Social Technology in Later Life – Let’s Have Some Collaboration

This is another post in the series on Social Technology in Later Life on which I am collaborating with David Wilcox, among others, in an exploration initially stimulated by Nominet Trust. David has set out here some issues for the way forward, and I am particularly keen to see how we can promote more collaboration between people and organisations working in this field.

As David has rightly highlighted, during the exploration, there is an inordinate amount of competition between people working in this sector. I have found out through working on Our Digital Planet that older people are still often bewildered by new technologies, and that they are, in many cases, ill-served in this respect, by organisations and agencies that work with them. And there are lots of people beavering away to help them, but they are mainly in isolated pockets, their practice is not well-known, and it certainly isn’t being scaled up in the way it needs to be.

As in several other areas of life, it is the people who most need the benefits new technologies can bring that are least likely to be able to access them. Acute lack of understanding of possibilities among older people and those who work with them is holding back their adoption.

To those of us comfortable with new technologies, it can seem obvious that they can address the loneliness and isolation that afflicts so many older people. But fear and ignorance are big barriers. I have witnessed older people refusing to use free video conferencing with relatives on the other side of the world, and preferring to rely on expensive telephone calls, because they found the video conference experience to be alien to them. This and other experiences suggest two things to me.

  • Firstly, we need to make new technology much more like the items that people are already familiar with. I think this is what Apple are so good at. There are a lot of areas where Apple has seen the opportunity to take concepts invented elsewhere and take them to the next level. They are brilliant at making the user experience of something so straightforward that their product quickly becomes the market-leader (I’m thinking of the iPod and the iPad here). But, of course, Apple stuff tends to be expensive, certainly too expensive for people who are on limited budgets, and for those yet to be convinced that the benefits will be worth the investment. But the way they do video calling is illustrative of my point. They were far from the first on the video calling scene, but the way FaceTime is integrated into the normal telephone call process on the iPhone makes it a much more straightforward experience. Even though using such systems as Skype works pretty well on the iPhone, it entails downloading and running an app which is completely separate from the normal call process, and this is a barrier to many people. If someone has an Apple device (and FaceTime now works on Mac computers as well as mobile devices) they just need to answer a FaceTime call to them to be video chatting instantly. Making a Facetime call is marginally more complex than making a telephone call, but only marginally. I think all tech should be as simple as this, and, it should be cross-platform, so that you could make and receive FaceTime calls to Android, Windows Phone, Symbian, and other devices. This might be a forlorn hope.
  • Secondly, We need to make new technology use a visible part of everyday life so that it doesn’t look like something scary to older people. During the Celebration 2.0 project, I took new technologies into places they might not usually be seen, and I have written before about how I use tech in places like supermarket cafes, parks and certain pubs, where my use has attracted attention and curiosity. An important aim of Our Digital Planet is to make new technologies visible. If people live their daily lives isolated from such uses it will never seem natural to them.

Lots of factors contribute to older people being shielded from new technology uses. Two which I think are particular obstacles are:

  • The professionals and institutions which work with some older people are not comfortable with new technologies themselves. Issues here range from organisations which continue to block use of social media and will not or cannot provide their staff with smartphones, to technophobic frontline staff who pass their fears on to people they work with
  • Younger people who are unwilling or unable to help their older relatives and connections learn from their use. We all know the adage about never trying to teach your partner to drive, at least not if you want to stay together. While working on Our Digital Planet I came across several examples where younger people brought their older relatives in asking us to help them because they hadn’t the patience or had tried and failed. This reinforces the divide and cements the notion that new technologies are a young person’s thing. Younger people quite like the notion that they are part of a cool club which their older relatives can’t join, and older relatives assume none of it is relevant to them.

Resistance to new technologies in this field also means that there is far too little sharing and collaboration, as sharing and collaboration are characteristics of organisations that have embraced social media and new technologies.

Someone needs to take some risks, and pull people together. We need to find and support the digital champions both among older people and among those who work with them. I’m hoping to work with David Wilcox, Steve Dale and others to set the ball rolling. We’re planning a Google Hangout shortly, and maybe a workshop. Let us know in the comments below if you want to be part of this.

30 thoughts on “Social Technology in Later Life – Let’s Have Some Collaboration

  1. say:
    1 The users of technology. Make it simpler, build on the familiar, ensure it is relevant – all lessons relevant at any time in life
    2 Promote simple cooperations, as a start, between top-level organisations, and provide them with support. Probably only the big funders have leverage to do this. Maybe they would support an event where bigger players cooperated to design how they might collaborate.
    3 The intermediate level of helpers and champions, whether friends and family, or professionals.
    I’ll follow up with a post myself, cross-linked. Maybe others could do the same, showing how we can ourselves cooperate well in this field!

  2. Now the case for inclusive access to technology is something which our founding paper draws attention to:

    “We are at the very beginning of a new type of society and civilization, the Information Age. Historically, this is only the third distinct age of civilization. We lived in an agricultural age for thousands of years, which gave way to the Industrial Revolution and Industrial Age during the last three hundred years. The Industrial Age is now giving way to the Information Revolution, which is giving rise to the Information Age. Understanding this, it is appropriate to be concerned with the impact this transition is having and will continue to have on the lives of all of us. In that it is a fundamental predicate of “people-centered” economic development that no person is disposable, it follows that close attention be paid to those in the waning Industrial Age who are not equipped and prepared to take active and productive roles in an Information Age. Many, in fact, are scared, angry, and deeply resentful that they are being left out, ignored, effectively disenfranchised, discarded, thrown away as human flotsam in the name of human and social progress. We have only to ask ourselves individually whether or not this is the sort of progress we want, where we accept consciously and intentionally that human progress allows for disposing of other human beings.”

    In a local parish survey last year, it was revealed that one third of the population don’t have access to a computer, let alone the internet. That means not only do they not have a computer but have no friends of family who might allow them access. I noted last year, that the only way one can now make an appointment for regstering a death, is via an online booking system.

    We have to take on board that not all are comfortable by the ‘in your face’ nature of many new technologies. I’m not comfortable with some myself, after 40+ years.

    Digital champions, change ambassadors may sound like a good idea, but experience teaches that they develop into mutual appreciation silos, who have no interest in engaging with others.

    I was having a conversation last night about community engagment and why it’s so difficult to create collaboration unless one is well connected to begin with. There’s one well known community shop in our district which has benefited from considrable funding support and the endorsement of Prince Charles. It is not replicable in a community where stimulating wealth is an urgent need. It was described by one as a hobby for “yummy mummies”

  3. Great post John – on a number of levels.

    I have a particular interest in this working in Social Housing. There are a lot of efforts to get the “millions of people who have never used the internet online” – but I believe most will fail. And that’s because the issue is not about people in social housing – it’s about people in later life.

    As you say – getting this group online is a completely different nut to crack. And one that all the free and subsidised PC schemes in the world will fail to make any difference to.

    I think you have outlined the two obstacles very well – particularly the former. Most providers of service (Support/Care/Housing/Nursing etc) have very poor technology provision from their employers. Training and education is often non-existent.

    Greater collaboration at a range of levels will help us negotiate these. This is an important issue so let’s keep the dialogue going…

    • Great post John and completely agree with your comments Paul.
      This is a hugely important area and something that I have been working on for a while trying to combine my background in youth work and current work in social housing.
      There are some great examples if projects, but ashame that they have not been scaled to benefit more people.
      This is something I’m really interested in. Please let me know about the hangout and workshops.

  4. Thoughtful post, John – tried to comment yesterday but for some reason the tech wouldn’t let me!

    I’m currently involved in a project that’s bidding for some money to enable our working group (pulling in a no. of agencies) to start an ‘inclusion’ project working.

    At the moment, I think, we’re in a chicken or egg situation – which comes first the tech or the people? Subsidised access to both tech and network access is essential – none of the apps will work without them but also we need the people to want to use the tech… Which as your previous commentators have pointed out is the tricky bit.

    I agree – I see many people talking about enabling individuals to use tech / internet / social media but often those individuals work for orgs that don’t have those things embedded in them – *its on our service development plan* !! (its not rocket science to create a FB page or twitter account & start to use them!) I’ve also been in meetings where the older end of the age group have been saying, FB is for young people or when talking about virtual meetings ‘is the technology up to that yet?’ *headdesk time*

    In some meetings if I take the laptop / Ipad out I get tutted at by *usually* the older end of the age group but I’ve got past that now. I don’t want people to *have* to use tech but I want people to see that using tech often makes life easier and certain organisations more accessible.

    For various issues, my family needs a lot of medication – I used to hate the weekly chore of phoning either the GP’s surgery / Chemist to order the medication. Now I can do it online and one little thing has made my life a lot easier in that respect. But convincing a lot of people that is very hard – they regard nything digital or techy a fad for young people.

  5. Does anyone have a technique to convince older users that a) they may have more than one password in use for their pc, wifi, router, bank, email and b) that if they type it in and it is rejected then *they* have got it wrong, not the system concerned !

    The pain of working with oldies and passwords will be the thing that stops me volunteering.

  6. Ace post John as per usual. Your are obviously thinking a lot about this – which is good as it is one of my interests.

    I wrote a paper back in … 2011 for; Helen Milner, RaceOnline 2012 and Connecting Cumbria (Superfast broadband in Cumbria) it was called ‘a Network of Digital Champions’ and an idea called Digital Neighbours. I presented it to Department of Communities and Thingamybobs. They in turn said is was fabbo and pointed me in the direction of funding. As Dave said – there is huge competition and I struggled to define my offer and how I would prove things like ‘return of investment’ v’s other models.

    The idea was that anyone can teach anyone else digital skills. Even from suggesting ‘have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again’. I wanted to use paper guides and notes (written by the people who were learning how to use technology) illustrated with cartoons.

    I suggested that a community of communities of people could help people make notes and that these notes could be shared;

    e.g How to use a Keyboard by Doris from down the road.

    These notes would be build into a wiki which could be checked by a team of ‘digital champions’. There was also an idea of using Twitter to source remote helpers to answer ‘live’ questions, check the notes and improve them. Possibly my idea was a bit too whacky for any serious funding. I should have possibly JFDI – but it’s sometimes difficult when your working on your own on ideas and it seemed a bit of a risk to work on that over paid work.

    I have always been a volunteer doing ‘digital inclusion’ and trying to make a business out of it always seems a bit of a contradiction.

    I love the magic of technology and the interwebs – i try to make sure that when i add a new person to it that they get that excitement about what it might be able to do for them. I don’t think enough older people are online to bring their stories and common sense.

    What we should really do is get a bunch of newbies together and ask them how they would get more of them online. Maybe my idea is too far fetched. But *notes* I have found to be the most beneficial thing for people. Notes they have written and they trust. “How to I work the technology I own to do the things I want to do”.

    Am I rambling? Some things are difficult to scale or mass produce – it is sometimes better to embrace the diversity and allow things to be a bit messy – but businesses don’t really like that.

    Also, the traditional media dislike many things about the internet and do a great job in putting the fear of god into people offline and online – idiots. I understand their fears though. Just counter productive.

    😉 I’ll get off my soap box.


    • Kate, Making a business of digital inclusion (and more) was where we began in 2004 with a business plan to address UK poverty by developing a network of networks which would yield profit for community development funds to seed social enterprise. It began:

      “People-Centered Economic Development (P-CED) began as a concept in 1996 following a paper for the Committee to Reelect the President (US.) That paper examined the need to be prepared for the risk of increased national and global poverty as we enter an information economy sufficiently sophisticated by its nature as to exclude and/or displace an increasing number of workers around the world. Main points are reviewed here.

      The emerging Information Age will provide an unprecedented opportunity for outreach and communication at local community levels by way of the Internet. Given the opportunity to communicate and research global resources, communities will become able to assess their own needs, identify resources to meet those needs, and procure those resources. In that sense, the information economy can work to the advantage of impoverished people in a way never before possible.

      In order to participate in the information economy, it is essential for local communities in any nation in the world to be able to access common information. Given that the Internet and world wide web are in their development infancy, physical infrastructure for the Internet on a global basis need to be built: the global information infrastructure, or GII . So, why not create new companies that not only fulfill this very lucrative and ongoing infrastructure deployment and direct the profit to additional social needs such as poverty and hunger relief?’

      Even now, almost a decade later, I find that introducing this concept and model is disregarded and in many cases censored. Can you figure what is going on?

  7. Hi Kate – I agree on the need for the help you outline, and the problems of attracting funding. As I mentioned in one of my posts summarising the exploration:

    There are now a couple of substantial propositions for support programmes that could be the basis for further development.

    The Age Action Alliance Digital Inclusion Group has produced a Paper entitled the ‘Digital Champions Capacity Building Framework’, drafted by Emma Solomon of Digital Unite, that sets out how to build a network of professional and informal support.
    The Sus-IT project at Loughborough University, led by Professor Leela Damoddaran, supported by the KT-EQUAL project, has produced proposals for Community hubs where older people could learn about technology in a social setting. Report here (pdf). There are further details here of how that might be implemented, based on discussion at a St George’sHouse event in November last year.

    However, these are potentially competing propositions … re-inforcing the points on that John and I are making. Crazy.

  8. In my still fairly limited but growing experience of working with older people and the Internet, it’s not enthusiasm that’s lacking but rather a perception of complicated ‘method’.
    John’s point about making the technology, what I call ‘one-click simple’ is the key to tempting more older people on board, in my opinion.
    There’s also a lot of fear about being online re. security aspects, which is understandable and a valid viewpoint.
    Surely what’s needed is a combined approach of education and skill building mixed up with a large dollop of fun, to engage users and sell the benefits of being online?

  9. Pingback: Social technology in later life – moving from exploration to cooperation | socialreporters

  10. On this issue of collaboration it;’s been quite an eye opener in the last decade to discover just how unwilling the third sector is to have open discussions. The example of a local group serving the VCS comes to mind. The community groups they serve are all “on our database”. They are protecting the turf.which justifies their grant funding from local government.

    The silo mentality in social innovation is a tough nut to crack. When RDPE funding for local broadband reared it’s head, the option for community driven solutions was quickly nipped in the bud by a local council. I wasn’t alone in drawing atrention to their dishonesty, Timm Snape of SW Internet CIC, pointed out that they acquired the funding by stealth and blocked their opportunity to expand their service.

    Surely we are all trying to do something for social benefit? When it becomes ‘under my banner only’ we demonstrate that we are very much not ‘all in this together”

  11. Sorry for the late entry but only just back from a brief holiday break, which included a holiday from the Internet! Oh, the peace!

    Thanks to John for a thought-provoking post. I’m all for encouraging greater collaboration on this initiative, but I sense from the various comments a degree of frustration that there are so many independent, disconnected and – dare I say it – self-serving initiatives around the whole topic of digital inclusion. I don’t think our primary goal should be to connect these silo’d initiatives, or expect a more open and transparent environment to emerge as more players get involved. The very nature of the social ecology is to enable a thousand flowers to bloom. Some will grow and flourish, others will fade away and die. What we can do is strive to understand the environment and make our own (often personal and independent) connections between the various initiatives and share our learning with those willing to listen and learn. This is already happening through our DTLater Group on the Social Learning Network ( and via the personal blogs from the likes of John Popham and David Wilcox.

    As a result, maybe we become one of these ‘thousand flowers’, but I’m not entirely clear whether that’s our aim, or whether this is more of a learning network, where good ideas are shared, new initiatives are encouraged and mutual support is available. Personally, I would find this ‘learning network’ philosophy far more valuable than belonging to one of the many silo’d projects that might focus on just one specific aspect of digital inclusion (though of course I can do both). Having access to a collective of skills, knowledge and experience around digital inclusion is – in itself – a very valuable proposition.

    However, I not too sure whether my vision is widely shared or not, and if realised we need something a bit more structured than a shared space for online conversations. Things that I’d like to see include:

    1. Regular (e.g. quarterly) workshops (with maybe some elements shared on-line)
    2. A secure and trusted environment (community space)
    3. A taxonomy and repository for shared documents (case studies, best practice etc.)
    4. Social bookmarking
    5. A curated magazine (e.g. or similar)
    6. Youtube channel for simple “how to….” presentations

    But I think the first step is the workshop, where we could at least aim for consensus on what we’re trying to achieve. I suspect this will need funding, but if there were sufficient numbers I’m sure most of us would consider a small contribution.

    I’ll discuss this further with DW.

    Thanks again for stimulating the conversations!

  12. We have tried many times to get funding/support for schemes to help older people but its just too difficult unless you know how to tick boxes, and then when you have ticked you have to deliver what the funders want which is usually more forms with tick boxes and none of it helps to do what it is you wanted to do in the first place… the secret is just to do it. Every chance you can, do what you can in your own circles. It is hopeless trying to solve the national problem because of bureaucracy and crazy funders. let the online centres of this world go their merry way scooping the pots, and let the councils go their merry way ‘promoting the benefits’ and lets just find oldies and help them ourselves. I agree with Phil about passwords, they are the bane of many lives. The person who can sort that one out will make millions.

    • Coincidentally, I had a very useful conversation this morning with David Wilcox on exactly the same points you’ve raised here. The funders all seem to think that “digital inclusion” is the solution to all problems. It’s not. Some people can’t or won’t ever connect to the internet, and we have to accept that. That doesn’t mean to say they can’t be helped. It’s only by having a detailed (and sometimes personal) understanding of each person’s problem that you can begin to identify potential solutions. You can’t take this approach as part of a faceless organisation that is driven by national/government targets. I’m with DavidW on this in we need to have an understanding of unique personas, which means being out there and understanding unique problems.

      In my case, I have an aged mother-in-law, recently diagnosed with heart failure. She has no mobility, lives remotely, and has no intention of getting an internet connection. The answer in our case is to do her shopping for her online (we live about 90 miles away), and have it delivered to her door every week. We also arrange for her to get lifts to the hospital etc. Problems solved without putting a dent in any digital inclusion statistics.

      We need to help the helpers with solutions to the specific problems they face, and forget about whether this does or does not meet some artificial target set by government, council or other faceless body.

      As for passwords, OpenID was supposed to be the solution to this – but in realty it’s just another complex UX to navigate, and definitely not to be touched by anyone new to the Internet!

    • Chris, After more than a decade of having social enterprise supported as government policy you might wonder why so little has still been done to provide seed funding,
      The answer, it seemed to us, was for business which re-invests in the community to deliver to local social investment funds, Today, 9 years after going to some lengths to gain support for this approach, we learn that that’s now being seen as the way to go, albeit via commercial intermediaries rather than community leaders.

      It’s not sp much that funders are crazy or bureacratric, as having a culture based on the need to control, seeing others as a threat to their hegemony. It’s not that they don’t want to do something about social problems, they just don’t want you to. You are always beyond their focus, outside their remit.

      We did what we did ourselves and paid dearly. This particulari issue aside. Looking back a year ago, when I commented on the news that a million UK children are going hungry due to poverty, I reflected on how a proven social investment strategy was kept away from the table, to the detriment of all of us.

  13. Thanks Steve – confirming your points, which also relate back to Kate’s ideas. I’m thinking along the lines of kits at different levels, building on earlier work we did with a social media game. You know it well:-)

    1. Personal and helper level. Tease out personal interests and capabilities, with some illustrative personas to show how this might be done. On the basis of that, choose appropriate methods from a set of cards/notes linked to paper guides and a wiki. The cards/notes can include links – “if you choose that you’ll need this”

    2. Community enabler level. A kit to help build connections within a community, and communication between groups and organisations. Ideas here Part of the kit would be about the tools an enabler needs.

    3. Organisational level. What does an organisation need to do to support 1 and 2.

    What then needed is networking to animate this (hopefully) collaborative social ecology. This would help reframe digital inclusion as a person/situation focussed-approach, and also help scale up and connect the informal work that many people are doing, without support.

  14. Two things occur to me and please bear with me, these are generalisations I’m aware that there is a great deal of excellent work going on.
    The first is that I think that our approach (not unreasonably) is conceived and developed from the technology. What do older people and Ageing (?) sector think? How do they approach the application of technology? Presumably they start from their operations and services and needs.

    In the social housing sector the trusts are developing their own digital strategies. This has been given real impetus by the immanent introduction of universal credit. I think that we might borrow from that experience. What needs do older people have in their lives for technology? What tech solutions might interest and work for them. There is a lot of work that shows what tech could do but there’s not much (published) about what happened when (if) it’s been tried. Where are the projects that work, what has been their impact?

    Secondly there is a huge amount of work going on the universities on ageing including the the application of technology to all aspects of ageing. Two examples I know of are Newcastle SIDE, Sheffield and Loughborough and others – The New Dynamics of Ageing. They need to be brought into the conversation, at the very least to share the work and research results they have.

  15. My Dad is 88, half paralysed after a recent stroke and living in a care home. He uses Skype, Gmail and Facebook and used to use Ebay a lot too. He needs things – menus etc – to be straightforward as he only started using a laptop a few years ago. I am his IT support in person and by phone. I’d be happy to ask him what helps if you want. BW Carol Ross @Trio33

  16. Pingback: Social technology in later life – moving from exploration to cooperation | socialreporters

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