Wanted: an opportunity to age well

| No responses | Posted by: Yvonne Roberts | Theme: Health & Wellbeing

A recent report by the King’s Fund suggests that there will be a social care funding gap of £1 billion by 2014 unless councils can achieve unprecedented efficiency savings. The impact of the funding gap could have a knock on effect on the NHS with cuts to frontline social care services leading to fewer people getting the help they need, causing more emergency admissions, delayed discharges and longer waiting times. For many older people in particular the welfare state looks far from enabling.

Unless, that is, what appears to be an imminent crisis is turned into an opportunity. At the recent launch of the new Social Innovation Europe Initiative Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, President of the European Commission, defined social innovation as developing “new ways of meeting pressing social needs which are not adequately met by the market or the public sector and are directed towards vulnerable groups in society”. In practical terms that translates as organisations and approaches now seen as part of the normal waft and warp of life. For instance the Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, the Open University, co-operative societies and hospices – each have put familiar ingredients together in an innovative way to meet a strong social need.

The potential impact of the cuts, as underlined by the King’s Fund report, lends an even greater urgency to applying social innovation to the demographic challenge of an ageing population. An EU pilot Innovation Partnership aims to give its citizens the opportunity of two extra years of healthy life by 2020. The challenge is huge but so is the reward – both to individual wellbeing and to the public purse. By 2020 one in four of the EU’s population will be over 60 – costs will be constrained by keeping them healthier for longer.

Social innovation, however, faces a number of barriers. They include risk averse cultures; the lack of skills in areas such as training, design tools, monitoring and evaluation; finding suitable funding and the difficulty of measuring outcomes. As Agnes Hubert pointed out in a paper for the EU published last year, social innovation is now discussed at international level but to ‘scale up’ it requires political clout, something hopefully beginning to be manifested by this unequivocal backing from the EU.

Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister and now Director of the Institute of Government, writing in the spring issue of Ethos, also points to another barrier facing social innovation – what he calls ‘the managerial mindset’ of the public sector . For social innovation to flourish there needs to be a shift from that to an entrepreneurial mindset. He quotes the Harvard Business School definition of entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”

Adonis argues that service improvement focuses on the finite resources available to the state at the detriment of the resources and capabilities available in the community. He gives an example of how an entrepreneurial mindset can foster the kind of social innovation that works with the assets of individuals.

Omar is 65, a former architect who lives in a large house. An illness meant he had to stay in hospital for three months and required some help at home on his discharge. Full time care is too expensive in terms of the resources of the state, paying for a carer. But this overlooks the resources that Omar has – he lives in a large house and has a lifetime of experience to share. So Homeshare, a programme that matches people with needs who also have something to give, places Tom, a mature student with little income, to live with Omar. Tom lives rent free but offers support, Omar shares his house and his company with someone who has mutual interests. According to Adonis, “Both participants are gaining from the arrangement and feel valued and respected for whatever they are contributing.”

Adonis warns that during a time of deep retrenchment local authorities may retreat to their core mission and reduce support for exactly the kinds of organisations (such as Homeshare) that can “help marshal resources from outside [local authorities’] immediate influence.” He warns that this is time for the public sector to look, ‘far beyond traditional boundaries’. And far beyond traditional boundaries is precisely where social innovation flourishes best.


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