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Exchanges with the Centre for Ageing Better on the lack of digital tech in their strategy

Following discussion on Twitter on April 17 2015 about the lack of any mention of digital technology in the strategy consultation paper for the Centre for Ageing Better, I sent the draft blog post below to the Centre and Big Lottery Fund for comment. BIG has endowed the Centre with £50 million over 10 years

BIG replied that the issues would be dealt with by the Centre, and the interim CEO there, Greg Wilkinson, responded as below. I've left the draft post in the form I sent it to Greg.

In his response Greg explains their approach, says he would welcome more input on the role of technology, and will post a further document on the Centre's website as part of their plans for public engagement.

I've thanked Greg for his helpful response to my rather provocative draft, and suggested as a start that a face-to-face meeting with those interested in the issues would create goodwill among people who might also engage online. I think the exchange has opened the way for some constructive input, and hopefully for integration of thinking about digital technology in the Centre's strategy.

Thanks to BIG staff for helping with the exchange. I hope they might later join in discussion as well, for reasons outlined in the draft post

I've now blogged about the exchanges:

livingwell/betterageingpost Summary: the Centre for Ageing Better has reponded positively to a Twitter discussion about the lack of reference to digital technology in its strategy. Sending a blog post in draft helped.

David Wilcox @davidwilcox April 22 2015.

Draft blog post: Lack of tech in @BetterAgeing strategy raises wider issues for #AgeingBetter in the digital age

Summary: the Centre for Ageing Better, with a £50 million endowment from the Big Lottery Fund, has issued a consultation paper with no mention of technology and the request to comment just via emails. That raises the wider issue of the Centre's underlying view of how digital tech is changing the world for everyone, and how older people can engage in helping shape change. Who sets the direction for the centre?

Last week a consultation paper emerged from the Centre for Ageing Better on how they will use £50 million of money raised from people's Lottery punts over the next ten years.

As I've documented here on Storify, the paper slipped out via one paragraph in a third-party newsletter. The lack of any mention of technology, digital, or Internet in the paper, together with the nature of the consultation - please send us an email - produced some discussion on Twitter.

There's no mention of the paper on the Centre's website, and the centre was only able to respond in the twitter stream with “Thanks 4 tweets. Still starting up so not active here yet. Keen to hear views. Pls email”

I'm not criticising whoever is in charge of the Centre's Twitter account (five tweets since January, when it was set up to respond to the early departure of their first chief executive). The communication culture is reflected in the consultation paper, which also simply asks for any comments via an email to the interim chief executive.

It's not clear who the paper has gone to, but we can assume it is organisations in the ageing industry, who were also consulted with a paper a year ago.

There is mention, in the latest paper, of public consultation on the Centre's strategy - probably through focus groups and ethnographic interviews - and also ways to engage older people in its activities:

Throughout this cycle of activity, CfAB is committed to ensuring that the views and voices of older people are embedded in the Centre’s work. We want to select topics that reflect the priorities of older people, deliver programmes in ways that promote co-design and co-production with older people, and adopt approaches to behaviour change that reflect what we know will resonate with older people. We are exploring an exciting and innovative set of ideas for realising these ambitions: they include the establishment of an opinion-research panel and a deliberative group of older people, using older researchers to carry out our work, and involving older people in quality assurance and product feedback. CfAB is also considering how best to ensure that the views and voices of older people in their full diversity resonate throughout the Centre’s governance.

That's admirable - but it probably won't work terribly well if the approach and culture of the Centre is founded in a pre-digital view of the world that I think percolates the consultation paper:

Typical pre-digital view

  • technology isn't important
  • change is delivered by big well-funded organisations
  • in order to develop programmes you need to undertake yet more research and extract evidence
  • not much will have changed by the time you decide what to deliver
  • delivery involves top-level partnerships with a lot of funding
  • older people should be consulted via focus groups and similar techniques
  • organisations in the ageing field are the best route to older people
  • as a start-up you can ignore social media and online presence

There was some criticism of the Centre's operating model from the Campaign to End Loneliness in 2014, responding to the first consultation paper, when the campaign argued for a more cooperative and networked approach. Unfortunately not much seems to have changed.

As readers of this blog and socialreporter will know, I've been exploring Ageing Better Innovation and Living Well in the Digital Age with colleagues since 2012. That's documented here. (I should say views expressed here are entirely personal).

Shirley Ayres - who contributed most cogently to the Twitter discussion last week - has an even longer track record, as I've summarised here.

We and others have highlighted the potential of digital technology in many of the areas of work prioritised by the Centre … not as technology for its own sake, but to support collaboration, conversation, storytelling and the building of communities and human relationships.

A digital age view

  • technology is rapidly changing the world we all live in, not least the way public services are delivered, consumers are served, families and friends communicate, support is provided
  • technology can provide personal solutions, and already older people, acting as consumers, are developing those.
  • sustainable and scalable innovation will come from a frugal approach
  • change will come by empowering older people as service users and innovators, and those who directly support them
  • there is already plenty of research and innovation, but it isn't widely shared
  • as a start up direct contact with your customers and beneficiaries is crucial in understand your market, and imperative if it their money you are burning.

(Incidently, most of our contributions are on a voluntary basis, which makes the “we are busy starting up” response from the Centre rather galling).

What's puzzling about the consultation paper, and the Centre's approach, is just where it has come from. Clearly not from the interim CEO, since that would not be an interim responsibility, and the direction is evident from 2014.

In theory strategy is set by the trustees, chaired by Lord Filkin. But then he hosted an excellent symposium organised in January by the South East Forum for Ageing on Transforming not excluding - the impact of information technology on later life, which I reported here on the Age Action Alliance site. Maybe that was too late to make an impact on the consultation paper.

Could the direction have been set some years back by the Big Lottery Fund, which has provided the £50 million endowment, and so presumably must have spent some time in negotation, and approved a business plan? The Fund's £82 million Ageing Better programme also suffered at the start from a lack of attention to the role of digital technology, and provision for knowledge sharing, as I highlighted here last year.

Update while drafting: I've just found online the November 2014 minutes of the BIG England committee recording discussion of the Centre's strategy, which suggest BIG is closely involved in its development. I'll amend this section in the light of that and any comments from BIG.

The minutes suggest that a lot of organisations in the field - but not the public - have been consulted about the centre's plans, but presumably haven't raised the issue of the lack of digital innovation

(The letter below from the Centre's interim CEO Greg Wilkson clarifies the relationship with BIG, so I'll leave this draft as I sent it to Greg).

BIG now has an online community platform, a new chief executive, Dawn Austwick, and a strategy for Putting People in the Lead that is much more in tune with a digital age worldview.

We also want to be more of a catalyst and a facilitator – recognising the feedback we got about our place in the funding ecology and civil society more broadly. It’s not our job to prescribe but it can be our job to link, to share, and to encourage. To be a network, or a central nervous system that people navigate around, finding fellow travellers, being surprised and intrigued by the work of others, sharing evaluation and impact stories, and so much more.

I suggest that it is time for BIG to take a fresh look at the role and operation of the Centre - and also the scope for encouraging more innovation in the Ageing Better programme. Here's a couple of additional places to look for inspiration.

NESTA, the innovation funding body, are very attuned to the digital age, the need for a systemic approach, and the scope for frugal innovation - being creative without lots of resources.

Recently Madeleine Gabriel and Carrie Deacon posted a particularly interesting piece on NESTA's blog about frugal innovation - Thinking scale from the start, inspired by the work of BRAC. It explored how start ups without much funding could make sure that they have the potential for growth by starting with what's around already. They laid down the challenge:

What type of solution would you design if you could ONLY work with existing systems and resources?

The Centre for Ageing Better paper includes some discussion of what happens when their money runs out. The paper says:

We have not yet spent time considering what CfAB’s future might be after our ten years’ existence has come to an end; our current view is that we will operate as a spend-down organisation, looking to use up the resources we secure across our lifespan – and aiming to leave a legacy of having made a profound difference to the quality of later life in England through the generation of evidence-based change.

Can we have confidence that the legacy will be something others will pick up and use? Why not think about continuity from the start, and design a different sort of organisation that commits to using existing research and resources, and which helps other Ageing Better organisations adopt and implement a worldview and style in keeping with the digital age? In recruiting a permanent CEO, look for someone with that philosophy.

There should also be some fresh ideas coming from SEEFA, who are following up the success of their symposium with an action group I've been invited to join. The group will be exploring how people in later life can:

  • more effectively engage in the technology driven processes that often disadvantage or exclude them; and
  • have more involvement in the development of technology that has the potential to enhance the quality of their lives.

There's nothing online yet, although SEEFA have been kind enough to feature on their site a link to the ideas forum we developed for our exploration.

At a practical level, I suggest that BIG offer the Centre some public relations and engagement advice, perhaps including space on their new community platform linked to a more active Twitter and Facebook account. There is space for the Ageing Better programme which could be linked.

In addition, take a look at the resources we gathered in our exploration - just to see how much is happening in this field.

There I've cited Shirley's ideas ….

Shirley Ayres, in a paper for the Nominet Trust, highlighted the need for better ways to collaborate, signpost, and share knowledge as I quoted in an earlier exploration. Shirley wrote in March 2013:

There is so much potential for digital technology to enable people to make new connections, contribute to person-centred support, develop community networks and new models of care so an obvious question is what is stopping more widespread adoption?

>There is no shortage of innovations in digital technology and millions of pounds are being spent supporting further developments. It is less clear about the application, impact and usage of these innovations. One problem is the limited awareness in the sector and amongst the public about what is available and it’s value. I believe that a big deficit is the lack of a strategic approach to embedding digital technology in the range of options to support people to live more fulfilling lives.

And proposed:

  • Convene a roundtable for all the funders of digital technology to explore collaboration, sharing practice and a common approach to evaluating and promoting the outcomes and impacts of their investment.
  • Provide signposts which enable care recipients, their families and carers to find out what technology products and services are available, both through statutory services or to purchase independently.
  • Create, promote and participate in events that showcase innovations in care which could be adopted by local authorities, the NHS and housing providers.
  • Map all of the digital community hubs (however defined) which are available to ensure that people have access to local resources. This would also identify areas where there is currently no support available.
  • Benchmark levels of awareness about technology innovations across the care sector and work with key players to promote and share the benefits of innovation.

I think those recommendations from Shirley still hold. Start with what we have.

In addition, as Shirley argues here, introducing her Long Term Care Revolution Provocation paper, we need a shift in attitudes:

Our ageing population represent a victory for better nutrition, better housing, and the welfare state. People in later life offer wisdom, experience, perspective and a wide range of skill sets and capacities. Why are we not utilising the wealth of knowledge and experience of older people to develop and deliver community services that meet their needs?

>**We need a cultural mindshift which challenges the idea of older citizens being “objects of charity” rather than active consumers**

>How do we change the narrative and think about a future where people look forward to later life with a wide range of choices to live a fulfilling life which is not dependent on health, locality or relationships?

That would be the basis for a more interesting consultation paper - one which treats older people as more than a statistical category.

Declaration of interest: I'm aged 72.

Main links

Between sending the draft and receiving a response I posted Why #AgeingBetter funders and policy makers should embrace digital technology - some resources Summary: digital technology is increasingly important for Living Well in the Digital Age. Here's suggestions on why funders and policy makers should review existing resources.

Hi David,

Thanks for sending us your draft post, and thanks for your interest more broadly in the Centre and its work. I’ve taken a little time to look at some of your material on your socialreporter site and also on mediablends – and it's clear from even a cursory glance at these sources that you have a lot of interesting ideas about digital technology and the contribution it can make to a better later life. So I hope this initial exchange between us is the beginning of a longer conversation that can help the Centre become a truly effective force for evidence-based change.
You raise a number of issues about the Centre’s approach to consultation, and also about the place that technology occupies in our vision and the programmes of work that we may undertake. In addition, you raise some broader questions of strategy and organisation: about the Centre’s plans and its operating model - and also about its relationship with BIG. I’m very happy to reply to each of your points, and I hope you will take the replies as evidence of the Centre’s commitment to openness and transparency in its work.

I’ll start with the broader questions of strategy and organisation. As someone who’s been thinking about the ageing agenda for longer than I have, you’ll be aware that ‘ageing better’ is a very broad terrain. If the Centre is to be effective with its £50m endowment, it will need to differentiate itself from other organisations: there would be little value, for example, in our duplicating the excellent work of Nesta or the Nominet Trust around the provision of funding for technology innovation. Instead, we need to pick issues that fit our remit as a What Works Centre and allow us to respond to the wishes of BIG – our principal benefactor - that we should be focused on:

* Harnessing and strengthening the evidence base, * Seeding and scaling - to test projects with promise, and help projects with proven effectiveness to operate at greater scale, * Helping bring about evidence-based change through partnership working.

None of this will come as a surprise to you, as it’s stated in our summary business plan (which is on our website) and the institutional stakeholder consultation document that your post refers to. But, just to be clear: these proposals were part of the business plan proposal that the Centre put to BIG last year, and which the BIG England Committee considered at its November 2014 meeting, when considering whether to award us the £50m endowment. Although we are an independent charity, we've discussed our strategy extensively with BIG and we will continue to work closely with them.
Any strategy can only ever be a guide to decisions about how an organisation should deploy its resources: we will still need to make tough choices about what we will and won’t work on. Consultation will be a key part of how we make those choices; and the document to which your post refers is the start of our plans for consultation and engagement – not the end of them. As we have clearly stated: we intend over the summer to engage with the public in a number of ways. You refer to our plans to use ethnographic research and focus groups: we’ll also be producing a follow-up document that we’ll put on the website for comments and suggestions from the public – and I think this will be a great time to engage with people via Twitter, not least because in a month or two’s time our startup venture will have acquired more staff and so we’ll have more capacity to do these things. All these ingredients, along with others, will feed in to the CfAB Board’s decisions in the autumn about its initial portfolio of work. Your blog has helped me realise the value of describing this process on our website, so I’ll draft an interim CEO’s update and post it soon.
The reason we’ve started our consultation process with organisations – and we’ve circulated the document to over 500 public, private, voluntary and research bodies – is because the Centre has a clear remit to work in partnership with existing organisations in the ageing sector. I enjoyed your characterisations of the ‘pre-digital’ versus the ‘digital’ view of the world – but, in all honesty, I can see elements of truth in both. Change will be delivered, at least in part, through big well-funded organisations (including those in the ageing field) and through top-level partnerships – and I believe the Centre will have more impact if it can find organisations, big and small, that are willing and able to work with us to identify and act on the evidence. That’s not the only criteria we’ll deploy, but it is a necessary one for us – so it makes sense to get a feel from existing organisations before we proceed to the next stage of consultation and engagement with the public.

My view of your dichotomy is that it's not either/or, it's both/and - which brings me to your third point: about technology, and the role that it might play in the Centre’s work. I know that the CfAB board, including Lord Filkin, are very interested in this theme and will be very interested in the points you raise. I can see ways in which technology could play a key part in our work on any and all of the topics the Board is currently considering for inclusion in the Centre’ initial portfolio - and I'd welcome further ideas from you, Shirley and other people in your network on this theme. The reason we haven’t highlighted technology in the paper is because we see it as a means, not an end. You express this point brilliantly elsewhere on your site, when you say that people should ‘put technology last, after being clear about the problem or opportunity you want to address’. So I think we're in violent agreement – but I'd love to hear more from you and your network on this matter, and we will consider your responses in the round along with all others when the institutional stakeholder consultation has closed on May 20th.
Thanks again – and I look forward your engaging further with the Centre and me. For the avoidance of doubt, you are very welcome to post this response on any of your websites.

Best wishes,

Greg Wilkinson Interim CEO, Centre for Ageing Better.

PS declaration of interest: I’m 50.

Centre for Ageing Better 1 Plough Place, London, EC4A 1DE

My immediate thoughts on Greg's response.

Style of the response

  • It's very encouraging to receive a speedy and thoughtful reply which opens the way to futher conversation.
  • The commitment to openness and transparency is very welcome.
  • The letter sounds as if it has come from a human being, rather than a PR department! That's promising for any future use of social media.

Origins of the strategy and relationship with BIG

  • Greg confirms that the strategy was approved by BIG, and the Centre will work closely with BIG.
  • I think that raises the issue of how BIG will engage with digital innovation now and in future. Investment in the Centre, and the Ageing Better programme, totals £132 million over the next 5-10 years, so BIG can have a very beneficial impact in the field.

Centre's expertise in digital technology, and its role

  • Although the Centre may decide not to fund digital innovation projects - because others like NESTA and Nominet Trust do so - it seems important that the Centre understands the impact of technology on the world and people's lives in relation to its other priorities. I've listed some issues and resources in this post Why #AgeingBetter funders and policy makers should embrace digital technology - some resources
  • It sounds as if the Centre doesn't have in-house expertise in the field of digital innovation, and may not wish to appoint someone specifically with that remit. However centre staff and trustees could learn by engaging with events and online discussion. Their offices are in the same building as NESTA, and BIG. See What next below
  • As part of the What Works network, the Centre might legitimately look at how far existing investment in the field - through research and project funding - is effective.
  • Although tech should come last in making decisions about project activities - after defining purpose, problem, users - it is rapidly becoming primary in terms of the way public and private organisations define the way we can interact with them.

Further engagement and worldview

  • The current consultation and engagement process is very traditional … and not yet displaying openness and transparency.
  • I don't think it is effective to have a closed process with organisations, and then public process. It would appear that the organisations consulted so far - over the course of a year - haven't raised substantial issues of digital technology. I suspect citizen/consumers are more aware of the issues and could make valuable inputs.

What next

  • Greg's invitation to contribute is welcome, but I don't think that, for example, writing papers for the consultation process will be useful. If staff aren't familiar with the field of digital innovation, they might find it difficult to integrate with other inputs (hope that doesn't sound patronising … but it is, as Greg says, a very broad field generally).
  • Freelances like myself, Shirley and others contributing on Twitter probably won't want to make much more voluntary input. Having said that, I'm very happy for the Centre to make use of content published here.
  • I think that the best way to move forward would first be to have a chat … which reminds me of something I wrote last year when discussing the BIG Ageing Better programme, and ways to promote engagement there.
**Deep conversation needed on BIG's Ageing Better community platform. How about asking people in for a coffee?**

>I don't think anything so substantial (as a full exploration) is needed to get things started. Nor do I think online exchanges should be in the lead. Maybe something like a David Gurteen Knowledge Cafe? If the Treasury can [host a discussion on How can we more actively share knowledge](, BIG could host its own. David has even [produced a tip sheet on how to run a Cafe yourself]( - though I know it will be best if he facilitates.

Maybe BIG, NESTA and the Centre could host something in their offices, at the end of the day?

Blog post:

Twitter helps BetterAgeing Centre engage with potential for digital innovation in AgeingBetter

Summary: the Centre for Ageing Better has reponded positively to a Twitter discussion about the lack of reference to digital technology in its strategy. Sending a blog post in draft helped.

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