Social Innovation and Adoption in Ageing

Patrick Shine

Last week started and ended with events on the subject of ageing that were, to an extent, “ground-breaking”. By this I mean they were unusual and I hadn’t come across anything similar – but in a few years’ time I suspect that such events will be commonplace. But they were very different and demonstrate the breadth of the field we are operating in. They also may give some clues to how the field develops in the next two years.

The first was a consultation in the London Borough of Southwark. Most participants were Local Authority officials or representatives of the voluntary sector, including social entrepreneurs representing programmes such as The Age of No Retirement, Encore Futures, and of course our own Retirement Transition Initiative.  The purpose was to kick off a process led by the council towards making Southwark an “Age-friendly borough” – and they would be the first in London to do this.

Held at Rotherhithe Community Farm, it reminded me of many other such events – a range of people who rarely work together, seeking to figure out how to achieve a highly valued objective but which required lots of joined-up thinking. Much tea was drunk, flip charts and post-it notes used, as we focussed on all the usual issues of ageing, but bearing in mind three distinctive features – its transient population, ethnic diversity, and inequality (especially health inequalities). I left feeling we had done a good job, that I was glad to live in Southwark, and that it would be the beginning of a long journey.

The second was held at NESTA by Aging 2.0, a global network of innovators for the 50+ market. Most participants were innovators and social entrepreneurs and their supporters, together with a number of potential strategic stakeholders / investors. We listened to ten 3-minute pitches, and got to vote in real time on which ones we liked. Beer was drunk from the bottle, twitter was active, there was no paper anywhere, and some really good innovations were showcased and publicised. 

There was a strong tech aspect, with several pitches presenting apps or other IT solutions to help overcome the challenges faced by older people and their carers in a world increasingly geographically dispersed and isolated. Of these, I am especially interested in SpeakSet, a venture we have supported as part of our work on Big Venture Challenge. It was also good to reconnect with Oomph!, another Big Venture Challenge winner with former colleagues on their staff.

These two events couldn’t be more different, but their common aim was to improve lives for older people. The technology sector is responding fast – even faster than expected – on everything from the isolation of older people due to the fragmentation of families (addressed by Gingersnap, which helps grandparents and grandkids to play together online) to driverless cars.

And despite the apparent cultural differences in the two events, the “winning” pitch at the Aging 2.0 event would slot right into the Southwark conversation. Casserole Club reduces isolation …. by encouraging people to cook for older people in their neighbourhood. I’m not sure if they would accept this description, but it seems to create a 21st Century platform for an activity (eating together, hospitality) which are as old as the human race.  As such it pulls together the community focus of the Southwark meeting with the innovation focus of the NESTA event.

However, I am still concerned around how this work gets to the individuals concerned. Many of the businesses pitched at Age 2.0 were embryonic and Local Authorities are so stretched that their capacity to do new things is very limited. I know in the days of Corbynmania this may sound unfashionable, but I suspect it will be the private sector that can provide the platforms for distribution much more quickly and easily than the public sector. And that is the sector that was under-represented last week.

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