Exploring the role of digital technology in restoring local neighbourhood support networks to tackle the epidemic of loneliness and disconnected communities.

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

We would like to explore the issue of disconnected communities and the associated problems of loneliness and lacking local support networks. These issues affect many residents, but particular older people, carers, people with disabilities and people with mental ill health.

Loneliness and disconnected communities are linked to a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes which put increased pressure on the health and social care system.  A wide range of studies have explored and attempted to quantify the impact:

  • The health impact of loneliness, living alone and poor social connections is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes/day. (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
  • Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression. (Valtorta et al, 2016) (James et al, 2011) (Cacioppo et al, 2006)

The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is expected to reach two million by 2025/6, constituting a 49% increase in just 10 years (Age UK 2018, All The Lonely People). An ageing population, societal changes, transient communities, relationship breakdown and living away from family are frequently cited as the main reasons for the extent and trajectory of the issue.

In Wirral, predictions suggest a 63.3% increase in over 85s by 2039 –in part due to the aging population but also people moving into the borough to live out their twilight years (often away from established support networks). This issue is common to many suburban and rural communities.

In urban areas predictions also show a fast growing proportion of older adults. In their publication ‘Ageing London’, Barnes J. et al predicted a rise of 48% in over-60s by 2035. In some boroughs such as Hackney, other age groups are also at high risk of loneliness  because of additional risk factors such as poverty and disability. In their recent adult social care survey (2015) 11.4% of adults said they had little social contact with other people and felt socially isolated – the highest rate for any council in England.

In many areas the increasing transience of local populations has worked against the organic establishment and sustainability of neighbourhood support networks, which can provide low level support to communities and guard against loneliness. Southwark, as an example, has the equivalent of 10% moving in and 10% moving out every year.

All this takes place against a backdrop of financial challenges in the delivery of adult social care. Funding cuts have led to changes in eligibility, re-focusing resources on those most in need. Authorities across the country are looking at preventative services and asset-based-community-development to support those with lower level needs as a way of reducing referrals into statutory services and ‘future-proofing’ adult social care.

Hypothesis: We believe that pressure on health and social care could be reduced by a digital platform that restores neighbourhood support networks by intuitively connecting ‘good neighbours’ with isolated individuals in their local community.

Our assumptions include:

  • Many local residents lack a natural support network/ experience loneliness
  • This disproportionately affects vulnerable groups
  • This puts pressure on local health and social care services
  • There is an untapped resource of good neighbours/ potential volunteers in local communities
  • They currently don’t provide support to their neighbours because they aren’t well connected
  • They don’t volunteer for a befriending scheme or equivalent service because of real/ perceived barriers related to time commitments, flexibility etc.

Traditional approaches include befriending services, sitting services (to provide short breaks for carers), good neighbour schemes, handyperson services, keyring schemes and meals on wheels. These services are often delivered by the Voluntary, Community and Faith Sector (and sometimes LAs), often utilising volunteers and coordinated by paid staff. Many focus on providing a specific service at a fixed time on a regular basis.

We have also seen some digitally-enabled approaches in more recent years including apps like Nextdoor and web-based gig-volunteering platforms like Goodgym and Team London. Apps like Nextdoor tend to focus on sharing of information, tools, skills etc amongst hyper-local neighbourhoods and many existing gig-volunteering platforms tend to focus on supporting organisations or community projects as opposed to individuals.

During the discovery we will conduct extensive user-research with all of the key stakeholder groups to better our understanding of the needs we are looking to address and the projects currently working in this space. This will include vulnerable and isolated local residents (including the client groups mentioned above); existing and prospective volunteers; relevant professionals; and providers of existing services. We will use techniques such as user stories, ethnographic research and journey/ service mapping to better understand the scale of the problem (including it’s impact on health and social care); the landscape of existing networks/provision; and local gaps/ pain points.

Resources will be committed to activity across participating councils to understand how the demographic/ geographical variations affect the problem area and potential solutions.

As outlined in Q3.2, loneliness is linked to a range of health conditions that can lead to a social care referral. This may result in a costly care package or an assessment and onward referral – either way it requires staff resource and puts increased pressure on adult social care.

Disconnected communities and a lack of local support networks also lead to increased referrals to adult social care and other public services. Residents who lack a support network can struggle to self-manage lower level needs, turning to services or experiencing an escalation in needs if they remain unmet.

A number of studies have been conducted to quantify the scale and cost of loneliness and disconnected communities:

  • A study by The Co-op and British Red Cross revealed that over 9 million adults in the UK are either always or often lonely (more than the population of London).
  • A survey carried out by the Campaign to End Loneliness revealed that up to 10 patients a day visit their GP due to loneliness.
  • Researchers from the LSE estimated that the UK’s ’epidemic of loneliness’ costs £6,000 per person for a decade of an older person’s life in health costs and pressure on local services.
  • Research commissioned by the Eden Project and funded by the Big Lottery estimated that social isolation and disconnected communities cost the UK economy £32 billion every year.

Conversely, there are studies that look at the value of community connectedness and the potential savings that could be achieved if more people got involved in their local community. According to research commissioned by the Eden Project, neighbourliness saves £14.5 billion each year through shared resources and help provided by neighbours, reducing demand on public services. There are also social benefits, with people feeling happier, safer and more content in connected communities.

The research also estimates the potential magnitude of these benefits if more people got to know their neighbours and became involved in their community; in welfare terms this stands at £55.5 billion.

The partner authorities have already conducted some research to scope and quantify the impact of loneliness in the individual boroughs e.g. loneliness index hotspots in Wirral and loneliness profile currently being developed by Southwark’s Public Health team. The discovery will build on existing research to give a comprehensive view of the problem at a local level and to validate the costs both in financial and human terms.

Given the physical distance between partners (Wirral in the North-West of England and remaining partners in London) we will use a digital project planning/ collaboration tool such as Slack or Trello. This will enable us to share a project planning space, assign tasks across local authorities and communicate progress from each of the areas.

We will appoint a Project Manager to set up and oversee project planning and delivery, alongside the Digital Service Design Manager. Identified colleagues from each LA will be given access to the shared project space and will form the project team. They will be responsible for coordinating activities in their own authority, reporting back to their relevant senior stakeholders, and feeding back in to the Project Team.

Members of the project team (and other colleagues in social care and public health) would benefit from additional user-research/ user-centred design training. We are keen to enhance these skills-sets and knowledge of staff working in relevant roles across the councils.

We will look to conduct market research as part of the discovery but would appreciate any guidance on suitable suppliers/ developers.