Summary: a symposium on innovation, technology and later life provides confirmation that many of the challenges to making use of tech for ageing better are organisational and cultural as well as technical. We have plenty of tech - the issues are how to personalise and support use appropriate to people's needs and situation. But ageing organisations can't do that if they aren't using social tech themselves.
I found the SEEFA symposium last week on _‘Transforming not excluding – the impact of information technology and innovation on later life’ _most useful because it didn't focus on innovative technology. It was more of a high-level distillation of the sort of day-to-day conversations people are having in the field. However, it could have been even more useful with some additions, including fairly standard social tech. More on that later.
SEEFA is the South East England Forum on Ageing, and the event was hosted in the Lords by Lord Filkin, who is chair of the Big Lottery Fund’s Centre for Ageing Better. Several score people, mainly in later life, were addressed by Baroness Sally Greengross and a good range of speakers with experience in industry, ageing, care and other fields.
I was one of a panel asked to make a contribution, and there was a lively Q and A. The symposium was facilitated with an informal-yet-informed touch by Guardian public services editor David Brindle so that, unusually for this sort of event, if felt like a big, sensible conversation.
I was particularly listening out for confirmation or otherwise of the ten provocations about innovation in Ageing Better that I posted recently, and the challenges I distilled from those for the Ageing Better exploration.
Here's my provocations, (enhanced with some comments I received). I've added points from the symposium discussion, and from people tweeting in response to the stream. See John's Storify for attributions.
1. There isn’t an opt-out from technology - but you can choose how much you participate. (Technology has changed the world dramatically, and it will continue to change. What’s important is enabling people to choose how they engage).
From the symposium and tweeters: Why isn't technology transforming people's lives as much as it might? Are people aware of the potential? Technology is changing fast - you don't have to be older to get out of date. People can feel more in control of their lives with appropriate technology - but tech makes things smaller and faster, which can be challenging. Social connectedness is a key determinant of personal well-being. Older people don't want to be singled out - they want to be part of everything. “Older people” is not an identity but a statistical category
2. Government is concerned that many older people are not online - but there are limits to what government can do. (People will engage with what’s interesting and useful to them, and use devices that most suit their needs).
From the symposium and tweeters: Focus on the individual, their needs and interests. Focus on what tech can do - not what it is. There are distinct business benefits in connecting older people - however some businesses don't want older customers who create problems. Everyone needs a reason to change, and changes to services could be the catalyst. Lack of basic education and literacy is still a barrier for many.
3. Everyone needs Internet access … but beyond that, no one size fits all. (Cost is a barrier, and then personalisation is important).
From the symposium and tweeters: The lack of rural connectivity continues to be a huge problem. Confirmation at the symposium about cost - or perceived cost - as a barrier to adoption, and the need for personalisation of devices and use. There is no such things as a typical older person Be careful about language. “Older lady said she didn't need “mobile banking” because her tablet never left the house”. Need to build people's confidence
4. Computer courses and basic skills training don’t meet the needs of many older people. (Tablets are much easier to use than computers for most purposes, and smart phones and smart TVs may also meet many people’s needs).
From the symposium and tweeters: The digital skills needed for work are generally not the same as those needed for non-work entertainment, learning, communication. People working in organisations have tech “done for them”. It's a shock to retire and find you have to do-it-yourself. Older people tend not to search Youtube for user guides. Printed manuals are still needed.
5. Simpler interfaces are needed for computers and mobile devices - not just more functions. (Older people should be involved in design).
From the symposium and tweeters: A lot of discussion about the need for co-design. Why are there no big new products for older people at the Consumer Electronics Show? A lot of support for “simpler”. Some people were urging inclusion of older people as users of the latest tech, while others favoured more simple, low-cost options. It's probably not either-or - it depends on the individual, their situation and preference. Personalisation - not general dumbing down.
6. Relatively few organisations in the ageing field are actively engaged in the online world or using collaborative tools. (Using social technology should help enable greater greater cooperation).
From the symposium and tweeters: If you aren't using social technology you can't understand it Organisations in the field generally don't provide staff with equipment, software and devices relevant to people's personal non-work needs If people in organisations don't use social technologies, their ability to share knowledge is severely limited “What does it say that only four people in the room at #itlater have tweeted during the event”
7. Digital social innovations in services are not scaling. (There’s too much focus on the tech, and not enough on what it does, together with a lot of re-invention).
From the symposium and tweeters: There is much potential for using tech to help people in care lead a good life and connect with friends and family. Why not adopted more? Funders are supporting new developments, rather than encouraging adoption and adaptation of existing
8. There is a raft of research, but little knowledge-sharing of that and day-to-day practice. (A lot of research is hidden and not transferred to practice. A culture of competitive tendering reduces people’s inclination to cooperate and use what’s already available).
From the symposium and tweeters: “Not invented here” is a huge barrier to adoption. Partisan discussion of issues and solutions doesn't help. Need to break out of the silos. Much research and other knowledge is in formats that are unusable by practitioners - we need new knowledge products. In 2015 all digital events should be promoted vigorously with a hashtag inviting wider debate and be live streamed “We're sharing as much as we can on http://connectingcare.org.uk ! Plz suggest more & banish wheel reinvention” The first step to change is securing the buy in - changing organisational culture to be more open to innovation and tech
9. The energy for change lies with apps, connectors and storytellers. (To which we can add, evolution of trusted technologies such as TVs. Bring the storytellers together).
From the symposium and tweeters: The potential for using TV was one of the hot topics at the symposium, with recommendations for a number of devices. Tablets are increasingly proving more attractive than computers - but again depends on the individual and activity. We need to be better storytellers about how people are using technology Don't push people to use stuff they have never experienced. Start by letting them see how others use tech
10. The digital divide is no longer a useful metaphor. Reality is more complex.
I've mixed insights from the symposium into the exploration provocations partly for my own purposes, and partly to show how it is possible to build on existing knowledge. All of these points could be remixed into a different set of provocations - and you are welcome to do so.
What's now important, I think, is focusing on key challenges and developing ideas tro meet them. I'm trying that on the site hosting the exploration into innovation Ageing Better.
When David Brindle called on me for a contribution at the symposium I said (expanded somewhat here) that when I was a mainstream reporter on the Evening Standard in the 1970s we had typewriters, hot metal type-setting and a cuttings-based library. Reporters were a crucial channel - if they did their job well - in transmitting what was new and innovative. Few people had access to a cuttings library. Newspapers and other publishers owned the technology.
I noted as a reporter then, that we would see, in any field, a cycle of forgetting. Faces would change as people moved jobs, but the same stories would resurface as “news” every three or four years, if you checked in the library. Most people wouldn't have a cuttings library, and so couldn't know whether it was new or not - which was fine for a lazy reporter.
But why is it that we see the same sort of thing today, when people have the means of research and publication on their smartphones? Why is so much publishing of newsletters and reports designed for the paper-based library, rather than a format that allows easy sharing? Why is research funded that duplicates past work?
At the symposium there was no reference to the work of organisations like Nominet Trust and NESTA in this field, to sites like Connecting Care, or people like Shirley Ayres who do so much, often unpaid, to share experience in the field. I've gathered those and other references here.
I think that discussion at the symposium, and what I've gathered from the exploration, provides insights into the re-invention of wheels, lack of sharing, and silos:
As I've said in this piece, I found the symposium very useful and interesting, and I was glad of the opportunity to contribute. Big thanks to Peter Dale and Julia Pride. It was impressive.
However I don't see how SEEFA - or any similar organisation - will be able to take their exploration into technology, innovation and older people to the next stage without more use of the technology themselves.
For example, in terms of this sort of event I would suggest a plan, as part of the logistics, to blend online and offline activity, including:
So my friendly suggestion to SEEFA is this: before publishing a report of the symposium, no doubt including barriers to innovation, please start using the technology! SEEFA's experience in doing that, together with some of members, would provide very valuable additional insights.
Update: SEEFA have kindly invited me to talk to their executive about the technology challenges facing organisations. I think this will be a great opportunity for me to share some ideas - and also learn about the realities of running an organisation with volunteers and limited resources, in a fast-changing world.