To an upstairs floor at Google’s London campus for Thursday’s ‘What is the potential for new startups to get involved in Social Care?‘ – an event organised by digital social problem solvers, Social Innovation Camp.
The event featured a panel discussion with some of the leading thinkers in the bit of the venn diagram where social care intersects with digital technology:
Shirley Ayres – social care consultant and presenter of the Disruptive Social Care podcast – pointed out that there is no shortage of funders for social innovation in care and people with ideas could spend their whole lives putting in funding applications. The difficulty was that this didn’t solve the problem of actually selling those innovative products once they’d been created. She said more entrepreneurs in the field needed to recognise that while ‘there may be a gap in the market’ there may not be ‘a market in the gap’.
Claire Jones – an occupational therapist and organiser of the Digital Health Conference and Hack 2012 – talked about the challenges presented when the theory of digital innovation comes up against the practicalities of everyday life in the worlds of health and social care. For example, an app that enables people leaving hospital to prepare for their return home is not very effective in a hospital that has no internet access for patients. She asked if anyone had heard of the Department of Health’s Map and Apps project – which compiled a list of 500 of the best health-related apps voted for by the public and professionals. The fact that very few of those present, at an event specifically catering for people interested in the subject, illustrated the challenge involved in spreading information about digital tools that already exist. Claire also noted the potential difficulties that health-related apps could be regarded as ‘medical devices’ – and would therefore need to demonstrate medical outcomes in order to be funded by the NHS.
Alice Osbourne – from Spots of Time, a social enterprise that supports people to volunteer small of time to help the community – explained that it was ‘one thing to create the technology but embedding it in the world is way harder’. She said that entrepreneurs launching digital projects also needed to think about how to make their project work on a local level. She highlighted the difference in starting points for digital experts and many of those working in social care noting that: “walking into a care home is like going back ten years.”
Amanda Gore – from the Design Council, whose Living well with Dementia challenge ‘called for teams of designers and service providers to develop solutions to help people with dementia and their carers live easier, better planned and more enjoyable lives’ and funded five of them – started by highlighting the problem of creating a market when, as is often the case in social care, the end users of products are not in a position to pay for them. She pointed out the value of social sectors learning from other industries, giving the example of how the tourism industry supports people to travel around in places where they don’t speak the language and don’t know where they’re going. She raised the question of how and when we’d be able to stop doing lots of pilots of digital products and actually start getting things into people’s hands.
James Porteous – primarily a private sector digital professional, who worked on the development of Here’s a hand, an online tool to help unpaid carers support each other – said that input from people who would be the end users of digital products was vital in making sure these products were practically useful. He said those developing new apps or online tools should ask themselves ‘what is the minimum technology I can use to make my idea work’ – this would make the end product accessible to as many people as possible. He said small start-up businesses can have an advantage over large organisations based on the fact that they don’t need to get caught up in internal politics but can ‘just get on with making things’.
A Q+A/open discussion followed. Towards the end of the open discussion, Amanda Gore made the point that: “We need people to develop services that aren’t based on public funding. That people are paying for by monthly subs. That people can buy, rate and use.”
Despite the speakers’ differing starting points, there were some clear underlying messages coming through that resonate in the world of social innovation beyond ‘digital stuff’. For me, these include (but are not restricted to) the questions:
How do we close the gap between innovative ideas and every day practice in social care (and similar sectors)?
How can people developing new social innovations get them into mainstream markets, particularly when those markets are dominated by the state?
How can we find the balance between sharing information about socially useful products that are already out there and putting resources into develop new ones?
Can we develop social useful (digital) products that will be sustainable businesses based on people wanting to pay to use them?