A blog entry by Dr Matthew Lariviere
The world is ageing. Britain is ageing. 11 million people living in the UK today will live to their 100th birthday. Increased longevity will also increase the number of people living in later life with disabilities and multiple co-morbidities. Such demographic changes will increase pressure on a social care system already considered in crisis. In 2017, the Government of the United Kingdom recognised the increased pressures that ageing may have on society. The Industrial Strategy identified “Ageing Society” as one of its four Grand Challenges to allocate strategically resources for research and innovation to boost the British economy whilst also addressing societal challenges of the 21st century.
To meet the changing economic and scientific needs of the United Kingdom, the Government has created new funding streams through the nascent United Kingdom Research and Innovation, a funding agency that includes Research England, Innovate UK, and the seven Research Councils. One of these new funding streams is their Innovation Fellowship.
Innovation Fellowships represent an opportunity for academics to work closely with partners in industry. They allow both industry and early career researchers to benefit mutually from each other’s knowledge and experience. Industry partners benefit from the expertise of an academic working on a research programme designed to ameliorate the challenges endemic to their organisation and also encountered more widely in their sector or marketplace. Co-producing a research agenda from design through to dissemination ensures that research outputs will resonate with the needs of British businesses and services ensuring outputs resonate with their needs and generate impact for my work. For my Innovation Fellowship, I work with British businesses and service providers working in the technology-enabled care marketplace to help accelerate implementation and uptake of their technological products to support ageing in place.
Insight work from Carers UK has demonstrated that many people do not identify technological solutions as option for supporting care. In the social sciences, however, we often define technology as any human artefact. Technologies understood in this way permeate every facet of our lives. Care is no different from any other human activity. We help people eat meals with cutlery. We drive people to doctor’s and dentist’s appointments. We use different soaps and other products to bathe them. Other products like assistive technologies, including hearing aids, wheelchairs and pendant alarms, have been widely used for decades in the UK. Their widespread implementation continues to support older people to engage in everyday activities. Technology will continue to play a role in how we care for each other despite the emergence of more sophisticated and digital components to their design. The question remains though, what will these technologies look like and how will they be implemented in pre-existing care systems and individual arrangements in the future?
Businesses currently develop new apps to coordinate care arrangements, social robots to alleviate loneliness or identify a potential crisis such as a fall, and exoskeletons to increase the physical capability of care workers and reduce their risk of physical harm. The ‘digital turn’ is happening in health and social care innovation. However, we must remember that digital will only be a single component of technology, when people use new technologies there will still be material components which vary in texture, weight, colour and other features that may determine their acceptance and uptake. How people handle and understand new technologies will be crucial to understand the benefit of embedding them into care practices.
Increased organisational efficiency or cost-effectiveness will not necessarily persuade older people or their carers to adopt new technologies. A change-management discourse may not appeal to older people, nor should we expect it to do so. People involved in the development and marketing of new care technologies must focus on narratives which can also appeal to and demonstrate outcomes which matter to older people and carers. How will technologies support people to take part in activities personally significant to them? How will they reduce emotionally or physically demanding work for carers? Businesses and their technological innovations which can evidence answers to these questions may have an easier time penetrating the marketplace whilst also enhancing the wellbeing of its end users.
Disruptive innovation allows new techniques, knowledge and products to challenge the status quo developing new models, markets and practices to emerge. Yet there should be an ethical responsibility for designing and implementing innovations in social care given its approach toward a ‘tipping point’ with an uncertain source for sustainable future funding. Some older people already rely on adult social care services provided from their local authority or, more commonly, commissioned to an external provider. Disruptive innovations may ameliorate some of the current challenges facing social care in this country, however, it may also negatively affect facets of care provision that work. Here sustainability is about more than adequate capital to fund the future of social care for an ageing Britain. It must also include sustainable approaches for implementation of innovations that will provide benefits to older people, their partners in care, service providers and businesses developing these new systems and products.