New funding for digital tech projects to support life transitions

Nominet Trust have just launched a new funding programme around how we may be able to use digital technology to best support people through transitions in life. It is informed in part by the recent work I led on digital technology in later life. The Trust briefing says:

We will all go through periods of transition in our life, for example this could be moving in and out of employment, geographic relocation, or moving in and out of a healthcare environment; similarly transitions can occur at the onset of illness or through bereavement.

It is often during these times of upheaval and change that we most need support.

Whether these changes are temporary or permanent, expected or forseen, they are times when family friendship and professional support networks become more important. Of course, not everyone has strong networks to turn to, and often this is exacerbated by the transition.

Through our Life Transitions programme, we are seeking applications from people and organisations that are using digital technology to best support people during periods of transition.

The programme will offer grants that may be larger than £50,000 to develop digital products, plus other support. The deadline for first stage applications is 4th September 2013. Details here.

In an associated blog post, Dan Sutch explains the reasoning behind the programme:

At this point of the year, we expected to launch a new funding programme looking at how we can enable older people to benefit from using digital technology.  We ran an open exploration of the key themes (led by the inimitable David Wilcox); pulling together existing research, practice and funding activity and aimed, through that process, to understand where digital technology could be most useful and, as such, where we should target our social investment fund.

But there was a really clear message that came through this process, as well as the other landscape research and insight papers that we commissioned and our internal reflections:

Don’t start with age.

If you’re aiming to create an inclusive funding programme that supports communities through the use of digital technology, don’t start with a characteristic that divides people.

If you want to address the social challenges faced by people, describe those – after all, though it may be a shared problem, it is something that binds us together.  So, start with the challenge or opportunity that you’re aiming to address,

Equally, ‘later life’ or ‘old age’ is incredibly broad.  It could describe 60 yrs olds in poor health or 100 year olds in perfect health; those with strong community and family connections or those socially and physically isolated.  Even though ‘later life’ is an important demographic it is such a broad term that it isn’t helpful in focussing an area of investment.  Indeed you wouldn’t expect a focus on 1-40 years old to create especially useful, shareable outcomes.

This isn’t to say that age and experience isn’t important.  It is incredibly important – the life experiences that people bring to a specific challenge change the way in which they can/might/are able to respond to that challenge.  Equally, the way in which we engage with new ideas, messages or activities builds on our own experiences, and as such, someone with greater experience can respond differently to someone with little experience. The way in which we respond/react to particular challenges may well differ by age and experience, but there is a shared feature with which we should start.

We know that innovation often comes at the intersection of disciplines so we don’t want to reinforce an unhelpful segmentation of only funding projects ‘for older people’.  Some of the great work being done with young people might be incredibly useful for the challenges facing older people; equally some of the assets held within the older population are incredibly useful for supporting young people through specific challenges.

We’re still really interested in how digital tech can be used by older people, and more broadly how older people can benefit from digital technology, but many of the challenges that have been highlighted in our exploration are shared across generations.  We equally remain committed to supporting the UK in being the leading place for social-tech entrepreneurs and social-tech businesses, and it’s clear that the emerging market opportunities that come with an ageing population offer a rich area of exploration.

The other important thread in this argument is that digital technology enables us to re-organise the way in which we use our resources.  We don’t need to segment people by geography when they can become a community online; we don’t need to group people by physical characteristics when networks allow people to come together around shared interests, and we don’t need to segment people by age when many problems are shared across the lifecourse.  That isn’t to say that these traditional segmentations/groups are no longer relevant, simply that we’re in a position where we don’t have to rely on them as the only, or principle, organising feature.

With that in mind, this funding programme aims to explore how we can use digital technology to address some key challenges that are present across the lifecourse.  These challenges often occur at moments of transition and change which seems to suit the affordances of digital technology being used to support people through them.  We are particularly interested in applications about how we can use technology to support older people through these transitions, though the answers may come from exploring with other demographic groups too, and we hope that we can share the findings across age ranges, tailoring responses where appropriate and ensuring we find the best ways of using digital technologies for social good.

While I’m not sure about “inimitable” (but thanks Dan), I agree completely with this analysis, and I think that the programme should produce some really interesting project ideas. I hope it might be possible for the Trust to follow their practice elsewhere of helping network those involved – perhaps both those who didn’t get funding as well as those who did, or before decisions are made.

We found the landscape around ageing and technology very fractured, with little willingness to share experience, and highlighted this in Theme 4: Better sharing of knowledge, experience and resources could foster innovation. Part of the problem is that organisations are competitive in pitching for funding around “ageing”, and I sense a general lack of trust and no doubt some “history” in a few instances. A different focus could bring fresh connections.

This seems a good time to thanks Dan and the rest of the Nominet Trust team for their encouragement and support during our work, and building such a creative outcome. All our exploration is now on this site. It has been a fascinating journey, and I hope to develop some practical proposals on where next with some of the people and organisations we met along the way. You can join our online learning group here.

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