integrates the IWA’s popular Click on Wales comment and analysis platform, and provides free open access to all the IWA’s reports, podcasts and latest news.

The think-tank has pioneered the application of crowdsourcing techniques to policy development with three 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, and the Let’s talk cancer project – run in partnership with Tenovus Cancer Care – which developed the first hand experiences of patients into practical proposals for reform.

The 2015 Wales Media Audit, which followed a similar assessment of the media landscape in 2008, 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 continues to inform the ongoing 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. This has formed the basis on the IWA’s latest project, Re-energising Wales, which looks to provide a practical blueprint for making Wales a net exporter of renewable energy.