Real-world innovation

Read our Director of Research and Innovation, Jamie Smith’s latest contribution to Welsh Housing Quarterly (WHQ) which explores the potential for technology to change lives.

The role of technology in people’s lives has long been a concern in social housing. Technology is of course an enabler and a constraint of the social housing mission and one in which access, infrastructure, affordability, skills, confidence and culture all play their part. There are clear haves and have-nots and to an extent this dictates how far organisations can go in digitising their offer, with a clear risk of leaving people behind.

This technological divide isn’t new, but it’s been brought into sharper focus during the pandemic – a period which has seen the internet become the coping mechanism for the nation. No longer, it seemed, was access to technology and the digital world optional. There were suddenly unavoidable consequences to not being tech-enabled, from consulting your GP and buying food through to socialising and home-schooling children. All of these things remain possible through non-technological channels, but they quickly became more difficult (not to mention risky) as tech-based solutions became easier, more available and increasingly hard to avoid.

The accelerated channel shift that has taken place is likely to be permanent. Alongside the societal dependency on technology, housing organisations have forcibly migrated their operations onto digital platforms, to an extent previously unthinkable. While some person-to-person interaction will make a welcome return and can never be substituted by technology, much of what has been put in place will remain. The efficiency and organisational agility it has brought with it are prizes too valuable to give up.

If the same is true of retailers, banks, food outlets, public services and even health care, the digital divide wedged open by the pandemic will leave a permanent legacy. It will continue to grow and aggravate existing inequalities and harms. This was the inspiration behind Hafod’s foray into the role of technology in mitigating loneliness and social isolation, which I discussed in a previous article (WHQ 120). Providing an affordable, simple, tailor-made solution for offsetting the worst effects of loneliness was an obvious innovation gap we are attempting to address. If it makes even a small dent in the problem, the time and investment will be worthwhile.

Recently our attention has turned to some of the pervasive challenges that people face in accessing digital technology – affordability, skills and confidence. If we can use our reach and resources to overcome these barriers to access where they are impenetrable, we believe people have the resilience and drive to take charge of their own situations and pursue their own goals.

This is the basic premise of Community Calling, an initiative pioneered by Hubbub (the sustainable living charity and campaigns organisation) and mobile provider O2. Community Calling redistributes disused smartphones donated by businesses and the public and combines them with gifted data packages and basic digital skills training. This is an important step in breaking through those barriers. Hafod’s neighbourhood coaches and support workers will redistribute 500 of these packages over the next few months, bringing Community Calling to Wales for the first time, following successful launches in London, Leeds, Manchester and Bristol.

As well as addressing the immediate needs of 500 people or households, we intend to learn as much as possible about the challenges and barriers people face and how interventions like Community Calling are potentially a catalyst for improving well-being and economic prospects. Meaningful innovation addresses real-world, relevant problems and they don’t come more real and relevant than this. Access to technology and the confidence to use it has the potential to change lives, starting with 500 here and now.