Innovation: It’s just doing new stuff… right?

Jamie Smith, our Director of Research and Innovation has contributed to January’s edition of WHQ magazine. Read his take on embedding innovation to the way we work and how we are innovating social isolation and loneliness.

In doing various roles involving innovation and research in public services, the size of the intention-behaviour gap around innovation has always struck me. Having joined the social housing sector relatively recently, it’s all too apparent here too. On the intention side of the equation, the housing sector, as much as any other, strives for improvement and embraces new ideas. There is a healthy appetite for trying new things, working differently and being creative or cutting edge. But on the behaviour side of the equation, this misses the point of what innovation is really about. Very little of what is labelled as innovation is really innovation at all.

Innovation is firstly about understanding human problems in a disciplined and structured way and through the eyes of the people experiencing them. Secondly it’s about experimenting with small-scale solutions that address parts of those problems, leading to interconnected solutions that address them entirely. Creativity helps, but method and rigour lead the way.

At Hafod, this grounded model of innovation is something we are working hard to embed, taking inspiration, ideas (and people) from the commercial world and transplanting them into the ecosystem of housing and care to grow new innovation capacity. It’s a privilege to be given the licence to work in this way and it requires a particular mind-set on the part of the organisation – patience, willingness to fail, embracing ambiguity, faith in evidence and an appetite for risk. Innovation tests these attributes like nothing else can.

In practice, our problem-led approach has led us down many interesting avenues, none more pertinent that social isolation and loneliness, which was always high on the national agenda in Wales, but catapulted into prominence through the pandemic.

Led by the insights of our Neighbourhood team, gathered in the early stages of the pandemic, we have been working with international tech giants Accenture and Amazon and with Swansea University’s Centre for Innovative Ageing to craft a bespoke digital solution that is amongst the first of its kind. Our concept aims to keep people connected, maintain well-being and offer support around other challenges of being isolated and lonely, such as food and finances. It also aims to overcome the challenges of access, affordability and skills in relation to technology, which have also been in the spotlight through the pandemic.

We recognise, of course, that technology can never replace human interaction. But our hope is that the solution can supplement the work of our Neighbourhood team in some way and help to mitigate some of the negative effects of isolation and loneliness. We are open-minded: initially this is an experiment to prove the concept, before broadening the solution to encompass more of the problems we identified and enhance the basic prototype we’ll be trialling in the first phase.

I choose this example because it encapsulates so much of what’s important in innovation: inspiration coming through insight; a meaningful problem to solve; a clear outcome to pursue; a diversity of skills and ideas; a truly collaborative approach; and experimenting on a small scale with prototypes.

But there are pertinent lessons in every one of the avenues our discovery has led us down, from financial well-being and period poverty, through to community resilience, climate change, quality of life in care and inter-generational living. The commonality amongst them is the approach and that’s what makes innovation innovation, rather than just trying new things or being creative.

I welcome Community Housing Cymru’s recent efforts to embed true innovation culture and practice into the housing sector and this is something I’m actively supporting as a steering group member. Done properly, innovation can feel uncomfortable, disruptive and counterintuitive, but we need to be at ease with that if we want to break the negative cycles that perpetuate inequalities and drive demand for our organisations. Our sector, more than most, has the ingredients and the opportunity to create that step-change.