‘Digital prescribing’ – could tech provide the solution to loneliness in older people?

Notruf und Hilfe für Rentner und Kranke

The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness could reach two million by 2026. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years.

It has also been estimated that around 1.5 million people aged 50 and over are ‘chronically lonely.’

With an ageing population and increasing life expectancy, it would seem likely that loneliness among older people is set to continue; unless something significant is done. According to Age UK, tackling loneliness requires more than social activities. A new report from Vodafone suggests technology could be the answer.

Impact

The impact of loneliness in older people can be immense, not only for the older people themselves but for those around them. It can also put strain on the NHS, employers and organisations providing support to people who are lonely; and have a negative impact on growth and living standards.

Research has suggested that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness are at increased risk of developing health conditions such as dementia and depression, as well as increased risk of mortality. The damaging health effect of loneliness has been shown to be comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Older people who are lonely are therefore more likely to use health services than those who are never lonely.

The economic impact is also significant. It has been estimated that increases in service usage create a cost to the public sector of an average £12,000 per person over the medium term (15 years). Vodafone’s report suggests that loneliness has a £1 billion a year impact on public services. It has also been found to cost employers £2.5 billion per year.

How tech can ease the burden

According to Vodafone, “new technologies are a key part of the solution” alongside more traditional public and community services. Two key routes through which technology can be used to reduce loneliness are highlighted:

  • by supporting older people to remain independent in their home and community; and
  • maintaining and building networks and contacts.

From wearable devices and touchscreens to personal robots that act as the eyes, ears and voice of people unable to present physically, these are all highlighted as viable and positive uses of tech to ease the burden of loneliness. And there are already a number of examples of innovative use of technology that can benefit older people.

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No Isolation AV1 robot. Image by Mats Hartvig Abrahamsen, via CC BY-SA 4.0

Good practice examples

One such example is Vodafone’s smart wearable wristband, the V-SOS Band, which supports independent living while also increasing the wearer’s safety. It can directly alert family members via their phone if the wearer needs help. It also uses fall detection technology so that families can be alerted automatically if the wearer falls either in the home or when they are out.

Kraydel is another example. Its smart TV-top hub links elderly people to their carers or family members, through their TV screens, helping people be more independent and remain in their own homes for longer as well as helping them be more socially connected. It provides for user-friendly video calling via the TV and can help people return home from hospital earlier. Via connection to the cloud, the device interprets the data it receives to build up a picture of the user’s daily activities, health and wellbeing. It issues medicine and diary reminders, and alerts caregivers if it sees something amiss, or identifies potential risk.

Although aimed at children, No Isolation’s AV1 – a smart robot designed to reduce the risks of children and young adults with long-term illness becoming socially isolated – demonstrates the positive impact innovative technology can have on social isolation and loneliness. The robot avatar, with its 360 degree camera, acts as the child’s eyes, ears and voice in the classroom or at other events, keeping children closely involved with school and in touch with their friends.

Of course, loneliness is particularly prevalent among people who don’t use smart technology such as smart phones and tablets, one of the reasons cited by Kraydel for using the TV – probably the most familiar and widely used screen globally. This issue also led No Isolation to develop KOMP, a communication device for seniors that requires no prior digital skills. It enables users to receive photos, messages and video calls from their children and grandchildren, operated by one single button.

Another new project recently launched in Sweden – considered one of the world’s loneliest countries – uses a unique conversational artificial intelligence which enables older people to capture life stories for future generations while providing companionship. Memory Lane works with Google Voice Assistant and is able to hold meaningful conversations in as human a way as possible. A pilot test showed that the software “instantly sparked intimate conversations” and led to stories that hadn’t been told before.

Final thoughts

With a significant number of older people lacking confidence in their ability to use technology for essential online activities, support for digital skills is obviously still important. In response to this issue, Vodafone has launched free masterclasses across the UK, as part of a programme called TechConnect.

Many of the above innovative examples bypass the traditional barriers to realising the potential of technology in reducing loneliness as most:

  • don’t rely on older people engaging directly with the technology; and
  • are based on mobile technology that can be constantly connected, whether inside or outside the home.

However, there is still the issue of awareness of such technologies and their accessibility to older people. The Vodafone report suggests that access could be improved through social and digital prescribing and revitalising support for independent living, and calls for a challenge fund to support innovation. It is suggested that these innovative ideas are just the start and that combined action is needed from across all levels of government, business and community groups, amongst others.

Perhaps if such action is taken to address existing barriers, we will see a reverse in the loneliness trend over the next 10 years.


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Helping people to reconnect: positive projects for people with dementia

This Photo is licensed under CC BY Via Microsoft Word images

Every three minutes, someone in the UK develops dementia. Over 850,00 people in the UK are currently living with a form of the disease; 40,000 of these are people under the age of 65.  This week (20th– 26th May) is Dementia Action Week 2019. This year the focus is on encouraging people to talk about dementia, and to talk to people with dementia in order to help tackle loneliness and isolation among those who suffer from the condition, as well as to raise awareness and improve understanding around the condition and the impact it can have.

The power of music

You may have recently come across the BBC programme featuring Line of Duty’s Vicky McClure Our Dementia Choir (if you haven’t you should try and find a copy).  The documentary follows a group of people who suffer from varying degrees and types of dementia and highlights in sometimes painfully sad detail the changes and challenges that can occur when someone develops the disease. However, it also shows the great joy and relief that music brings to dementia sufferers and their families. We blogged a few years ago about the benefits of music therapy in dementia care – and since then the literature and research on its usage in different settings has only grown.

Research shows that music, in various forms can help encourage participation and trigger positive associations which can be really helpful for people suffering from dementia, particularly if they feel like a lot of other things may have changed. In our previous blog we highlighted a Care Inspectorate backed scheme called ‘playlist for life’ which encourages care homes to integrate music into their care for patients with dementia. Moving beyond just allocating a time to place headphones onto a patient and leaving them to listen alone (although at times this may be helpful too), the aim is for music to be a vehicle for connected care. It allows carers to use music as a tool to find out more about the person they are caring for and encourage them to engage through the music.

Tackling isolation with art, culture and the natural environment

Research has shown that it is not only music that can have a positive impact on quality of life for people with dementia. Painting and drawing, making use of the natural surroundings by encouraging gardening or light walking in safe spaces, and games like dominoes and draughts can all help in their own way to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia and provide an opportunity for loved ones to re-connect.

In a 2014 study researchers examined the experiences of people with dementia and their carers when they participated in an 8 week programme based in an art gallery designed specifically to tackle social isolation and improve quality of life for both the person suffering from dementia and their carer. The study found that while the impact in terms of qualitative measures was negligible, participants were unanimous in their enjoyment and satisfaction with the programme. They highlighted that the interventions at the galleries helped to foster social inclusion and social engagement, enhance the caring relationship between the carers and people with dementia, and stimulate cognitive processes of attention and concentration. In a similar study, looking at the impact of art and gallery settings and programmes delivered within these settings, similarly positive emotional effects on study participants were found.

In Liverpool, they are making the most of their city landscape and the fact that specific locations, building and objects around the city can act as positive triggers for people who suffer from dementia, stimulating memory and interest. Those individuals who are mobile enough can participate in “memory walks” (different from the Memory Walks convened by the Alzheimer’s Society, which are sponsored walks designed to help raise money and offer a public show of support for people with the illness). This not only helps to improve physical activity, it can also be an opportunity for people with dementia to connect with other people as the walks are usually carried out in small groups, they are also linked to befriending schemes across the city to help reduce social isolation among multiple groups.

Similarly, many care homes now also promote interaction with nature and outside spaces for residents with dementia, with many developing specifically landscaped “sensory” gardens for residents, while other innovative supported living accommodation projects have gone a step further and created entire villages on site, which allows residents to perform tasks such as shopping or visiting a hairdresser. (This project is based in the Netherlands, but there are suggestions that a similar scheme could also come to the UK in 2020.)

VR and creating virtual experiences for people

Using digital technologies has also become increasingly popular, particularly in care homes. Apps and VR headsets which allow people to be immersed in an experience they perhaps once enjoyed, such as flying (if for example they had previously been a pilot or air crew) or driving have been shown to have a significant positive impact on people’s wellbeing allowing them to reconnect with their past and memories and freeing them from the sense of being trapped and losing their independence which can sometimes come with moving away from home into supported accommodation.

Tablet computers and touchscreen technology can also sometimes be easier for people with dementia to use as they do not require the same level of dexterity as writing. Apps have been developed which can help with word association or use pictures which can be helpful in allowing people with dementia to communicate when their use of language becomes more of a challenge. While the technology its self is relatively new, research has shown definite scope and benefit of further development of this in the future, as well as relevant training for staff and carers on digital literacy to help support users.

A support to clinical interventions

Dementia is a cruel illness – 1 in 3 of us in the UK will develop a form of the condition at some point in our lives. As yet there is no cure and as the population ages, and life expectancy improves more generally, the number of cases is expected to rise dramatically in the coming years. However, where science is trying to cure, art and culture is trying to supplement and support the clinical interventions and, where possible, provide opportunities to improve the quality of life for people suffering with the condition and provide opportunities for people to re-connect with loved ones.

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The ‘Netflix of transportation’ – could MaaS be the future of urban mobility?

digital city_unsplash

Congestion, air pollution, inadequate public transport services – these are just some of the issues cities around the world are having to try and mitigate.  Could Mobility as a Service (MaaS) be the solution?

A recent webinar presented on Intelligent Transport looked at the different approaches currently being proposed, discussing the various benefits they offer and the challenges they face.

What is MaaS?

Although MaaS is enabled by technology, it was made clear from the get go that it is fundamentally about the user perspective.

Keynote speaker, Jonathan Donavan, CPO of Masabi, highlighted one definition provided by University College London’s MaaS Lab:

“Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is a user-centric, intelligent mobility management and distribution system, in which an integrator brings together offerings of multiple mobility service providers, and provides end-users access to them through a digital interface, allowing them to seamlessly plan and pay for mobility.”

Essentially, MaaS aims to provide the convenience of a private vehicle without the need for ownership, making users’ lives easier.

From the user perspective, it has to make it easier to plan and pay for travel, match the right mode of transport for the journey, be cost-effective and provide complete journey coverage. From a city perspective, it has to move people away from private cars, keep the city moving, provide equitable service to riders and optimise transport resources.

Real world examples

In an attempt to address these needs, a number of pilots have emerged. These include: the Whim app in Finland, which has now expanded to projects in the UK and Europe; Transport for Greater Manchester; UbiGo in Gothenburg, which has expanded to Stockholm; and NaviGoGo, Scotland’s first MaaS web application, similar to UbiGo, which was piloted in Dundee – to name but a few.

Other examples of MaaS in practice, include: Uber, which is expanding its market by bringing different forms of transport onto the platform; Citymapper, a journey planning app bringing in different ways of paying for and commissioning your own travel; Transit App, a navigational app based in Montreal, Canada; and Kisio’s PlanBookTicket, a mobile ticketing solution.

Stephen Miller, the Communications Lead at Transit outlined the work they are doing. Transit provides navigational services getting people from A-B without their own car, shows nearby transport and other mode options, and can track buses and trains approaching in real time. It also includes bike share, car share, your own bike, walking and now scooters, showing how multiple modes can integrate. It is the number three navigation app in the US and Canada, after Google Maps and Waze.

With PlanBookTicket, Kisio has moved towards a one platform MaaS, as described by their Chief Product Officer, Laurent Leca. It covers the data platform, trip planner, booking and ticketing, and analytics. Providing a seamless user experience, it offers a full ticket range which can be purchased with or without an account and it enables flexible integration with the existing infrastructure, making it affordable for medium-sized cities.

These real world examples show that MaaS is about enabling a simple and combined experience. Such initiatives are a good example of how the public and private sector are working together by combining various transport options. Nevertheless, there are still issues that need to be addressed for MaaS to be a true success.

Subscription or account based MaaS

MaaS has been referred to as the ‘Netflix of transportation’. However, a digital platform is very different to providing physical services and there are a lot of different services available for providing transport. In consideration of what might be the best model for MaaS, two were discussed: subscription based and account based.

Subscription based benefits:

  • Commitment to package means usage of car may be reduced, therefore shifting behaviour
  • Potential to support initial pilots
  • Under-utilised subscriptions may have roll-over model to ensure passengers don’t miss out

However, various issues were also highlighted. For example, subscription based models could favour those who can afford to pre-pay for their transport; there are potential barriers in relation to which package is most suitable and the geography of services; and there are national constraints of supply and demand.

It was also noted that the subscription demographic is a very niche one that is already well served by a mix of mobility options, but it doesn’t cover everybody. It was therefore argued that there is a need to look at different options to make it more universal.

Unlike Netflix, there is finite capacity within the transportation system and a lot of transport systems are physically constrained by something.

It was therefore suggested that perhaps more of an ‘Amazon for transportation model’ is more appropriate, where users can pay as they go for the services they need when they need them. This paves the way for an account based model.

Account based benefits:

  • Puts the city at the centre of MaaS
  • Customer does not need to pre-select their package – lower barrier to entry, more flexibility for customer and city
  • Greater equity – pay for travel once consumed
  • Greater ability to link together transit, tolling, parking and other mobility solutions

It was suggested that this provides a much more holistic option.

Future of public transit

With the success of numerous pilots across the globe, and with 85% of transport professionals in the UK who responded to the Landor Links 2018 annual survey of Mobility as a Service perceiving MaaS as an opportunity and something that would improve matters, both socially and environmentally, MaaS may well be the future of urban mobility.

Perhaps one concern, as highlighted by the author of the survey, Beate Kubitz, is resistance among public transport operators, the very people that are expected to provide the services. They only made up 4% of responses to the survey. The reason cited was because they are concerned about the costs and don’t see the business case. The automotive industry on the other hand is moving towards cooperation and collaboration with MaaS. Clearly more work is needed to increase cooperation and collaboration among the public sector.

Nevertheless, as highlighted throughout the webinar, the fundamentals are there for MaaS to be a success.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our other posts on the potential of smart cities and lessons from public transport in Nordic countries.

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Ten years on from Byron – are children any safer online?

“The rapid pace at which new media are evolving has left adults and children stranded either side of a generational digital divide.” (Professor Tanya Byron, 2008)

On examining the risks children face from the internet and video games, the Byron Review made 38 recommendations for the government, industry and families to work together to support children’s safety online and to reduce access to adult video games.

Ten years on, are children any safer online?

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) argues “there is still a great deal of work to be done”.

‘Failing to do enough’

The recommendations of the Byron Review were recently revisited by the NSPCC in its new report which reviewed the progress made in implementing them. Of the 38 recommendations, the report found that:

  • 16 were implemented (only 13 fully);
  • 11 were not implemented;
  • seven were partially implemented; and
  • for four recommendations, the landscape has changed too much to accurately judge.

Despite the changes in the political landscape and in technological developments, however, the NCPCC notes that the vast majority of the recommendations made in 2008 are still relevant and “urgently need to be addressed.”

Professor Byron herself stated in the foreword of the report that “much has changed over the last decade, but one thing has not: Government is failing to do enough to protect children online.”

Byron noted that, excluding the areas where the recommendations are no longer applicable, still 53% of her remaining recommendations “have either been ignored by Government or have only been partially followed through.”

In terms of the implications, social networks are left to make their own rules with no government regulation, online safety is not yet a compulsory part of the school curriculum and responsibility for child safety online falls heavily on parents who may lack understanding of latest trends, or even children who may not be equipped to make wise decisions – all findings similarly highlighted ten years ago. So what has changed?

Progress

The recommendations that were fully implemented include: tighter regulation of new forms of online advertising to children; a more consistent approach to age rating online games; and assessment of e-safety standards in schools as part of Ofsted inspections.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety was also established as a result of the recommendations – the primary strategy objective. It has since produced various guidance documents for schools, parents and industry.

More recently, as part of the government’s Digital Charter, its forthcoming Internet Safety Strategy will introduce a social media code of practice and transparency reporting. Children are also to be given extra protection online under new data protection laws. Byron describes this as an important step but raises concern that the rules will not be directly enforceable. Moreover, the social media code is expected to be voluntary and does not include anti-grooming measures.

While a voluntary code of practice for websites was a key recommendation of the Byron Review in 2008, Byron has recently argued that “it is much too late for a voluntary code for social networks.”

Just before the NSPCC’s report, it was revealed that there had been more than 1300 grooming offences in the first six months since the Sexual Communication with a Child offence came into force, with almost two thirds of cases involving the use of Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.

Benefits

Of course, technology has numerous benefits for children and young people. As Byron’s review highlighted, the internet and video games offer a range of opportunities for fun, communication, skill development, creativity and learning.

Digital technology can also be beneficial to children and young people who are disadvantaged. As UNICEF’s recent report – The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a digital world – argues:

“If leveraged in the right way and universally accessible, digital technology can be a game changer for children being left behind… connecting them to a world of opportunity and providing them with the skills they need to succeed in a digital world.”

Byron also highlighted the value technologies can have for children and young people living with disabilities that make living in the ‘offline’ world challenging.

As Byron suggested in 2008, what is needed is a balance between preserving the rights of children and young people to reap the enjoyment of the digital world and enhance their learning and development, and ensuring they (and indeed adults) are sufficiently informed to maintain safety.

Way forward

To ensure children have the same rights and security online as they have offline, the NSPCC is calling for:

  • a set of minimum standards and a statutory code of practice for online providers, underpinned by robust regulation;
  • greater transparency on data and information-sharing amongst industry; and
  • clear and transparent processes for reporting, moderating and removing content from sites, verifying children’s ages and offering support to users when needed.

To be effective, the NSPCC specify that these measures would need to be consistently applied to all sites, apps and games where children interact online.

Perhaps the government’s Internet Safety Strategy will introduce more stringent measures as highlighted by both Byron and the NSPCC which will go some way to making children safer in the digital world.

In the words of Byron, “The online world moves too fast for Government to drag its feet for another decade.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our previous posts on the impact of smart phones on young people’s mental health and what technology means for children’s development.

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Is technology really the answer to social isolation and loneliness?

Old man sitting on a benchBy Steven McGinty

As we head towards Christmas, the media is filled with images of families coming together and enjoying the festivities. However, the reality is that many people will not be spending the Christmas period with loved ones, and will be spending the festive season alone.

In April, Future Cities Catapult produced a report into the impact of social isolation and loneliness. They highlight that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness have an increased likelihood of developing health conditions such as dementia (1.9 times more likely) and depression (3.4 times more likely). In addition, there is a 26% increased risk of mortality.

The report also included findings from the Mormont Review, highlighting that in emergency situations social networks have a significant impact on recovery.

Individuals who are socially isolated are between two and five times more likely than those who have strong social ties to die prematurely. Social networks have a larger impact on the risk of mortality than on the risk of developing disease, in the sense it is not so much that social networks stop you from getting ill, but that they help you to recover when you get ill.

It’s this substantial impact on people lives’ – and the costs to the health service – which has led to many public bodies looking for ways to tackle social isolation and loneliness.

Technology-based interventions, in particular, are some of the most innovative approaches to addressing the issue that affects over half of all people aged 75 and over who live alone, as well as increasing numbers of young people. Below we’ve outlined some of the most interesting examples.

CogniWin

CogniWin provides support and motivation for older people to stay active and in employment by providing smart assistance and well-being guidance. It helps people to adapt cognitively with their work tasks through their interactions with a system (which collects information using an intelligent mouse and eye tracking software). A virtual Adaptive Support and Learning Assistant then provides feedback, which helps the older person adapt their working lifestyle or have the confidence to take up a part-time job or become a volunteer.

Casserole Club

Casserole Club is a social enterprise that brings together people who enjoy cooking and who often share extra portions with those who may not be able to cook for themselves. Founded by FutureGov and designed in partnership with four local authorities, the service uses its website to allow volunteers to sign up and search for diners in their area (most of which, are over 80 years old). Overall, there are 4,000 cooks nationwide, and 80% of diners highlight that they wouldn’t have much social contact without the Casserole Club.

Family in Touch (FIT) Prototype

The Family in Touch (FIT) prototype was developed by a team of Canadian researchers who noticed that elderly people in care homes and retirement communities often touched photographs in an attempt to connect with family members. Based on this, the team created a touch screen photo frame which sent a message to a relative to say that they were thinking of them. The relative was then able to record a video message, which could be viewed by the elderly person in the photo frame. It was found that elderly people appreciated the simple design and tactile user experience.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the innovative tools being used to tackle social isolation and loneliness. And although technology is not the whole solution, it can certainly provide new opportunities for projects seeking to provide friendship and support to those who feel disconnected.

Individually, we can also make a difference. Even just making a phone call to an elderly relative, sending a message to an old friend, or visiting a neighbour, can brighten up someone’s day.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Innovation – just another meaningless buzzword?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

By Heather Cameron

As one of the trendiest terms of recent times, innovation has become familiar across the business world. But has its excessive use to refer to anything new effectively made the term a meaningless buzzword?

Lack of meaning

Certainly, critics argue that innovation is overvalued by its promoters and that it is what follows innovation that is really important.

An article published in Aeon magazine last year discusses this view. It highlights that over the last decade questions have been raised over the intrinsic value of innovation, citing a number of statements, including:

‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword’

‘Innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’

Even a professional innovation consultant interviewed for the Wall Street Journal said he had advised his clients to ban the word at their companies, describing it as just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’.

The article suggests that maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the labour that sustains functioning and efficient infrastructures, has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Indeed, an idea can be argued to be of little value on its own.

Meaningless or misinterpreted?

An array of definitions can be found for innovation, perhaps the most widely referred to being that of the OECD:

‘the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations’

The important term here is implementation. Other definitions similarly refer to innovation as the implementation of such things that add value. Therefore innovation isn’t just about the new idea/technology/process, it is about the application of it and the outcomes it achieves.

As a recent blog in the Huffington Post noted, while being ‘new’ matters to the definition of innovation, ‘it is far less important than the description of what’s achieved through innovation’.

With so many definitions, it is hardly surprising that innovation has not only been overused but has often been misused. In particular, it has often been used instead of invention. The difference between these two terms is that an invention is the creation of an idea whereas innovation is an activity or process that adds value.

As the Aeon article suggests, innovation isn’t technology and that highlighting maintenance ‘involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends‘.

Final thoughts

Perhaps the Aeon article’s conclusion sums things up pretty well:

Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.

Rather than labelling innovation as meaningless, perhaps it is more accurate to say that innovation means little on its own.


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Who’s afraid of the big, bad robot? Preparing the labour market for a future with AI

massive production

By Heather Cameron

Science fiction is slowly becoming science fact”. This is what the interim Chair of the government’s Science and Technology Committee said in their recently published report on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

While admitting there is still some way to go before we witness systems and robots like those portrayed in the creative arts such as Star Wars and Ex Machina, the report noted that there have been a series of recent advances across these fields that are beginning to have transformational impacts.

But just what will these impacts look like, particularly in relation to the labour market?

‘Transformational impacts’

Driverless cars and supercomputers that assist with medical diagnoses are highlighted as some of the transformational impacts of AI that have already arrived.  Others include improved automated voice recognition software and predictive text.

The increase in processing power, the wealth of data and the development of techniques such as ‘deep learning’ have all contributed to the recent progress.

However, the report also notes that such advances raise a number of social, ethical and legal questions that require consideration. These include issues about the transparency of AI decision-making as well as privacy and safety.

And while there is much excitement about the potential of AI to improve and enhance our lives, there is also widespread concern over the potential impact of increasing automation on the workplace.

Implications for employment

Fears over increased unemployment as a result of increasing automation are longstanding. The inquiry found conflicting views over the potential impact to the workforce, with some predicting a rise in unemployment, while others anticipate a transformation in the type of employment available.

It is likely that some occupations will become obsolete. Deloitte has warned that 11 million jobs across the UK economy are at high risk of being automated by 2036, with the retail and transport sectors most vulnerable. The research also indicated that almost 750,000 net jobs had been lost in manufacturing since the turn of the millennium, while the wholesale and retail sector saw net job losses of 338,000.

However, it was noted that millions of new roles had also been created in order to meet changing demand. So perhaps it is adaptation within the workforce that is needed.

Indeed, the Committee’s report highlights a need to focus on delivering the skills needed for people to adapt and thrive as new technology continues to emerge. It has been argued elsewhere that cognitive and social and behavioural skills should be made a priority in any skills strategy for the 21st century to “make workers more resilient to technology-driven labor market shocks like automation.”

And of course some sectors may be more susceptible than others.

Recent research by McKinsey suggests that the impact of automation differs dramatically across sectors and activities. It found that:

While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail. Automation, now going beyond routine manufacturing activities, has the potential, as least with regard to its technical feasibility, to transform sectors such as healthcare and finance, which involve a substantial share of knowledge work.”

Another common theme highlighted throughout the inquiry was that robotics and AI could increase productivity and efficiency. One recent study estimated that ‘£1.24bn in automation investment could raise the overall value added by the manufacturing sector to the UK economy by £60.5bn over the next decade’.

Future

There are clearly many debates about the potential impact of robots and AI, but it is not yet clear what the actual impact of advances in these fields will be on the labour market.

What is clear is that there is a need for skills to be developed for a world where AI is more prevalent.

But as the inquiry highlighted, the government doesn’t yet have a strategy for developing these new skills or responding to the social and ethical issues it poses. The report therefore recommends that “the government must commit to addressing the digital skills crisis through a Digital Strategy, published without delay.”

Perhaps the future will be similar to the past, as written evidence to the inquiry suggests:

During the industrial revolution, mechanisation did not change long-run equilibrium employment because new jobs emerged which were unimaginable at that time. Similarly, jobs lost to automation today might be replaced by jobs we cannot yet imagine.


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The pros and cons of the gig economy

By Heather Cameron

The ‘gig economy’, also described as the ‘sharing economy’, ‘collaborative economy’ or ‘on-demand economy’, has grown rapidly in the UK, a trend that is predicted to continue amid post-Brexit uncertainty.

A new study from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that work in the gig economy is even more widespread than official data suggest, with 20-30% of people in the US and UK working independently. And while the report suggests the majority of these workers are participating in the gig economy by choice, a sizable minority are there reluctantly.

So what exactly is the gig economy and what are its benefits and drawbacks?

What is the gig economy?

The gig economy comprises enterprises such as Uber, the driver hire app, Airbnb, the accommodation-sharing platform, and Deliveroo, the online food delivery company. These enterprises enable people to use digital platforms to buy services from, and sell services to, each other.

A recent PwC study identified five key sectors within the gig economy:

  • peer-to-peer accommodation
  • peer-to-peer transportation
  • on-demand household services
  • on-demand professional services
  • collaborative finance

People that work in the gig economy, as described in the McKinsey report, are independent workers, rather than employees. Three key features of these workers have been identified:

  • a high degree of autonomy
  • payment by task, assignment, or sales
  • short-term relationship between the worker and the customer

Growth

The UK has seen higher growth in the gig economy than the rest of Europe, partly due to the recent establishment of London as a global financial technology (FinTech) hub. Transactions reached £7.4bn in 2015, almost double the previous year.

The number of jobs in the online gig economy advertised by UK employers increased by 14% between May and September, according to the Online Labour Index. This is around double the 7.5% rise elsewhere in Europe, and 6% in the US.

The McKinsey research estimates that there are up to 162 million independent workers in the US and Europe combined. The number of people classified as self-employed in the UK has grown by 47% since 2000, while the number of employed has risen by just 13% over the same period.

Pros

Supporters of the gig economy argue that it enables more people to participate in the labour market by providing flexible working, provides opportunities for the unemployed and could increase productivity.

Indeed, flexible working has proven very popular among the working population as more seek to achieve the perfect work-life balance. Those surveyed for the McKinsey report who chose independent work, reported greater satisfaction with their lives than traditional workers. They were more engaged in their work, and relished the chance to be their own boss and have more control over their hours. Even those working independently out of necessity reported being happier with the flexibility and content of the work they do, although they were less satisfied with their level of income and income security.

Both consumers and organisations can benefit through greater availability and accessibility of services and improved matching that better fulfils their needs.

And there is also the benefit of minimal cost. Digital business models have lower transaction costs for consumers, and organisations can keep costs down by using independent service providers only when they need them.

Nevertheless, challenges exist.

Cons

While there are more people in work than ever before, due in large part to the increase in self-employment, and despite the high levels of satisfaction among independent workers overall, there are concerns over job insecurity and low income.

Those working in the gig economy do not enjoy the same rights and protections as employed workers, such as health benefits, overtime pay and sick leave pay.

The TUC has highlighted that the increase in self-employment has not been driven by a boom in entrepreneurship but, instead, workers are increasingly forced by employers to accept precarious employment with low pay.

Deliveroo has recently come under fire from workers over their employment practices in relation to the minimum wage. And Uber is involved in an employment tribunal where drivers have contested their status as self-employed, suggesting they should be entitled to a range of benefits such as pension contributions as well as holiday and sick pay.

In a bid to address concerns about the lack of rights held by people working in the gig economy, Theresa May has recently appointed a former adviser of Tony Blair to head a review into employment rights across the new economy.

But this will be no easy feat, as the rapid development of the gig economy poses significant challenges for policy makers and regulators to keep up.

Final thoughts

As the McKinsey report argues, “expanding economic opportunities and income security policies for this group should be a priority”. Hopefully the review of employment rights will mark the first step in the right direction.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blog on ‘the self-employment boom.

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The myth of the digital native? Young people, education and digital participation in Scotland

Digital participation has been high on Scotland’s political agenda of late. Connectivity featured as a key pledge during the SNP spring conference in March. Meanwhile, both Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter and the UK government digital strategy are looking to engage those people who don’t have access to, or who do not feel confident using, technology.

Increasingly, the focus is on young people, many of whom do not remember life without internet access or mobile phones. The term being used for such young consumers of technology is “digital natives” – a digitally proficient generation which is more reliant on digital technology than older generations.

However, while in some areas of Scotland more than 80% of young people now have access to a tablet or a smartphone, their depiction as a “digital generation” may not be as accurate as first thought.

Digital competence isn’t inevitable

Some academics have challenged the notion of a “digital native”, observing that children only become digitally active if they are exposed to digital media from a young age. While a lot of research has been conducted around the impact of digital technology on those who have access, for example understanding how it effects family dynamics or health and wellbeing, less is known about the impact of not having exposure to digital technology.

This is something which needs to be explored further, and highlights that the term “universal digital native” is misleading. For example, in many areas of Scotland 17% of the population have no internet access.

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Image by Intel Free Press via Creative Commons

School-based initiatives to improve digital exposure and digital literacy

Research into digitally excluded children emphasises the important role of education on children’s digital development. School could potentially be the only opportunity for some children to receive guided exposure to the digital world, highlighting the importance of integrating digital literacy into the wider curriculum.

Individual schools have their own schemes to promote digital literacy. However, some barriers are holding children back from harnessing their potential, including:

  • allotted Information and Communications Technology (ICT) slots
  • teachers who are reluctant to teach extensively with ICT because of gaps in their own digital skills
  • concerns about exposing children to potentially harmful material.

Secondary schools in Inverclyde have trialled a ‘bring your own device’ scheme, where children use their own digital devices in lessons. Initially, there were concerns about the potential exclusion of those children who did not have their own computing devices, and about personal information being transferred across shared school networks. However, steps were taken to ensure a stock of school devices were available for those children who were unable to bring a device, that networks were secure, and that strict rules regarding the use of the technology were enforced.

Children were encouraged to work in pairs or groups to help with communication, partnership working and sharing of knowledge, which also reduced the number of personal devices in use. The scheme is still in its infancy, but already it has enabled digital technologies to be incorporated into many aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence, including: internet research, app design, online learning games and tools, photography and recording of voice notes.

UK- wide rollout of coding scheme

At a UK level, children in year 7 in England and Wales, S1 in Scotland and year 8 in Northern Ireland (aged 12) are being given the opportunity to learn how to code through a scheme rolled out by the BBC in partnership with 29 other key organisations, including Microsoft, Samsung and Barclays. The BBC Micro: Bit initiative provides children with a pocket sized computer which they can code to bring digital ideas to life. The computers are compatible with other devices, such as the Raspberry Pi, and so can be used as a springboard to more complex coding and computer programming.

The computer provision is supported by online learning resources, which teach coding techniques and give ideas about the sort of actions children can code their Micro: Bit to complete. It’s hoped that the initiative will inspire more young people to study computer science at degree level.

Implications of the digital native for education

It is clear that the education system needs to adapt to incorporate digital practice into everyday teaching. However, this has generated some debate surrounding the implications for education of the ‘digital native’ concept: how can you teach a child if they are (or are perceived to be) more proficient than their teacher? How do you integrate new technology into teaching if the teacher and pupil are learning about it at the same time?

However, failure to tackle the issues of integrating “digital” successfully into the curriculum, and digital exclusion in schools and at home could also have serious implications. If a significant portion of the next generation is digitally excluded this potentially puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of employment and further education.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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Air quality monitoring: a role for citizen science?

Car exhaust

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution causes three million deaths each year, making it a bigger killer than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and malaria combined. But while the number of malaria deaths globally has been halved since 2000, and HIV mortality has fallen 35% since 2005, the number of premature deaths due to air pollution is forecast to rise to more than six million by 2050.

In the UK, around 40,000 people are estimated to die each year due to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions caused by exposure to toxic substances in the air. The associated healthcare costs are in the tens of millions of pounds.

Increasing our understanding of air pollution’s impact

The ways in which air pollution statistics are reported and presented can be confusing.  As a result, many people do not always make the links between poor air quality and ill health.

Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Physicians’ (RSP) landmark report highlighting the impact of air pollution in the UK made a number of recommendations for improvement, including increased understanding of the health impacts of air pollution and better monitoring:

“We need better, more accurate and wider-ranging monitoring programmes so that we can track population-level exposure to air pollution. We also need to develop adaptable monitoring techniques to measure emerging new pollutants, and known pollutants that occur below current concentration limits. We must develop practical technology – such as wearable ‘smart’ monitors – that empower individuals to check their exposure and take action to protect their health.”

The pros and cons of compact air monitoring devices

A recent podcast from the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) looked at the potential and limitations of next generation air monitoring devices. The programme underlined that the low-cost devices are a long way from the air quality monitoring stations used by government agencies that have to meet rigorous quality requirements and are operated by skilled technicians.

Many of the emerging devices have not been fully tested. For example, it’s not clear how they will react under extreme temperatures. In addition, it’s important for the operators of low-cost monitoring devices to have a statistical plan for collecting and sharing data, and to be able to interpret the numbers.

At the same time, smart technologies are still in their infancy, and there are some concerns that “the internet of things” may actually contribute to environmental pollution.

However, the NIEHS podcast observed that the compact air monitoring devices are useful for comparing levels of pollution in different locations, and they also have educational value in giving students first-hand experience of monitoring their environment.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is working with developers of the new technologies to ensure that they meet required standards, and has also developed a toolbox for citizen scientists to provide information and guidance on new low-cost compact technologies for measuring air quality.

The Smart Citizen Kit

One example of these next generation gadgets is the Smart Citizen Kit, a compact monitoring device that measures the levels of air pollution, noise pollution and humidity in the vicinity of a home, school or office. The small box can be placed near a window and its sensors gather and submit data to a website that shares and compares data elsewhere, all in real time.

In 2014, The Waag Society – a Dutch institute for art science and technology – partnered with the Smart Citizen platform to conduct a pilot project using the Smart Citizen Kit in Amsterdam.

73 kits were installed at locations around the city, and participants were provided with helpdesk support during the trial. The project highlighted a number of operational and technical issues associated with the kits. Some of the equipment failed to work correctly, and there were problems in comparing data from different locations. While there is room for further development, the project’s success in engaging citizens to measure air pollution is a strong indicator that many people are keen to be directly involved in monitoring their own environment.

Air patrols

Closer to home, another innovative air quality monitoring device has taken flight. In March 2016, pigeons in London were fitted with lightweight sensors to monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone in the city. The air quality recorded by the sensors was sent to followers of the @PigeonAir Twitter account. The idea was the winning entry in a competition organised for the London Design Festival, and aimed to highlight the dangers of air pollution. Londoners are now being invited to wear the air quality monitoring devices to help build a real-time map of pollution across the city.

Final thoughts

In 2011, a parliamentary committee called for a public awareness campaign to drive air quality up the political agenda and inform people about the positive action they could take to reduce emissions and their exposure to these.  It’s increasingly likely that emerging smart technologies for measuring air quality may have an important role to play in raising public awareness about the insidious dangers of air pollution.


If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on environmental issues:

Coming up for air: tackling the toxic pollution in our cities

The positive paybacks of clearing the airThe positive paybacks of clearing the air

World Health Organization Air quality release: UK focus

An all-round approach: could the circular economy help the world turn the corner on climate change?

Biodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our livesBiodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our lives